21st century exams. How to give a candidate a better exam experience.

Having recently been on the candidate side of the exam experience after taking the PRINCE2 Foundation and Practitioner qualifications this summer, I have put together a list of seven aspects of the candidate experience that I think should be key considerations for people working in exam delivery.

Too often the exam experience for the candidate seems to be an afterthought or a continuation of the tradition of an exam simply being a case of ‘get what you’re given’.  But times are changing and some awarding bodies and exam providers are now responding to the changing nature of candidate expectations.

Below are some of my thoughts on things that matter most to modern learners who are taking an exam.

 

  1. Ensure the exam format supports peak performance

Due to the recent lockdown in England, my PRINCE2 exams (which ordinarily would be delivered in a physical test centre), took place online using remote invigilation software.  Whilst seemingly straight forward in the beginning, with software downloaded to my device and tested in advance of my exam date, my first attempt to take the exam was thwarted due to the fact my webcam did not meet the exam providers specifications!  Frustrated, I had to wait a full week, and to buy a new webcam from Amazon, before I could attempt the exam again.  This meant more revision, setting aside more time in my schedule, and psyching myself up again for an exam all over again.

It is important to consider where an exam is taking place – does it need to be in a controlled exam environment or can students complete it using a remote invigilation option?  Is it a computer based exam (CBE) or is it paper-based?  The former might require specialist equipment or software whilst the latter means distribution of secure materials.  How do you ensure the security of those materials?  Will the exam only be available at certain times / dates or will it be available on demand for students whenever they are ready to take the exam?  Consideration of resources in the exam location is also important – consider our recent example where candidates arrived for a computer based exam and our invigilator found that many of them had little experience using a computer keyboard…

  1. Make accessing the exam as simple as possible

Once you have settled on an exam format, you should make sure that candidates are familiar with this as soon as possible and that the format is well understood.  This means ensuring that the time, date, and location (whether physical or virtual) are clearly communicated with candidates as far in advance as possible.  It also means that candidates know exactly what materials they are required to bring and exactly what ID verification process they will be going through.  Take note of any special requirements candidates might have when verifying their identification – such as the need for an invigilator of the same sex.

In my experience, accessing the exam (with new webcam in hand) was simple enough, and I was asked to show my passport plus confirmation of my new married name before I could gain access.  Some classmates found the experience less seamless, with several having to switch between devices – creating a panicked start in an already stressful environment.  Within my class of 20, only one person managed to run the actual exam on their first attempt – either due to tech failures, inappropriate surroundings (a clear desk was required), or inadequate information.

  1. Think about who is invigilating your exam – the technical perspective

Exam managers, invigilators and administrative staff are integral parts of your candidate experience as they will be the ones delivering exams on your behalf.  Recruitment and training of staff is imperative to ensure that the quality, security, and integrity of your assessments is upheld.   Consider that as more and more exams are moving to be computer based – the ability to solve technical IT problems with software and hardware becomes more important to ensuring a smooth and easy experience for your candidates.

  1. Think about who is invigilating your exam – the human perspective

Over the course of the two examinations needed to complete the PRINCE2 qualification, I had two wildly different experiences with the remote invigilators (remote proctors).  One was terse and unhelpful, whilst the other was friendly and supportive.  Both gave me the same practical information, but it really highlighted the impact the person delivering the exam had on my overall experience.

As important as it is for exam staff to know about the technical aspects of your examination, it is just as important that they have the right skills to provide flawless customer service to your candidates.  This might start with simply appearing cool, calm, and confident in their roles as this instils confidence in your candidates that they are in safe hands throughout this stressful time.  Be aware that candidates will be nervous about taking examinations, no matter how many times they may have done them, so having an organised invigilator with a smile will help to take the edge off.  With that said, all exam staff are human, so it is also important to ensure there is a robust support system in place, which is easily accessible by exam staff 24/7.

  1. Making the exam environment pleasant

So, you have chosen an exam format, hired staff, and let the candidates know all the details of their assessment.  But if the physical exam venue itself is wrong – all your good work could be undone!  When selecting and potentially accrediting test centres, it is important to put yourself in a candidate’s shoes.  Is the room too hot or too cold?  Is the seating/desk space adequate for the exam?  Is all necessary equipment present and well maintained?  Is the lighting in the room good?  Is there excess noise that could distract candidates?  Whilst it may not be possible to manage all these factors, each contribute to ensuring that exam success is the only thing your candidate must be worried about.

Taking my exam at home meant that I was able to control many of these factors myself – however I count myself incredibly lucky that I have a dedicated office space, where I could close the door and take the exam with as few distractions as possible.   That is not the case for all candidates for online examinations, with access to a suitable environment being a huge barrier to online examinations – we explored this further in our previous blog.

6. How comfortable is your candidate?

In addition to providing a pleasant exam environment, it is also important to consider the facilities available to your candidate when under exam conditions.  If the exam is lengthy – what is the process for accessing a bathroom?  A recent example from the Bar Professional Training course highlighted exactly what not to do in this situation.  Do exam takers have access to water or snacks during the exam?  As more and more exams have been taken online over recent months – considering how to replicate the experience of being in a test centre in people’s own homes is crucial, and protocols and practices need to be updated to reflect this.

  1. What happens after the exam?

Once time has been called at the end of an exam, it is easy to think that your responsibility for the candidates’ experience is now over, but there are still plenty of questions to consider.  How long will it take for results to be returned?  What happens if there is a dispute over the grade?  What happens if a candidate needs to re-sit?  Equally important is considering how and when you are gathering feedback from exam candidates about their experiences, and if there are systems in place for acting on this feedback if needed.

 

Considering the mixed experience that I had with my exam provider, I was not offered any opportunity to provide formal feedback, which, as a customer did, not make me feel valued or likely to recommend the experience to colleagues or friends.  So instead I chose to write this blog instead.

No matter how experienced or accomplished your candidates might be, or from which professional background, exam taking is stressful.  By creating an optimal exam experience from start to finish, candidates are happier, more relaxed, and able to focus on the task at hand – passing your assessment.  It is important to consider candidate experience throughout the whole assessment life-cycle, from selecting and accrediting test centres through to training staff, and finally providing the opportunity to give and receive feedback after an exam has finished.

If you have had an interesting, unusual or outstanding exam experience, or have any ideas based on the things that I’ve mentioned above, why not leave a comment below?

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