Can a computer-marked exam improve retention?

Presentation by Jon Rosewell at CALRG 2012.

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Rebecca Ferguson
19 June 2012

Open University distance learning modules may show poor retention compared to traditional campus courses, particularly for introductory and enrichment modules that are not core to a qualification. Folk wisdom is that exams and end-of-module assessments (EMA) represent a significant hurdle to students who appear to be deterred by the perceived difficulty and do not submit.  On the other hand, computer-marked assignments (CMA) presented either as formative or summative parts of the module’s continuous assessment, are typically attempted by most students particularly when delivered in interactive online ‘quiz’ format (iCMA). Can retention on a module therefore be improved by offering part of the end-of-module assessment in the form of an interactive quiz (iCMA)?

The specific context to be explored is the Open University module Robotics and the meaning of life (T184), a 10-point, 10-week module general interest module.  The previous assessment strategy for this course comprised a mid-course iCMA and a final written EMA which included short-answer questions, an extended question on robot programming, and a short essay on recent developments in robotics and their the social and ethical implications.  For the last two presentations of this module, the end-of-module assessment took the form of a further iCMA (corresponding to the short-answer questions of earlier EMAs) and a reduced written script-marked EMA (retaining the programming and essay questions).  The new final iCMA was presented in the same format as the mid-course iCMA, but was formally treated as a computer-marked exam. An additional benefit of this change was that students were given detailed feedback on their computer-marked exam immediately after the final submission date, rather than the anodyne performance profile previously provided with the final result some months later.

The hypothesis to be tested is that this change will result in improved engagement and confidence, feeding through to improved retention and progression measures.

Measures looked at:

  • standard module measures of submission, retention and progression;
  • patterns of submission;
  • structured interviews with a sample of students.

Comparisons can be made with both with pre-intervention presentations of the same module and with other companion modules whose assessment strategy has not changed.

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