The Exam is About to Begin, Please Turn on Your Smartphones

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

What happens when students are allowed to use smartphones on an exam? This presentation details the rationale behind such an idea and experiment results.


Alisha Nypaver is a higher education instructor in the fields of music history, ethnomusicology, and music theory. Her research has explored pre-Elizabethan era musical development in Ireland and the functions of music as agent of cultural nationalism. After six years of teaching at three universities, her research interests have expanded to include educational practices in the higher education classroom, with particular interests in large classroom teaching strategies, use of technology in the classroom, and interdisciplinary studies.

Extended Abstract

This presentation details the results of an experimental study comparing the test performance outcomes of 100 students who utilized different resources during an in-class examination, including smartphones. The conference presentation will focus on the rationale behind the experiment, research findings, plans for future studies, and the implications of the findings for higher education teaching practices.

The presentation will use PowerPoint to organize and display the research findings. Participants will be given a handout packet highlighting key points and raw statistical data from the study which will include an optional survey soliciting ideas from the participants about their perception of the academic integrity of this experiment, suggestions for future trials, and general comments. During the presentation, attendees will be invited to participate in an interactive demonstration designed to illustrate the key components of this experiment and to draw attention to the practical considerations needed when constructing smartphone-based assessments. The session will conclude with the opportunity for questions and discussion. Links to student survey results will be posted on the conference website for further review.


Current research in the field of classroom technology acknowledges the benefits of the smartphone and assesses its functionality as an educational aid in the areas of classroom management, as textbook supplement, for content engagement and accessibility, and as a study tool. Despite its proven benefits, smartphone use is also seen as problematic and often restricted during class time because it provokes distractions and increases the potential for cheating. In particular, use of smartphone technology during in-class examinations is almost universally banned. While the argument against the use of smartphones during exams seems logical, it loses potency when considered in the light of two inescapable facts.

First, the advent of the virtual classroom and distance learning - arenas in which it is virtually impossible to prevent students from "cheating" - has created a need for educators to rethink student assessment across the spectrum of higher education. As virtual course offerings continue to grow, this paradoxical relationship between the standards for physical classroom assessment versus virtual classroom assessment calls into question why many educators uphold different standards for these two forums, even if the learning outcomes and curricula are nearly identical.

Second, leading research indicators point to smartphones becoming increasingly capable, accessible, and even more widely-used than they are today. Recognizing this reality demands a reassessment of traditional teaching and learning methods to better reflect the needs of modern learners and the resources available to them.
This experiment is an attempt to exploit the ways in which adult learners find, utilize, and process information in their personal and professional lives by crafting assessments that more accurately reflect what kind of information should be committed to memory and what can be left to Google.


This comparative study measures student success rates of three test-taking methods among trial groups and as compared to a base measurement. For the base measurement, all subjects were given the same exam and allowed to use the same study aid: a double-sided, handwritten notecard. The results provided information about general academic aptitude and test-taking ability for individual students and for the class as unit. For the comparative trial, students were divided into three relatively equal groups and given a different exam on comparable material. Group A did not use any test-taking aids during the exam. Group B was allowed to use a handwritten, double-sided notecard. Group C was allowed to use smartphones with wireless network access. Group participants were randomly assigned, with the exception of two students who did not own smartphones and were therefore excluded from Group C. Students were not given specific advice or training as to how to study. All were given the same generic study guide and were informed of their group placement two weeks in advance of the exam date.

Before the comparative trial set, students were required to complete a survey about the effectiveness of the traditional exam in higher education as well as their attitudes toward the proposed experiment and their expectations of the outcome.
After the second exam, students completed a reflective survey in light of their exam grade. Survey questions highlighted the impact of the exam style on hours spent studying, whether or not participants thought their exam grade accurately reflected their true knowledge and ability, and a comparison of the trial to the base.


This project is currently ongoing. At the time of presentation, this experiment will have been repeated using a new sample of students to produce comparable results. Full results will be available at the time of conference presentation and will include recommendations for other educators who wish to explore the use of the smartphone as an assessment aid based on the findings of the study.