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Students discuss challenges with studying and taking virtual final exams, concerned about cheating

Many students have found it harder to focus with virtual exams, missing the camaraderie of in-person final week

With the University planning to resume in-person operations in the fall, the majority of students took their final exams virtually for the last time this semester. Professors and students shared concerns for cheating with online finals and are anticipating a return to in-person final exams.

Final exams began May 7 this semester, only one day after the last day of classes, and ended May 15. In the past, students have had one reading day between their last day of class and their first exam. However, this year, there was not a reading day before exams started as the days were on Sunday, May 9 and Wednesday, May 12. Reading days are typically incorporated as designated days without exams which allow students time to study.

Due to a lack of any class-free days before exams, students like third-year Batten student Katie Zhang felt that this year's finals were more rushed than in the past. Instead of having the last week of classes to prepare for her finals, Zhang said this semester’s last week of classes felt more like finals week than time to prepare for her exams.  

Zhang also described how the online format made it difficult for her to complete her final papers. In previous years, Zhang benefited from discussing her writing with classmates, but online learning has made that difficult. 

“Most of my best thoughts come from a conversation with someone that happened offhandedly,” Zhang said. “But it’s really hard [when working virtually] to be like, ‘Let's find some time to discuss my paper.’”

Like Zhang, other upperclassmen also missed experiencing the in-person environment surrounding finals in past semesters and found it more difficult to study for online exams. Second-year College student Vanessa Joachim said that students “don’t feel the energy shift” during finals season while finals were online and that the environment felt the same as “[they have] been all year.”

Most current second years, like Joachim, only experienced one semester of fully in-person finals and classes before the pandemic hit in March 2020. 

“I believe [my] first semester when we were in person, you could definitely feel the exam environment because you go to the library, and it's full of people studying — you go everywhere, [and] people are studying,” Joachim said.

Other students emphasized that virtual learning took much more of a toll on their ability to focus and engage in their classes, making virtual exams all the more challenging. 

“I just couldn’t get myself mentally together,” fourth-year Education student Alexis Allen said. “Virtual learning made it a lot harder to stay engaged, and it was a lot easier to not pay attention.”

Allen also described how online exams were more difficult to mentally engage with.

She enjoyed in-person exams more, because physically being in an exam room with TAs around and with exam start and end times written on the board helped her mentally engage in a test. With online exams, Allen felt isolated from her classmates.  

“When you leave an exam room and you meet up with people you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that test was hard’ or ‘that test was okay,’ and then you go to the Pav to eat lunch.” Allen said. “[Virtually] it's kind of like you’re on your own.”

First-year Engineering student Ali Butcher stayed home in the fall semester and moved on to Grounds for the spring semester. Butcher said she felt more focused while studying for finals on Grounds than at home.

Despite this, she said it was still hard to take exams in living spaces rather than in a classroom. 

“I think sometimes it's hard to really understand that [the final is] something really important,” Butcher said. “It's gonna affect your grade, and then you're just sitting in your room, taking your exam.”

Throughout the last 14 months, students — especially those living in other states or abroad — have struggled with time zone differences during classes and finals, sometimes having to wake up particularly early or late for tests and classes.

Since Butcher is from Alaska, her real-time final exams were held four hours earlier in Alaska than students living on the east coast. She believes there was an advantage for students taking a final at noon in Charlottesville rather than at 8 a.m. Alaskan time.

Last semester, many professors allotted 24 hours for students to take the exam in order to accommodate time differences. Others followed suit this semester, giving an extended time window for exams so students could take the exam on their own time. 

Time zones were not the only things professors and students worried about with an online format — Butcher said she was concerned that some classmates may have taken advantage of the new format and cheated on their exams.

“It's definitely frustrating knowing that if you're taking an exam, honestly, that there are other people out there that could be cheating,” Butcher said. “I am looking forward to there being a more even playing field and also being able to focus better because you're in a different environment than where you live and where you sleep.”

Over the last three semesters, professors also had concerns about cheating, and some instructors altered the formats of their exams by implementing anti-cheating software and diversifying questions to mitigate these risks. 

Engineering Prof. James Groves administered finals in two of his six sustainable development and energy systems courses, each of which have 80 to 110 students. 

Groves used the Tests and Quizzes function on UVACollab — the University’s online course management and collaboration system — to administer his finals, which consisted of multiple choice, matching, fill in the blank and short answer responses. 

“By using Tests and Quizzes to handle about 75 percent to 80 percent of the grading automatically, administering the finals in my large class sections is manageable — whether taught in person or online,” Groves said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Groves said that his exams were closed-book and that cheating was one of his main concerns with online finals, but added that he didn’t implement any software to deter it.

“My biggest concern is that some students may not follow the instructions for closed book, closed note, no use of the internet for answers and no communication with others,” Groves said. “My finals are timed, and so the time pressure should reduce the opportunity for cheating somewhat. However, I would not be shocked if some cheating occurs.”

Students like Allen believed that returning to online learning and exams next year will be an adjustment for many students — especially individuals who had many open-book exams this semester and who will be shifting to closed-note exams next year.

“I think the switch back is gonna be hard,” Allen said. “I think it’s possible, but it just can be difficult.”

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