Photo Richard J. Reece, Professor Associate Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students at the University of Manchester

University of Manchester: Digital Exams Enable Fast and Effective Grading Outcomes


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Apr 10, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Professor Richard J. Reece, from the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, shares the university’s success with digital exams, which offer students real-world experience and allow faculty the time to provide well-thought-out feedback, among other advantages.

With over 40,000 students and established as a global top 50 institution, the University of Manchester stands as England’s first civic university. In its current form, the institution is the result of a 2004 fusion between Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

Constantly looking ahead, the university developed its first virtual learning environment (VLE) and began offering students digital exams over a decade ago. Since then, it has proven to be the right choice, as taking exams digitally offers students a better skill-testing experience and also makes it easier for professors to grade them in a timely manner.

Professor Richard J. Reece, associate vice-president for Teaching, Learning and Students at the University of Manchester, talked with Blackboard to share his thoughts on digital exams and to discuss broader themes such as student accessibility.

  • Professor Reece, could you tell us a bit about the work you have been doing at the University of Manchester?

We try to enable technology to make sure students feel as though the experience they are getting is as personalized as it can be. As a large organization, we have students coming to join us with a wide variety of backgrounds. Our focus is on offering support to base-level digital literacy students, with mechanisms that enable them to keep up with the technology we are offering. For specific learning practices, we have, as you’d expect of any higher education institution, a virtual learning Eenvironment (VLE) – in our case, we use Blackboard technology. We work so that all of our modules within our courses have a Blackboard presence, in degrees that are appropriate, depending on the individual topic that is being taught. To us, it’s a matter of ensuring students have the opportunity to interact with teaching staff from day one of the course.

  • How do you think providing accessibility for students can drive learner engagement in the educational environment?

At the university, we have three main goals: To perform world-class research, to guarantee excellence in Learning & Teaching (L&T), and to act with social responsibility as an organization. And as part of that last goal, we try to be as inclusive as we can be to students. The accessibility part is very important for the sorts of things we do as an institution – striving to ensure that the L&T materials are provided to students as accessible as they can be. This not only benefits students with specific learning difficulties, but the wider student population as well. We have a set of criteria that must be met for the production of all L&T material – be that paper, electronic, video or audio based – to ensure that they have as wide a scope as possible among that student population. And, I think we’ve seen a real significant increase in access of these materials in all students. For example, like many institutions – and we’re probably at the vanguard of this – we record almost all of our L&T events. We’ve done this for about five years now, and in this current academic year, we will be recording 90% of the L&T events that take place across the institution. We try to make sure that those recordings are available to as wide a group of students as possible. Our lecture capture system has helped with the engagement of students.

  • You also have a successful case in digital exams. Could you share with us a little more about this experience?

We’ve been doing it for about 10 years. Some members of our academic staff started to produce exams in a digital format and realized the advantages of working this way for them, but also for students. That’s one of the key drivers that we are working towards: As an institution, we are providing more and more in digital formats. Of course, now students handwrite far less than they have done in the past. So, when we question students about this, they quite rightly state that, actually, the only time when they handwrite anything these days is in exams. This doesn’t seem appropriate considering that when they transfer to their working lives after university, they will almost certainly be using electronic materials. About four or five years ago, we started to take this more seriously as an institution and put in place all the requirements that we needed in order to set-up exams on campus, but in a digital format. Many exams simply replicated the written versions, but others started to use the power and capability of the digital format to make the digital exams a much richer experience, and really be able to give students a real-world test of their skills and knowledge. In terms of the way we use digital exams, we have somewhere between 4,000 to 5,000 students taking them each semester. It is a relatively large activity – not as large as our paper-based exam system yet, but it is continuing to grow rapidly. The university has set goals to increase the number of online tests that are taken because we see value in it, both for students taking tests in a format they are much more familiar with and giving them a much better flavor of the sorts of assessments that they will be required to take place in their professional lives, and also for staff.

  • Could you touch a bit further about the advantages of using digital exams for academic staff?

The trials we’ve done here have suggested that staff not only spend far less time marking tests but can also give much better feedback when the exam is in a digital format. Digital exams take about 25% of the time that it would take to mark a paper-based version, which is a significant saving. This time can be invested in creating a much better form of feedback for students by giving them a far richer idea of the strengths and potential weaknesses of the answers that they’ve given to a particular question. Currently, specific courses have chosen to initiate this form of assessment, so, not the totality of the assessments are in this format yet. But, we are working on it for the future.

  • How would you say digital exams impact students?

A number of exams that we run in our institution are summative exams (exams at the end of a course), and we generate a mark (grade) that then goes into the student’s overall grade for the subject they are taking. I would agree those three topics are important to get learner engagement in the first place, and the definition of how you do that, as an educator, is an interesting one. It certainly varies between the face-to-face activities and those that take place in an online environment. From my own experience, I feel as though we use a blend of the activities – some of them are face-to-face and the 40,000 students we have are predominantly taught in this way.

The University of Manchester does have a significant number of distance-learning students and creating a sense of engagement for them is a different process than for students who regularly come to Manchester. For campus-based students, that sense of belonging can be created through interactions with our building and infrastructure, our faculty, and with other students. It is, perhaps, more difficult to create this sense of belonging in an online setting (and requires a different skill set from professors than those who can do it really well face-to-face). However, as we provide more online material to our campus-based students, the boundaries between ‘on-campus’ and ‘at distance’ are becoming increasingly blurred. So, for me, it’s creating that blend of the activities that you do in the face-to-face setting, along with the blend of the online environment. You have to aim to keep students engaged for the entirety of that course, using small, almost ‘micro’ pieces of work in the online setting, and then you augment that in the face-to-face setting to expand them into interesting contexts.

  • Is there a clear policy on which courses to use digital exams and which not to? How do you define that?

There is no policy like that. Essentially, the target that we have is to increase the number of online exams that we offer. We have no preference at an institutional level as to what those would be, it’s more of an academic decision. If an academic case can be made as to why a particular exam should not be in a digital format, for instance, then we’re more than happy to take that into consideration. There is academic freedom to do that, and we want to ensure our teaching staff can choose what the most appropriate form of assessment might be.

  • Do you measure student satisfaction around digital exams? What is their overall feedback?

Very positive, generally. We do not have a comprehensive analysis around digital exams because they are spread throughout the institution. Some courses will have digital exams and some courses won’t. When we look for student feedback, which we do on a regular basis, there are several themes that come forward. Many of the students engage more with digital exams than the paper-based version. We get a lot of complimentary comments about how easy students found it to do, and how much more straightforward they found the interaction in the exam itself. However, it is not all a bed of roses. We also get students who say that they find their typing skills can somehow deteriorate when they are under exam pressure, and often they require additional time during an online exam that perhaps they wouldn’t during a paper-based test. Again, we are trying to build that into our system, and particularly for first year students, we do a conversion from paper to online and offer them a slightly longer time to do the exam, making sure there’s no specific issues around students getting caught up with the technology and not concentrating on their answers.

  • You mentioned that using digital exams saves you time. Does it also save money or other resources?

In the broad sense, time is money, isn’t it? One of the big things from the time saving is the reduction in the administrative effort that is required in order to look after the exam process itself. It might sound trivial and almost irrelevant, but it does take a lot of time during the marking process to get all of these things in order. Coming back to my own course – I’m a biologist and I run a biology online exam – and often I have 200 students on that course. They write essays and they do short answer questions. In the short answer questions, the accuracy of the marking has greatly enhanced in the online format. And there’s a significant time saving for me as a marker, and for the administrative staff afterwards, because as soon as I’ve finished the marking, everything is done. It’s also transferred into the VLE and then the marks go straight into our students’ record system. Hence, it’s a very straightforward process.

  • The University of Manchester has had a relationship with Blackboard for over 10 years now. What would you say the institution’s initial goals with the use of Blackboard products were back then? How would you say these products have helped the University of Manchester to achieve these goals?

It is probably fair to say that the University of Manchester was relatively late coming to the party with respect to VLEs. It was before my time, but when Blackboard was first adopted, it was very much a case of getting all courses to have a minimum specification on the online environment. What we’ve been trying to do more recently is to use a much richer set of tools with our students, to develop scenario-based e-learning modules and problem-based sets that can really start to stretch the students other than in the face-to-face setting. The face-to-face settings are really important to us, as the majority of students that we have are based on campus. But we realized that having that additional background, that much richer set of information available to them – so they can work through problems and find solutions in their own time – is equally important to really drive learner engagement.

  • Overall, where do you think education institutions are headed and what are University of Manchester’s specific plans for the future in this regard?

It’s an exciting time in the digital world and in higher education. Since 2012, when massive open online courses (MOOCs) started to take off, it has made institutions think really hard about how the digital environment is changing students’ mindsets. Also, the way in which we need to think about the education offering that we provide. Long gone are the days when information was scarce. You have to be able to mold that information in a way that is suitable for students. Now, anyone can get information at their fingertips, from any device. So, the role of institutions is changing, the role of education is changing. Now, there is much more downloadable information available, which impacts the sorts of questions you can ask when you have all that information. We want to make sure that Manchester is at the vanguard of what happens in the digital space. What happens in that space may vary for different institutions, so we need to make sure that we do something that is right for ManchesterAnd again, underpinning much of that, is ensuring that our students are digitally literate, so they can not only learn with our courses back here, but then go out into the workplace and really act as excellent employees and entrepreneurs and everything else that they do in the digital world. Just as our students need to be digitally literate, our staff do as well. And I think one of the things we are working towards is trying to get a parity of digital literacy between students and staff. Digital literacy of course doesn’t just mean using pieces of technology. It’s really about how we can use those in a rich education environment to try and extract the maximum benefit we can from it.


Professor Reece is involved in teaching at both the undergraduate and post-graduate level, through lecture series, tutorials, and direct student supervision. Within the Bachelor of Sciences programs, he is the module coordinator for the BIOL21152 Omic Technologies and Resources course. This module draws on many of the fundamental technologies that underpin the work in his laboratory and explains how these can be applied in a variety of experimental systems. He is also currently a final year genetics and biotechnology tutor and is also deeply committed to enhancing the public understanding of science. He regularly gives talks, in the United Kingdom and across the world, to school-aged science students and also participates in numerous Café Scientifique-type public science events.


Photos by: AFP – Anthony Devlin