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opinion

Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto and AstraZeneca Professor of Organic Chemistry. His research has been financially supported by a variety of sources, including pharmaceutical companies.

The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic saw many university educators teaching online for the first time. But while lecturing via Zoom was never going to compare with lecturing in a live classroom, many of us were buoyed by students upping their game and making the best of a bad situation while stuck at home. They formed virtual study groups and met regularly online. One-on-one meetings with them provided insight into the hidden diversity of our students. Learning the tech brought us a measure of satisfaction, and our students were remarkably gracious as we all adapted. Yet I was not sure if I should laugh or cry when I wound up receiving some of my best-ever teaching evaluations during that time – go figure.

But creating a fair and trustworthy way to test students online has proven to be more challenging than I ever imagined. It has raised some tough questions: are the grades awarded from online testing comparable to those obtained in traditional formats? What happens in a hybrid situation when lectures or tests are virtual? How will employers decipher and weigh the grades from online courses?

Multiple-choice tests can be adapted for online learning, but they come with limitations, particularly in technical courses such as chemistry. In this field, for instance, drawing chemical structures precisely is an essential way for students to demonstrate that they get the material; that’s been difficult to replicate online.

Fortunately, I identified an age-old, tried-and-true evaluation method that translated seamlessly to Zoom. Oral examinations have been part of my assessment tool kit over the past decade, and they have worked remarkably well in online learning settings, becoming a key method of evaluation in my fourth-year course “Synthesis of Modern Pharmaceuticals.” In my view, oral exams are good preparation for many real-life professional interactions. From preparing and giving a presentation, to discussing and debating, being able to think on your feet are skills worth honing.

A less-appreciated virtue of an oral exam is that it is remarkably difficult to “cheat,” since students have always been free to bring whatever aids they want to those meetings. They run the show, and I serve as the genuinely curious learner. They select the topic, the content and presentation style; I just ask the questions.

My reward? I get to see how they think. Helping them relax is key, as well as carefully listening to their answers.

Their reward? The vast majority describe it as a great experience – most particularly after it is over.

While this approach is rarely used in undergraduate science classes, a student-focused presentation with direct Q&A reveals how deeply they have absorbed the subject. And when they stumble, a small hint can let you see how they think on their virtual feet. It is hard to replicate this experience with many other testing methods.

I submit that all testing is flawed, in one way or another. But using a diverse array of testing methods, including oral exams, offers a way to evaluate the diverse talents of those in the hot seat.

The second year of online learning has brought new challenges, as we try to balance in-person learning with practical matters including minimizing close contacts. The students have done their part to stay safe, and our university made a huge effort to upgrade ventilation to protect them (and those of us at the front the classroom).

But while students who began their studies in the fall of 2020 had the bulk of their high school in the traditional format, I’ve noticed a tangible difference among the class entering university in 2021, who have missed out on a good chunk of in-person high-school learning. The cumulative effect of remote learning and testing is yet to be measured.

This unintended pedagogical experiment has shown we can partially or temporarily substitute one way of teaching for another. I see some advantages, some of the time, in some subjects. It certainly has the potential to help those in remote communities. But the classroom and, perhaps more importantly, the laboratory, remain essential parts of the learning and socialization process. Testing remains a vexing challenge.

My view from the front of my classroom, and behind my computer screen, has evolved over the past year. That said, despite the success of my online oral exams, a return to “normal” can’t come soon enough.

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