One Year of Pandemic: The Digitalisation of a Physics Course along with its Examination

written by Mateo de Vivanco und Claudia Funke, Insitute for Experimental Physics, TU Bergakademie Freiberg.
students discussing formula while Mateo and Claudia are checking

Craning over the student’s shoulders.

Beside laboratory experiments, one of the fun aspects of teaching physics is the interaction with the students in exercise courses. You can walk around the classroom craning over the students‘ shoulders to check their calculations on paper and give them hints. The students get the opportunity of asking questions first hand and have an expert loosen their blockades. Then a virus comes and ends the era of interaction. Well, only at the first moment of shock.

A virus comes and interacts with Blacky after a completely inelastic collision.

A virus comes and interacts with Blacky after a completely inelastic collision.

We are Mateo de Vivanco and Claudia Funke from the Freiberg University of Mining and Technology. Beside our physical research, we enjoy teaching very much and are in charge of the first-year courses Physics for Scientists I and II. In this article, we describe how we digitalised these physics (exercise) courses and how to plan a digital exam.

Digital Exercise Course

We started the summer term 2020 with lessons on the virtual plattform BigBlueButton (BBB), similar to zoom. For cooperative discussions and interactivity, we worked with etherpad / yopad and padlet / concept board, which allow the students to gather thoughts as text or graphics – respectively – simultaneously and visibly to everyone. Some specific discussions were carried out in break-out rooms on BBB.

Online exchange tools Concept board and Padlet.

Online exchange tools Concept board and Padlet.

Our first thought was that it would be a waste to provide the students with time for calculations during the virtual class, as we could not check what they do. It would be much more fruitful if we changed the scope from exercising to consulting. We decided to call the synchronous sessions consultations, which students would attend with basic preparation – happening beforehand – and a handful of questions to discuss about. This way, we turned the course into a kind of flipped classroom. For it to work, it was necessary to provide the solutions to all exercises in advance. Still the students were offered the opportunity of submitting the solution to one problem in the term and getting detailed feedback to their chosen physical approach and solution clarity.

While the students deal with the exercises at home, it would be good to have some asynchronous material, we thought. In 2017, we had created an online course of basic level to give the students a helping hand with newly introduced topics. It had only been moderately used over the years, even though we introduced a test at the beginning of our classroom course, with which it was possible to gather extra points for the examination. With corona, we decided to award the extra points directly online. We knew there was some cheating potential in this, but corona required quick and feasible measures and we indeed observed a rise in the online activities. The online course was adapted to be more student friendly – feedback for every wrong answer was implemented, non-linear solving of the exercises as well as direct repetitions were allowed without penalty. This way, the students were encouraged to repeat the tests until they had a perfect score. Only the highest score was taken into account for the examination. The students should also get acquainted with the most relevant formulae prior to the class, so we created little formula and unit games to introduce new physical quantities. We used OPAL as a course platform and ONYX to program the exercises, as those are supported in Freiberg.

Exam supplementary points via online tests.

Exam supplementary points via online tests.

We began recording ourselves solving selected physical problems exemplary to create tutorials. Several colleagues helped with this task, which lowered the personal work toll and was better for the students, as they could experience different tuition styles. For questions emerging during self-study, a forum was established as the only communication channel. That is, we answered to all questions, including those sent as private e-mails, in anonymous way on the forum, as long as they were relevant to more than one. The following term, all forum questions were structured and packed into a wiki for reference. We also introduced a couple of fancy activities. Interactive materials were created with the software H5P (see the example of our timeline for planning a digital examination) to encourage students to e.g. discover the forces acting on objects themselves. And a contest was introduced to make students compete against each other. They should send in a video (taken with a mobile phone) of a very fancy energetic skater park they created on this site.

OPAL-website of exercise course with one of 13 Tutorials.

OPAL-website of exercise course with one of 13 Tutorials.

Formula games in ONYX.

Formula games in ONYX.

If you think establishing this digital course concept cost a lot of time, we won‘t lie to you: It did. But consider that we didn‘t create it from scratch within one term, but it grew bit by bit for over four years under the cooperation of two to six teaching-motivated colleagues. In the end, we ourselves were amazed at how many materials the entire team had created. This doesn’t go unnoticed: we are frequently asked to report on our experiences and happy to do it. On one of those occasions, we summarised and classified the created activities according to learning type and taxonomy:

Our input for a digital workspace forced us to summarise and classify our online learning materials.

Our input for a digital workspace forced us to summarise and classify our online learning materials.

Digital Examination

Winter mid-term arrived and it started to become clear that the pandemic situation would not allow us to get away with the solution from the summer 2020: digital classes and yet classroom examination. We neither wanted to postpone the exam one term, nor to carry out over 150 oral exams.

We opted for the paper-pencil, long-distance-exam model, in which the exam is written on paper at home, and the written sheets are photographed and sent back to the examiner. The complete solution pathways for every exercise are important to us; very often students make a mistake in the path and report a wrong answer. If we had used a pure e-examination model similar to our online course, too many points would have been lost due to little mistakes in the background. Alternatively, we would have had to teach how to use a maths script, so that students can input formulas for intermediate steps, but this may have been too much to ask for university newbies.

Blacky before covid times

Blacky before covid times.

In the era of instant messaging, it was important for us to hamper the lively exchange of solutions under the table. We achieved this by creating 160 different, but equivalent exam sheets. Using ONYX, we introduced variables for the given quantities: the popular physics dog we use in many exercises weighed something in the range between 10,0 kg and 19,0 kg. This dog, actually named Blacky, received several different names for different users, to generate some confusion when asking for the result of the exercise with Felix. (Do you mean the one with Wufwuf??) Furthermore, the exercise order of the questions was shuffled. ONYX can be programmed to generate a solution master for every exam version, so that we wouldn‘t despair upon the control. The 160 (plus buffer) so-generated exam documents were exported to pdf and uploaded onto the platform OPALexam, specifically created last term for digital examinations. On this platform, the students can pull one random exam version at the designated time and upload their documents when the examination time is over.

160 different but equivalent exam versions (and 160 solution masters – not shown) in OPALexam.

160 different but equivalent exam versions (and 160 solution masters – not shown) in OPALexam.

Digital surveillance poses the second pillar against cheating. The examinees had to sit the exam in front of a running camera filming their faces and hands and sheets for the whole duration of the exam (120 min) plus 30 min before for ID controlling / organisation and 20 min after for work submittal. Even if someone finished before time, no one was allowed to leave the surveillance room early. During the exam, the use of keyboards was banned – all navigation should take place with the mouse. The examinees were divided into smaller groups of maximum 20 participants according to their careers. We had eight rooms on the whole, which were assisted by 16 colleagues on the supervising end. It shouldn‘t be less than two supervisors per room, because as soon as there is an issue, one colleague will fall out to deal with it and the supervision will rely on the other one.

Digital surveillance during the examination, Claudia and Mateo trying to keep track of the situation.

Digital surveillance during the examination, Claudia and Mateo trying to keep track of the situation.

Good WLAN is essential for performing a digital examination. For the case than someone loses connection, we provided our telephone numbers, so that students could call us to remain connected until the internet comes back. One student asked if he may give us his telephone number so that we would call him back. This was a lesson we learnt, as in many cases the connection loss remained unnoticed by the students, even for longer periods of up to 1,5 hours.

The digital examination act requires plenty of planning time. You want to make sure that both students and supervisors have all learnt how to use the platforms, configure the surveillance rooms, find the allowed helping materials and are informed about forbidden items and activities. It is important to prepare handouts, FAQs as well as to respond queries in the forum. The best-case scenario is to organise a mock examination, so that both parties have played their roles once before the big day comes.

Due to corona and presumably because of establishing a flipped classroom, which requires more discipline, we lost up to one half of the students from our synchronous sessions throughout the term. To our surprise, the students we had lost track of reappeared for the examination and the success rate was lower but comparable to regular terms.

After the big day, we as supervisors had a taste of the isolation caused by the pandemic ourselves. We could not sit together at the round table controlling the submissions, consulting with each other and „commenting“ the very creative answers and sketches you sometimes come across. Instead, we had to split the work and correct in solitude. Even the pizza we treat ourselves to as a prize for the correction had to be postponed, but we are sure it will be much tastier eating it in company after returning to normality.

Those who set out on the road also have the opportunity to arrive near the destination.

Those who set out on the road also have the opportunity to arrive near the destination.

Summary

A pandemic is a digitalisation accelerator and creativity booster. Cheat-free digital examinations for large student groups are possible, but require more organisation and manpower.

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