About Sarah Frédérickx

Sarah Frederickx is the Educational Developer at D-HEST.

Exams at the Computer: Doubling the Capacity

At the ETH Zurich, the seats for exams at the computer are limited: during the semester, there are 118 available seats total (in four rooms); during the exam session, one big room with 160 seats gets added, amounting to a total of 278 seats for synchronous exams.

To double the capacity, we have used a ‘Schleusensystem’ (locking/sluice/gating; I do not know how native speakers would call this) for some time but I finally took some pictures to illustrate this post. So here it is!

The first ‘Schleuse’ that I was involved in was in June 2013. It was still during the semester (four rooms with a total of 118 seats) and there were 220 students. It went like this:

  • 9:00 the first group of students entered the exam rooms and started writing the exam. No one could leave the room before the exam finished (app. 10:40).
  • 10:35 the second group of students was ‘locked in’ in a ‘Schleusenraum’ (locking room). If a student came after that time, s/he was not accepted to the exam.
  • 10:40 the first group was sent away, far far away!
  • 10:42 a restart of all computers was performed, the rooms were quickly tidied.
  • 11:00 the second group was accompanied to the exam rooms and could start the exam.

Some of the trouble we had, was, because there were four rooms, that students forgot which room they were assigned to. We had informed them in advance and we had the list with us, so this was not a real problem but you could feel that the stress level was quite high and rising. Another time, the restarts didn’t work the first time around. This led to an (additional) delay of 20 minutes.

This summer 2015, we decided to flip it for two exams during the exam session. The first group wrote the exam, the first group was accompanied to a locking room, and the students were only released when all students of the second group had entered the exam room (after we had tidied up and the restarts had been performed).

The way from the exam room to the ‘Schleusenraum’ is approximately 100 meters and we used barriers to close the exits (hallways, stairs, elevators).



There was neither tension nor stress!



The time in the locking room has always been between 25 to 45 minutes (depending on group size and technical problems with the restarts). But, this time, students were not nervous anymore, they had written the exam, they could talk about it. Some had taken playing cards with them and played together. (Smartphones or any other electronical devices were still not allowed, so that they could not text anybody from the second group.)

The Downside

  • half of the students taking the exam have to wait in a room for 30 or more minutes
  • the supervisors need to be there at least twice the hours of the exam
  • more supervisors are needed for the transfer of the group going to / or coming from the locking room
  • the organisation is challenging (getting the barriers to the right locations, getting the supervisors to the right locations, everybody knowing where to be and what to do)

The Upside

  • one exam needs to be written (and not two series)
  • the exam can take place at the computer and not on paper


If you think about having two groups writing the same exam, lock up the first group and not the second! If you can, don’t do it at all.

moodle Activity: Workshop

moodle Workshop Activity

Being inspired by the “Critical Thinking” Initiative, the lecturers of Writing, Reporting & Communication (Prof. Dr. W. R. Taylor, Dr. E. de Bruin) used the moodle activity ‘Workshop‘ in Spring Semester 2015 with 30 students. The students had to write a review of scientific papers, design a poster and give a presentation. Then they had to assess 10 of their peers’ posters and 15 of their peers’ presentations. One lecture was used for the poster review – students brought along physical posters – and one lecture was used for the presentations. The Workshop activity helped with the peer review process of the posters and the presentations. The peer review was done in class, which meant that the students brought along their laptops or tablets.

Description of the moodle activity:

The workshop activity module enables the collection, review and peer assessment of students’ work.
Students can submit any digital content (files), such as word-processed documents or spreadsheets and can also type text directly into a field using the text editor.
Submissions are assessed using a multi-criteria assessment form defined by the teacher. […] Students are given the opportunity to assess one or more of their peers’ submissions. Submissions and reviewers may be anonymous if required.
Students obtain two grades in a workshop activity – a grade for their submission and a grade for their assessment of their peers’ submissions. Both grades are recorded in the gradebook.

This is a very powerful activity and it is not at all intuitive, especially for the lecturers! Setting up the activity, which is usually the lecturers’ duty, is quite a challenge. In contrast to that, correctly set up, the students had no trouble whatsoever in using the activity, i.e. in reviewing their peers’ work.

Phases to this activity

  • Setup phase
  • Submission phase
  • Assessment phase
  • Grading evaluation phase
  • Closed

Workshop PhasesYou need to do all the steps below each phase, and you need to manually change from one phase to the next using the ‘lightbulb’ next to the phases’ titles. (I had to call Urs Brändle, to find out how to do this!) If you’re that far and you read the instructions/messages shown to you when changing phase, you will be fine.

Random tips

  • You will find the ‘Edit assessment form’ and the ‘Allocate submissions’ in the Administration box of the Workshop activity (‘Workshop Administration’).
  • If the allocation has been done but you allow a student in the last minute to hand in their work (after the deadline), you will have to redo the allocation. (It had been a good idea to put it on ‘random’ and ‘automatic’ but…)
  • The grading is… Here’s a picture of how we understood how it is done:
  • There is no way of exporting all the assessments (and comments).
  • And one last tip: Inform the students beforehand about the grading, especially about the grading of how they assessed their peers!

We didn’t evaluate the use of the Workshop activity. It was a pilot and it worked, in the end, more or less, how we imagined it. If we had had to do it by hand, we would still be putting together the 2’250 data points (750 assessments * 3 criteria) and be entering them in Excel! 😉

Exams over WLAN?

It may just be possible!


Last Friday (22 May 2015), thanks to lecturer and study coordinator Dr. Roland Müller, first year D-HEST students could take part in a mock exam as a preparation for the real exam in August. This exam has been done at the computer for several years now. Long ago, when we planned this, people would warn us that the WLAN may crash and that (many) other problems would occur. This did not scare us! 🙂

Key numbers:

  • 160 students with their own devices (133 computers and 27 tablets)
  • moodle exam (not too complex, mostly kprime and text questions)
  • 4 access points (HPH G1 standard installation)

We also instructed everybody to switch every other device they had brought along onto airplane mode or to switch them off. At the beginning, I helped three students to get onto a wireless network, and one student had real problems with his laptop. Stephan Walder from ID NET oversaw the traffic and found out a few irregularities. For example, one access point took over half of the clients, and the other three access points shared the rest. The mock exam went on smoothly and students worked in absolute silence. It was a wonderful experience.

Doing exams with portable devices may further:

  • flexibility (especially with rooms)
  • hand drawing capabilities
  • silence! (in contrast to the keyboards in the computer rooms which are incredibly loud)

It is not planned to go into BYOD for real exams but the use of tablets or portable computers for ‘exams at the computer’ may well be in the near future at ETH Zurich.


Question banks, for students by students

Logo_Frédérickx-2Question Bank Project (innovedum)

A brief account

900 questions for 15 physiology topics, designed by students
4 quizzes per topic in moodle


Usage (Summer Exam 2013)

  • 150 students took quizzes
  • 5000 quizzes were solved (approx. 100’000 questions were answered)
  • ~33 quizzes solved per student

You can find more numbers and further info in the project report.


No obvious correlation could be seen between grades and frequency. (No analysis had been done between grades and quiz performance.)

Students’ Feedback

  • Question bank had low relevance to exam questions
  • Quality of questions – the more the students used the pool, the better they rated the questions
  • Students would appreciate question banks for further topics/areas

Status Quo

Up to now, after the exam this year (Summer 2014), more than 9’000 quizzes have been solved.


Spin-off project

Exercise physiology question bank

  • 320 questions designed by students
  • All revised by Prof. Ch. Spengler (ETHZ)
  • 14 (resp. 28) quizzes
  • Only students that provided questions had access to the revised questions.


Usage was similar to the Physiology question bank. Again we do not have a correlation between how often they used the quizzes and their grade but…

…how well they performed in the quizzes was a reliable indicator of how well they performed in the exam.

Formative assessments are therefore helpful for students as their learning progress is made apparent. (Here is the report.)