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Invalid exam, “bitter for the students, but it had to be done”

Invalid exam, “bitter for the students, but it had to be done”

Photographer:Fotograaf:

Erik de Regt/ Archive website www.maastrichtuniversity.nl

Interview with chairman of the Board of Examiners of SBE, Erik de Regt

MAASTRICHT. The Board of Examiners of the School of Business and Economics had “no other choice” than to declare the Quantitative Methods 2 exam invalid, says chairman Erik de Regt. “We stand for the integrity of exams.” Still, he does understand all too well that “this is very bitter for many students”. The faculty board wants to organise an online town hall meeting to give a proper explanation.

“There is one reason to declare an exam invalid, and that is fraud,” Erik de Regt emphasises. He repeats it again later on in the interview: the Board of Examiners annulled the results of 1,200 students because of cheating, not because of a human error. “It requires precision to differentiate.” An SBE employee forgot to switch on randomisation, an anti-fraud measure, in the system that is used to take tests remotely (Testvision). The idea was that different groups of students would receive the questions in varying order, which makes it tougher to exchange answers. But now everyone received exactly the same exam. “That mistake led to an open-door situation. Unfortunately, some students managed to abuse this. About five minutes after the exam was started - we now know - a message appeared in a chat that the questions were not randomised, and after that the number of messages increased rapidly.”

The communication went through, among others, a WhatsApp group. Not that this group was set up especially for that, says De Regt. “It had already existed for some time. It was where students exchanged all kinds of information about their subjects. A lot of people were ‘members’, certainly more than a hundred."

The employee’s mistake was reported internally to the exams co-ordinator about an hour after the exam, says De Regt. “About an hour after that, it was also reported to the Board of Examiners.” Initially, we didn’t see a problem. “In the following days, it became clear that the consequences were huge.” Several students e-mailed De Regt and block co-ordinator Christian Kerckhoffs that there had been “irregularities”. That questions and answers had been shared by various students through WhatsApp and other channels.

But surely you can get names and telephone numbers from those chats? “No, that was not possible. In that case, we could have dealt with the cheaters individually, because that is what you want. Besides, various chats were probably used. What you saw happening was that a lot of people had access to the answers in the chat, but we don’t know for sure who did and who didn’t use them. But they all, at any rate, had the opportunity to look. That affects the integrity of the exam.”

The original plan was to proctor – invigilate by using a camera in the student’s room – for large subjects such as QM2. But during the stress test, used to test the system, things went wrong. Huub Meijers, scientific director of the education institute, said a couple of weeks ago to Observant that proctoring large online exams was hardly possible. It appeared that there was not enough time to train invigilators (own employees). For a group of 450 students, they would need about 75 people. There was no work space for them and not enough equipment.

So now because there was no supervision by the faculty, the exam became more susceptible to fraud. That is why randomisation was chosen (which was mistakenly disabled). At the same time, there was a time limit to answer individual questions and it was often impossible to return to previous questions. Students were also randomly called by phone for a room check – beforehand or during the break – and for an identity check.

Students find it especially incomprehensible that the rules were changed afterwards and that so-called bonus points gained in non-compulsory ‘insignificant’ little tests (quizzes, questions on statistics and mathematics that were given throughout the block) have now suddenly become decisive factors, as a result of which first-year students now pass or fail their subject after all. In the case of the latter. they will have to take the resit on 17 July.

In the course book’s manual it states in black and white that students can only gain something with the bonus points, not lose anything. So why was that construction chosen and not a new first attempt for everybody? De Regt: “The annulment is a matter purely for the Board of Examiners, the follow-up measures are taken in a broader context, including the education institute, in an attempt to limit consequences. If everyone has to take the test again, it affects everyone. Besides, we want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to pass the subject within the present schedule. We don’t want to inflict it upon students and staff to have to work on this twice this summer (first attempt and then the compulsory opportunity to resit the exam), so in July and August.” That exam would be online again. More or less the same format, “although that is now being looked at,” says De Regt. It is not yet known how many students will be at their computers on 17 July, but De Regt suspects that the number of resit candidates is comparable to previous years. “The standard for quiz questions has been set in such a way that the pass rate is comparable with the past.”

Block coordinator Christian Kerckhoffs does not want to answer questions asked by Observant. He emphasises that the decision of annulment was made by the Board of Examiners and not by him. He sent the same message by e-mail to all the students. 
So, he writes to the students, anyone who has questions or complaints, should report to the Board of Examiners. With this e-mail, he gave the impression that he was distancing himself from the decision made by the Board of Examiners, but that is not correct, Kerckhoffs tells Observant. Whether or not he agrees, he deliberately leaves it in the middle: "I will not comment on this," he writes. It is overly clear that the Statistics lecturer, who previously won the UM Education Prize and who was characterised by many students as the 'best lecturer', is rather troubled by the situation.

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