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Professors restructure midterm examinations in effort to reduce stress, increase accessibility of online classes

Time zone differences and poor Internet access are just the start of the difficulties posed by remote learning

<p>Just 27 percent of courses this semester have an in-person component, and online exams pose challenges for students and professors alike — international time zone differences, poor Internet access and academic integrity are among concerns.</p>

Just 27 percent of courses this semester have an in-person component, and online exams pose challenges for students and professors alike — international time zone differences, poor Internet access and academic integrity are among concerns.

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With the majority of courses online this semester, professors who teach remote classes plan to adjust midterm exams and implement plagiarism-detection software to deter students from cheating. 

Just 27 percent of courses this semester have an in-person component, and online exams pose challenges for students and professors alike — international time zone differences, poor Internet access and academic integrity are among concerns.

Despite the unique semester, some professors have chosen not to change midterm examinations. First-year College student Amber Trinh said that she doesn’t think one of her professors is adjusting midterm exams enough to consider students’ unique circumstances this semester. 

Trinh, whose classes are all virtual, said she prefers paper tests and “skips over things” on online exams that she would normally notice on paper.

“Unlike some of my other professors, [my professor] made it very clear that there is no curve, absolutely no makeups at a later time, and no extension for the time limit,” Trinh said.

Biology Professor Barry Condron, who teaches Introduction to Neurobiology remotely to 250 students, said he decided to make all his exams open-note to reduce the stress students are facing due to the pandemic and online classes. To accommodate those who live in different time zones, students will have a 24 hour time period to take their midterm exams. 

Despite obstacles to remote instruction, Condron said that he has grown to appreciate the benefits of Zoom office hours and open-note exams.

“I am beginning to see some advantages to this option and might in fact keep this approach in the future,” Condron said. “I am thinking of ways of formulating questions such that they test synthesis and not simply a query for a fact in the notes.” 

Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations, said that the University has not advised faculty to change their exam formats, though many professors are choosing to do so.

“[Faculty] have the autonomy to manage their courses so as to enhance learning with an eye towards fairness and compassion for students’ individual circumstances,” Hester said. “Many faculty have changed their pedagogical approach this semester for a variety of reasons; this includes but is not limited to their exams.”

At the beginning of their time at the University, students complete an honor module and sign the Honor Code pledging not to lie, cheat, or steal — even with the shift to online exams, faculty remain hopeful that students will maintain their integrity.

Condron said that he trusts that most students won’t cheat and doesn’t want to impose harsh measures on students. He noted that “most digital information eventually becomes public,” so students who cheat are likely to be discovered.

Some professors plan to use software to ensure students are adhering to the Honor Code. Economics Prof. Kenneth Elzinga said his 1300 students will use Proctorio, an online software that uses test-takers’ webcams to ensure they aren’t cheating. 

Elzinga’s midterm exams — which usually require students to draw on graphs and answer short answer questions — will now be solely composed of writing-based short answer questions. SInce students will be taking midterms online, they won’t be able to draw on paper graphs.

Both Elzinga and Condron indicated that online exams will also be more work for graduate teaching assistants.

“The administering of the exam and the burden upon Teaching Assistants in grading the exam is much greater this semester than ever before,” Elzinga said. “My TAs cannot meet together as readily to discuss grading.”

McIntire Associate Prof. Sherri Moore teaches two sections of Commercial Law I and one section of Commercial Law II online, each with hundreds of students. Moore’s midterm exams consist of two multiple-choice tests, just as they were before the pandemic — however, students are now permitted to use their notes, and the questions will be more challenging. 

Moore said that she transitioned to open-note exams because students “can’t really cheat if [they] use notes.” 

Moore graduated from the College in 1985 and, like Condron and Elzinga, said that she believes most students will continue to abide by the Honor Code.

“My feeling is if you’ve got to cheat on this exam, then you’re just cheating yourself,” Moore said. “I was at U.Va., and we took the Honor system seriously, and I think that a lot of students still do.”

Students who commit academic fraud are reported to the Honor Committee, which then investigates and hears individual cases. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic and University restrictions on in-person gatherings, the Honor Committee will operate virtually this semester. 

Ryan Keane, a fourth year Batten student and chair of the Honor Committee, said online hearings require more of an “intentional effort” to ensure everything runs smoothly. The Honor Committee has yet to hold a hearing this semester, but Keane said it’s easier to check up on investigated students and reporters in-person — to ensure they understand the hearing process — than online.

Recently, the Honor Committee has been working with professors who noticed that their exam questions have been posted on the homework help website Chegg. In a meeting Sunday, the Honor Committee decided that if a professor has evidence that their exam questions are online, two committee investigators will be assigned to help identify the student. 

“I think there still are a lot of professors who have regular exams and are relying on the Honor Code,” Keane said. “Some are making exams open note, but a lot of professors have open note exams to begin with.”

Due to confidentiality, Keane said he was unable to disclose the number of cases currently in the Honor System. Although a lack of supervision can make cheating easier with online midterms, Keane said the committee will have to wait and see if Honor violations increase this semester. 

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