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February 29, 1996

Grant will expand computer-assisted testing

Thanks to a new computer-assisted testing system (CATS), students who study through the University External Studies Program will be able to take exams via computers at off-campus sites.

Through CATS, students obtain their test scores on-screen immediately upon completing exams. They also have the option of receiving on-screen feedback from faculty.

That's in contrast to External Studies' traditional distance learning system, which involves mailing printed exams.

Under the traditional system, students receive exam scores and general information related to their test performance on a single sheet feedback form. To review an exam, students have been required to meet with their instructor or an External Studies staff member — thus working against the purpose of distance education, which is to enable students to earn credits toward a degree while minimizing the amount of time they must spend on campus.

External Studies students work independently through self-instructional course materials to complete course requirements. The only times they must come to campus during a term are for three half-day Saturday workshops.

According to a statement by Pitt's Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE), CATS offers substantive feedback on the spot while maintaining exam security. The system "provides a valuable instructional benefit to students, minimizes travel requirements and offers a solution to the problems associated with mailing," according to CIDDE.

The statement continued: "The CATS program provides distance learners with the same flexibility as paper and pencil exams with a user-friendly environment to accommodate the most naive computer user. Students can easily maneuver back and forth through the exam, returning to difficult or skipped questions to review, change or complete responses before finalizing the testing session." External Studies currently has just one computerized exam machine at its testing area at 3808 Forbes Ave. But Bell Atlantic last week granted Pitt $45,000 to create eight more sites.

Besides adding a second testing site in Oakland, Pitt plans to use the Bell Atlantic grant to establish sites at the Greensburg and Johnstown campuses; at External Studies' existing test site in Bethel Park; at an east suburban location; and at rural sites near Kittanning, St. Mary's and Uniontown.

The Bell Atlantic grant will pay for hardware and software, licensing, wiring and training of exam site supervisors, said Robin Wingard, External Studies assistant director.

Besides its practical value, the new testing technology may also yield research insights, Wingard said. "Researchers at CIDDE are particularly excited about CATS's capability of recording details of student test-taking activities for subsequent analysis. For example, information could be analyzed regarding student response times and performance," she said.

— Bruce Steele

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