February 15, 2005

Profs Rethink Exam Times

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As the semester hurtles towards the challenge-course of finals in May, students fretting over the imminent stress-filled days and sleep-deprived nights may find solace in the examination schedule released last month.

Acute observers mapping out their test times will notice a drastic reduction from previous years in the number of three exams in one day, three exams in a 24-hour period or two exams back-to-back.

The new schedule is the work of Prof. Robert Bland, operations research; Prof. David Shmoys, operations research, and Dmitriy Levchenkov grad, and uses optimization methods to minimize the number of exams occurring one right after the other.

“The number of occurrences of a student being scheduled for three exams in the same day is expected to drop to roughly a quarter of the average over the previous three spring terms,” stated the three men in a report detailing the methodology behind the new schedule. Similarly, the number of back-to-back exams should drop to about a third of what it was in the past three years.

The most dramatic improvement is in the reduction of three exams in 24 hours. In spring 2004, 341 exams fitting this description were administered. Under the new schedule, that number will be reduced by 85 percent, to just 51 exams.

“I had two really hard back-to-back math tests last semester,” said David Levine ’07. “I’m really glad that life might be a bit nicer for the next testing period.”

The movement to overhaul the exam schedule began in spring 2000, when the student assembly passed a resolution urging the Faculty Senate “to further investigate other methods by which to reduce student stress during the final exam period.”

In response to the S.A. and to faculty and student complaints, former Dean of the Faculty J. Robert Cooke created a task force in 2002 to address specific scheduling issues, among them the problem of final exams.

“[Cooke] picked David and me because he knew operations research was specialized in doing things efficiently,” said Bland, who met with Shmoys and Levchenkov for a year to develop a new exam schedule.

“In confronting an optimization problem, a lot of difficulty is formulating the question in the right way,” Shmoys said.

Bland added, “We’re essentially developing a mathematical model of the circumstances.” The circumstance is a finals week consisting of 21 examination periods, or three periods a day over seven days.

Under both the old and new scheduling methods, each course offering an exam is assigned to one of 21 groups, and each group is assigned to an exam period.

The number of different assignments or schedules possible is higher than a five with 19 zeros after it.

“Among those gazillion different ways, you want to find one,” Bland said.

Applying operations research techniques widely used in businesses and government agencies, the team devised a new method of assigning the 21 groups to the 21 periods that minimized the occurrence of stressful exam events.

A major consideration was the relative importance of different outcomes, said the team. For example, a schedule that eliminates almost all occurrences of back-to-back exams is preferable to one that does not; however, if the same schedule results in many instances of three exams in one day, it may no longer be optimal.

“Our role was to understand the problem and model it mathematically in a way that captured what was important to students,” Bland said.

After conferring with the student assembly, the team decided to place the greatest weight on eliminating the occurrences of three exams in one day or in 24 hours.

Shmoys said that obtaining the data for the computational work was the most difficult aspect of the project.

“One of the big contributors for the length of time it took to get this to fruition was this bottleneck,” he said.

He added, “If the data collection could be automated, it will be very simple.”

The three operation researchers presented the registrar with several possible schedules based upon pre-enrollment data for spring 2005.

Bland urged all students to pre-enroll. “By pre-enrolling, you are voting essentially…it is less likely your exam schedule will be bad,” he said.

Another suggestion for improving the schedule is to stretch out the time between same-day exams.

Timon Stasko ’07 proposed that instead of having only half an hour between exams, students should have two-and-a-half hours. Exams currently scheduled for 9-11:30 and 12-2:30 would now be for 9-11:30 and 2-4:30, for example.

“That definitely makes a lot more sense,” said Liwei Chen ’07, who had to run from Upson to Goldwin Smith to take his second exam of the day last semester. “For the first half hour of my second exam, I just stared at the paper.”

Dean of University Faculty Charles Walcott also liked the idea.

“That way it would be possible, for example, to eat lunch and supper were you so inclined,” he said.

Starting Wednesday, a survey from the registrar will be available online at http://registrar.sas.cornell.edu/examsurvey/ to get student feedback on the proposed time increase between exams.

“We’re looking forward to seeing students’ response on the survey,” said David Yeh, Assistant Vice President and University Registrar. “We hope that the combination of more time between exams and the reductions of back-to-back and three in one day exams will be advantageous for everyone.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer