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The shift to online prelims has allowed students to take their exams from their own bedrooms.

April 13, 2020

From Timed Exams to Open-Book Essays, Students Weigh in on Virtual Testing

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Since classes resumed on April 6, Cornellians have traded packed lecture halls for Zoom live streams — and some students have already typed out their first virtual prelims.

Omair Irfan ’21 took a chemical ecology prelim on Friday through Canvas for his biology course. The exam, originally slated for three weeks earlier, looked a little different than the one Irfan would have taken in March: It was open-note and not curved.

Irfan said the prelim was “much easier,” than the original format, but imagines open-note exams being a “disaster” in curved classes. He added that making the prelim open-note, alongside professors offering extra office hours and review sessions, have made virtual exams manageable.

While Irfan’s prelim was mostly unchanged, Avery Bower ’23 had to complete a Government 3072: The U.S. Constitution prelim that replaced its multiple choice questions with short answer and essay questions.

Bower was supposed to sit down for his government prelim the Wednesday before the University suspended classes, but the professor postponed the exam to allow students to focus on figuring out how they would leave campus.

Bower was happy to find that typing up his answers lessened the aching feeling he’d grown accustomed to writing notes and answers by hand.

Irfan disagreed, saying that being unable to handwrite his thoughts made taking his exams more challenging. He said he missed easily drawing charts, tables and graphs on paper, instead of describing them with words.

However, both Irfan and Bower said they were concerned about the inability of professors to enforce academic integrity during exams.

“You’re just concerned about how your grade turns out compared to others if you are going to try to abide by the honor system,” Bower said.

Irfan said he would support swapping traditional prelims with alternatives. While getting rid of prelims would be unprecedented, so is a pandemic, he said.

“The reality is that people are going to either collaborate against the rules, or you will have to instate virtual proctoring via webcam, which feels kind of invasive,” Irfan said. “At the very least, exams should be designed with the expectation that they will be take-home and collaborative.”

Concerns about online academic integrity had prompted faculty to create a revised document outlining new guidelines for virtual instruction sent to students via Canvas.

Arjun Sweet ’22, who took a Nutritional Science 3410: Human Anatomy and Physiology prelim, said that he believes online prelims are not as effective as offline ones in evaluating how well students have understood the course material.

Even though the content and structure of the prelim itself remained unchanged, Sweet said the online format made his exam more stressful than it otherwise would be. He coordinated with his family members to recreate testing conditions, but having an on-screen timer counting down during the prelim caused some anxiety.

Some professors have canceled prelims altogether to make testing more equitable for students in varying household situations, such as Prof. Anna Haskins, sociology, who replaced exams in her Sociology 1101: Introduction to Sociology class with weekly quizzes.

Similarly, in her Chemistry 2510: Introduction to Experimental Organic Chemistry class, Prof. Cynthia Kinsland, chemistry and chemical biology, eliminated the written final and instead introduced a research paper.

“I think it does present an exciting alternative,” Sweet said. “Especially when you’re trying to gauge the students’ conceptual understanding of the material.”

For Bower, at least, taking an online prelim has made him less anxious about future virtual exams. While he was worried about the transition to online testing, the experience reassured him that a functional system is in place.

“I’m sure all my other government classes and my history classes, if we have more exams, [will] be smooth sailing,” Bower said.

Alex Hale ’21 contributed reporting.