Illustration by Alexandra Najm.

Examinations in the Zoom Era

Whether through new proctoring technologies and surveillance or an embrace of alternative methods of assessment, exams — a crucial part of any university experience — are now online.

Apr 4, 2021

Through online courses with most cameras switched off and tensions flaring on private Facebook groups over controversial or poorly worded administrative decisions, this radically changed university experience has pushed us to our limits. The stereotypical college experience is no more — no in person events, large scale socialization, spring break trips or even time in classrooms. Our collective fatigue has only grown stronger as the Covid-19 pandemic extends indeterminately outside of our control.
But there is one thing that many, especially those in technical fields, feel no university course would be complete without: testing. It is common at NYU Abu Dhabi and other universities for a student’s course grade to be based on just two or three examinations. Traditionally, testing has largely been administered on paper in a monitored environment. Now that exams can only take place virtually, how can cheating be prevented when no one can physically see your second monitor or your notes? How damaging is the assumption that students in demanding courses may seize the opportunity to commit academic dishonesty?
Most of us had to endure high stakes testing — be it the SAT, IB, A-Levels or national exams — to make it to this university. The providers of most of these tests do not feel like they can be adequately and equitably administered online, with social distancing making in-person administrations difficult.
According to Murphy's Law — the classic adage of “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — some connectivity issues are bound to appear when I take a high stakes test online. That goes for all of us — none of us want our future to be decided by whether or not the Wi-Fi gods were merciful one day, but what else can we do?
My experience with online testing, throughout my last semester of high school and two semesters at NYUAD, has varied greatly from instructor to instructor. One approach to combat cheating is to make examinations take home affairs and design them accordingly, with the expectation that modern knowledge assessment should involve synthesizing outside information rather than simple recall. Others have produced long lists of strict guidelines, like my Multivariable Calculus midterm where I had to sign a document that outlined 56 different rules — yes, I counted.
During this time, NYUAD seems to have discouraged both traditional large scale assessments and the use of invasive online proctoring tools used at other universities, which can threaten a students’ privacy and make exams feel like interrogations while still being cheatable.
Our university has given considerable room for professors to follow the testing approach they deem suitable. “If possible, faculty may consider avoiding high-stakes testing as a form of assessment,” explained the first Return to Campus memo on remote instruction. Some NYUAD students have a general feeling that professors have been flexible and understanding.
“Exams have somewhat moved away from the one sitting format … one of my exams had a rather unique anti-cheating policy — the first student to report any cheating ring, even if they were part of it, would receive a 100,” commented Rishit Saxena, Class of 2024.
But these systems and measures, from screen recordings to extra cameras, can lead students to be unduly punished. Harsh anti-cheating measures also apply to conventional standardized tests that have been adapted to the online method, like the GRE.
Oscar Sapkota, Class of 2021, said that his scores were cancelled unjustly during the online GRE. “Before going [to the bathroom], I asked the facilitator if I could go. They said nothing so I went and when I came back, they were like, you can’t take a bathroom break,” he recounted.
Sapkota was forced to retake the crucial assessment, adding additional stress during an already stressful time. An atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety is inevitable when such restrictions are in place, adding to the lonely gloom of the Covid-19 era university.
I appreciate professors’ tireless dedication to their students during these times and understand how difficult it is to remain engaged at traditional levels of productivity. But what does it mean to feel watched during any exam taken?
I know that the online format on its own hinders my ability to think coherently. Sometimes a concept I was not entirely comfortable with would suddenly come together when I saw a problem set on a piece of paper. But now, I can barely redirect my mind when I get sidetracked. Knowing that a recording of my facial expressions will soon be transmitted to my professor or whoever else is watching makes me feel like less of a student.
The battle between trust and honor continues; there is no victor, but there should at least be a collective understanding of what we are all going through.
Ethan Fulton is Columns Editor. Email him at
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