the e-Assessment Association

Transitioning to digital assessment in high stakes exams: to dip a toe, or take the plunge?

Transitioning to digital assessment in high stakes exams: to dip a toe, or take the plunge?

In a fast-changing world, assessment does not have the choice of standing still. Technology is embedded in the lives and learning experiences of students, and assessment needs to embrace this change.

Digital solutions can drive improvement in assessment and mitigate the disruption of studies caused by Covid-19, but awarding organisations face many challenges when transitioning from paper to digital assessment. 

Digital assessment can open-up a world of benefits for students, teachers, examiners and awarding organisations in the creation, delivery and marking and certification of qualifications. For example, on-screen testing more easily enables the creation of assessments that accommodate the full range of student abilities. Easier access to a wealth of data about an on-screen assessment, or the e-marking of scanned paper exam scripts, allows awarding organisations to derive actionable insights that can drive improvements to the assessment itself (to the benefit of learners), assessment process or the quality assurance of marking, for example.

Furthermore, in today’s ‘knowledge society’, against the backdrop of a rapidly changing jobs market driven by automation and AI, there is an argument that assessments need to reflect a wider range of valued outcomes in addition to gained and retained knowledge, such as practical ability, communication skills, problem-solving and creativity, and inter-personal competencies. Digital assessment makes this possible, with its vast possibilities for interactivity, collaboration and multi-media evidence-collection. 

E-marking, the first step toward digital assessment

For professional associations, the pace and scale of transition is highly dependent on the circumstances of the organisation and the needs of their members, as well as the sector context. Access to technology may be a sticking point in some areas of the world where reliable, high-speed internet access and hardware infrastructure is not yet available to all. However, many will be able to take an agile approach to transition, starting perhaps by first introducing e-marking for a small number of their exams and looking to use a flexible system that can be easily scaled up to suit a future transition to full digital assessment.

This is certainly the approach that ICAN (The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria) has taken in their digital assessment journey, starting with the e-marking of pen-and-paper scripts through RM Assessor3. RM Results helped ICAN implement e-marking within just 6 months, while also ensuring that the system would allow them to scale up in future as they move towards full digital assessment. 

With the evidence around the benefits of digital assessment continuing to grow and students overwhelmingly reporting that they prefer a digital exam to a paper one* there is good reason for awarding organisations to continue to set their sights on working towards end-to-end digital assessment in the future. 

Embarking on a full digital transformation journey

As both standard-setters and pioneers for the industries that they serve, it is no surprise that many awarding organisations have already made great strides in embracing the potential of digital assessment. But the transition from old to new is inevitably not one that can happen overnight. Even those organisations really at the vanguard of change, such as the NZQA (The New Zealand Qualifications Authority), undertook several pilot studies and trials over a three-year period before starting to move their end-of-secondary National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) assessments online. However, once the evidence had been reviewed, NZQA decided to move ahead with digital exams and is looking to gradually replace paper-based assessments with digital assessments. 

“Students are enthusiastic supporters of digital assessment; they tell us it reflects the way they are learning and living, with technology at their fingertips,” says NZQA Deputy Chief Executive Andrea Gray.

Covid-19: A catalyst for transformation in education

The current global pandemic, which has thrust remote learning to prominence, has certainly been a catalyst for qualifications providers to look at doing things differently, and not only from a public health perspective. What 2020 has shown many of us is that studying and working from home can be surprisingly effective and efficient, and we have had to become fluent in certain online technologies (that also have application for assessment) very quickly. Lockdown restrictions around the world affecting schools and universities has accelerated a digital transformation in education that was already underway, and assessment has certainly been in the spotlight with many exams cancelled or delivered remotely.

With the differing approaches and experiences of NZQA and ICAN, can we say that one approach is better than another? The answer is of course, no. The pace and scale of integration of e-testing and e-marking is hugely influenced by the context of each awarding organisation and the sector, qualification type and country in which they operate. The needs and goals of your organisation and its members, the complexity of your assessment structure, cultural readiness, available resources and other external and internal factors. Whether you are thinking about e-marking or wanting to accelerate towards end-to-end digital assessment, RM Results will work with you to develop your strategy and capabilities at a pace and scale that suit you. 

To find out more about RM Results, visit

* According to an NZQA student experience survey from 2018, students were very positive about digital exams, with 95% of survey respondents preferring a digital exam over paper and 97% reporting that they found their digital exam experience a positive onea

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