In 2020 the changes brought about by COVID-19 forced me to transition my normally face-to-face classes to an online format. This fall semester I teach two sections of a freshman Introductory Chemistry class (CH 104), each with about ~200 students, and an Organic Chemistry II (CH 232) sophomore class with ~130 students.
One of the worries I had when transitioning online was how to give exams to this large student population. Ultimately, I settled on administering the exams through Blackboard (although what I describe here should work on any Learning Management System). Unfortunately, however, I found that writing exams with chemistry content such as molecular structures, images, and other visuals directly in Blackboard was extremely laborious and time-consuming. Not only was it difficult to construct the exam, but previewing it from a student’s viewpoint was also cumbersome.
Instead of authoring the test directly in Blackboard, I wrote my questions using the TestGen software from Pearson.
In addition to handling ready-made test banks (in which I was not interested), TestGen also provides an authoring environment similar to a word processor.
I was able to type my exam questions and multiple-choice answers using a very intuitive and straightforward interface that “looks like” a paper test and is just as easy to build and check. I could use any combination of formatted text, numerical values, and symbols. I could also add figures using copy/paste from other programs (such as chemical structures from the dedicated ChemDraw software), or any graphs or other images. I found it enormously easier to draft an exam in TestGen compared to doing so directly in Blackboard.
This was particularly true when handling figures. In fact, in Blackboard I would have had to manually create and import individual JPEG or PNG files for each figure I needed in my test; this could often require 5-10 images per question, considering those in the question text and in the answer options!
The key feature that made TestGen so useful to me is that it directly exports groups of multiple-choice questions to the native Blackboard format. My exams are ready to import directly into the LMS. Once I finished authoring my tests in TestGen, I exported the questions in a single file in Blackboard format and uploaded them all to Blackboard as a “question pool”, from which I could easily create a Blackboard-native exam.
Students then accessed the exams through Blackboard, which allowed the use of remote proctoring tools available campus-wide at UA, such as LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor, which is integrated with Blackboard. Blackboard then automatically graded the machine gradable portions of the exams, such as multiple-choice questions. The Blackboard system also allows essay, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and true/false questions, among others; however, some of these question types require grading by hand, so their inclusion should be carefully considered with larger classes and limited TA support.
Aside from TestGen, other alternatives exist to convert questions authored in a word processor (e.g., MS Word, Apple Pages, Google Docs or equivalent) or a spreadsheet (e.g. MS Excel, Apple Numbers, Google Sheets or equivalent) to Blackboard’s cumbersome and not human-friendly native format.
For instance, the New York Institute of Technology exam converter and Oklahoma Christian University quiz generator both offer free online tools to convert self-authored questions to Blackboard format. These online converters accept text-only questions and convert them to a single file in a format that can be directly uploaded into Blackboard; they require no specialized software, so they can be handy to generate a few simple questions at a time; however, their required input formats are still cumbersome and, critically, they do not allow the inclusion of figures in the questions. For those reasons, TestGen will still be my tool of choice to author my own question for online Blackboard exams.