A Case for Take-Home Exams When We Return to Campus

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

Exams are undoubtedly one of the staples of the university experience. And as the University of Amsterdam is pushing hard towards a full on-campus reopening, many students, including myself, will miss our beloved take-home exams, as many felt that our skills and knowledge were tested and applied. So, why don’t we continue this pandemic tradition in offline settings since its benefits have been proven time and time again to overrule its solvable setbacks? And it’s my job, as a take-home exam advocate, to argue why take-home exams are here to stay in our program. 

Take-Home Exam Supremacy

Let’s first remind ourselves of what take-home exams are: a non-proctored assessment that can often stretch over a more extended period (hours or days) and be taken virtually anywhere. Students can access in-class and online materials as well as discuss with other classmates. This definition differentiates itself from an open-book exam, where you can access materials but are not allowed to consult with your classmates as invigilators are still proctoring you.  

I could simply end this article with this: TAKE-HOME EXAMS ARE BETTER. But I am compelled to elaborate on my weirdly over-enthusiastic claim. For students, take-home exams can bring in a myriad of advantages. First, let’s start with the logistics. You are lying to yourself if you say that you LOVE going to the IWO to take your exams. The trip can be far, the exam room can be as cold as ice, and the time limit can be so short that you don’t even have enough time to visit the bathroom. Instead of enduring that much physical discomfort, why can’t we be at the convenience and comfort of our own homes, where we get to decide where and when we can write our exams? This type of setting will also accommodate those who might run on different schedules and avoid overlapping exams more effectively. Especially when the coronavirus has not entirely dissipated, take-home exams can minimize our physical contact in large crowds within an exam room. So we can both be smart and safe. 

But the sheer convenience is not the main reason why take-home exams deserve to have a more permanent stay. Take-home exams have been shown to reduce performance anxiety and stress among students with their flexibility in time and space. As in-class exams are often limited to a short period, this furthers the mountaineering pressure students already bear when entering the exam room. Take-home exams simply eliminate this mind game. The alleviated stress, in turn, also aids the application of knowledge, where results from take-home exams can more comprehensively and sufficiently represent your understanding and ability. According to research conducted by Professor Lars Bengtsson from the University of Gothenburg in 2019, take-home exams are more “consonant with constructive alignment theories,” which concerns how examination processes must demonstrate whether the students have achieved the learning objectives. This idea further links to Bloom’s taxonomy in educational objectives, where take-home exams can more suitably assess higher taxonomic level learning objectives such as applying, evaluating, and analyzing, as opposed to lower-taxonomic objectives like remembering or understanding. A student providing feedback for Utrecht University’s online education and assessment shares this sentiment where “take-home exams take the emphasis off of memorization [and since] we’re not in high school anymore, why are we prioritizing memorizing over understanding?”

I simply could not formulate my thoughts and ideas to the best of my ability because knowledge application was demanded to be reproduced out of thin air without proper reflection. And the moment I logged out of TestVision, my knowledge also logged off. 

In other words, take-home exams allow you to utilize your problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and knowledge synthesis, not just merely memorize the concepts. This is the core reason why take-home exams are extremely fitted for Communication Science. Communication-specific courses require a high level of concept integration, application, and reflection, often restricted or undermined within a narrow time frame. Think about the last time you had to analyze multiple case studies within your 2-hour exam and provide personal examples. Did you personally feel that you could have done better if you were given the chance and time to dig deeper and form thorough connections between the concepts? At least for me, there have been so many instances where I struggled to finish a closed book exam on time while typing furiously without even understanding what I was writing. I simply could not formulate my thoughts and ideas to the best of my ability because knowledge application was demanded to be reproduced out of thin air without proper reflection. And the moment I logged out of TestVision, my knowledge also logged off. 

Furthermore, take-home exams can better represent a professional real-world experience, where an ample variety of materials can be accessed and utilized to draw logical connections and ideas. Due to the inherent nature of take-home exams where students need to work more actively, knowledge retention increases significantly. Research done in 2011 by Professor John D. Rich comparing in-class and take-home exams has shown that when students prepare for take-home exams, they more frequently review the textbook and notes and summarize the concepts using their own words. They also perceived that they had learned more from the exam experience. Therefore, these strengths can accumulate to a fairer indication of one’s academic ability, where grades become more nuanced and reflective than one single definitive exam at the end of every course. Because we actually have time to THINK. 

The Silver-lining for Universities

But take-home exams don’t solely benefit the students; the university can significantly gain from this system. Logistically, it takes fewer resources for the university to organize take-home exams than offline, on-site campus exams; they no longer need to book exam halls or arrange staff and invigilators. Setting up the submission box and Turnitin on Canvas definitely requires less effort, and the University can still measure the students’ knowledge. 

The Fault in Ourselves?

Diverse explanations can reflect the students’ ability to synthesize the knowledge and elaborate using their language. Therefore, it should be celebrated, not disregarded. 

Yet, there can be serious concerns over the possibility of ever implementing take-home exams as a university-wide procedure. From a student’s perspective, take-home exams run the risk of taking too much of their precious time and overlapping with their daily routine, where some might prefer to get it over with and move on with their lives. From the university’s viewpoint, take-home exams are not always the most optimal method to evaluate students’ understanding, as some students might only zoom into sections related to the exam. While this concern is valid, the course’s lecturer and coordinator ultimately have the final say in the exam’s content. Therefore, they can choose to design the exam to be more complicated or comprehensive by including more topics and application questions. Some teachers also pointed out that correcting a take-home exam can be quite arduous, as the variance in answers makes grading and giving feedback extremely time-consuming. However, for a program that values practical application and critical thinking like Communication Science, this should not be why one might shy away from this testing format. Diverse explanations can reflect the students’ ability to synthesize the knowledge and elaborate using their language. Therefore, it should be celebrated, not disregarded. 

However, we all know why take-home exams have not entirely taken over higher education: Cheating and Plagiarism concerns. Since students have free reign in deciding on the time and location they choose to do their exams as well as the people they can contact, it automatically becomes more enticing to cheat, collaborate, or even ask someone to take the exam on their behalf. However, there is already existing software such as plagiarism checks that can help the university with this issue, as many courses have opted for this option for the past 1.5 years. Nonetheless, according to Radboud University, a strategy to prevent plagiarism is to set a time limit based on the exam’s content and demands (i.e., making references) as well as communicate clearly about the procedures and rules that apply to a take-home exam. Lastly, the university must also ensure that the exam would not interfere with one’s daily routine activities like eating or sleeping. In short

Take-home exams, like all things, have drawbacks and simply cannot please everyone. However, it is one of the most effective and efficient ways to gauge students’ comprehension and application skills, so much more than a superficial, stressful 2-hour exam. So why not give the take-home exam a more integrated position in the university’s assessment, especially when all the clues point towards one direction?




Cover: Photo by Krismas on Unsplash

Edited By: Pritha Ray

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