Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Cornell professors discuss thanksgiving "break" and semifinals as the University transitions to completely virtual learning.

December 9, 2020

What the Pandemic-Solution Semi-Finals Looked Like, According to Professors

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Before Thanksgiving break, classes halted and shifted into a study period, resembling the normal December ritual to prepare for finals — this time, for “semi-finals,” nearly a month earlier than usual.

Concerns about academic integrity and online finals pushed Cornell to give professors the chance to hold structured, in-person exams without the added burden of classes before most students returned home until spring. The semi-finals period — a new adaptation to a hybrid pandemic semester — saw some students enjoy a longer vacation, while others had to take blue book tests in a packed Barton Hall. 

For students mostly enrolled in classes with final essays and projects, the period served as an extended break before launching into “fall two,” with more material and the traditional finals in December — minus the traditional study days in between the last day of classes on Dec. 16 and the first day of finals, pushing content and deadlines closer together. 

But for exam-heavy STEM classes, the semi-finals period meant moving up the cumulative exam and squeezing the curriculum into the first 10 weeks of the term.

“It was essentially a final exam,” said chemistry Prof. Cynthia Kinsland about her CHEM 2510: Introduction to Experimental Organic Chemistry semi-final. “All the major concepts for the semester were covered before the study period.”

Kinsland’s class was hybrid, with the lecture happening online and the individual lab sections all in person. Her exam was one of the infamous Barton Hall exams, which were some of the biggest events on campus in a semester limited to 10-person gatherings. 

Professors could choose to distribute semi-finals that acted as cumulative final exams or prelims. For in-person classes, the semi-final period allowed professors to run in-person exams before classes transitioned online for the final three weeks of the semester. 

Unlike Kinsland, Prof. Sean Nicholson, policy administration and management, used the period to administer the second of the three exams in PAM 2350: The U.S. Health Care System.

But this year, the online version meant the course’s prelims were online and open book, and the timing of the semifinal period also meant that the second prelim covered more material than usual. 

Prof. Haym Hirsh, computer science, wanted to prioritize as normal of an exam as possible for his 160 students in CS 4700: Principles of Artificial Intelligence. 

Even though the course was entirely online, Hirsh offered both an online and an in-person semi-final, with all students taking the exam at the same time to alleviate some integrity concerns. The computer science department came up with a proctoring protocol for online exams using a software called Gradescope that includes a lockdown browser that restricts the students’ internet access during the exam.

For the 30 students taking the exam online, they sat in TA-proctored groups of 10 to 12. The Gradescope software restricted their device usage and required students to show a 360 degree view of their surroundings before they started the test. 

With 10 students in a lecture room with special accommodations, the last 120 students sat socially-distanced in Barton to take the exam, according to Hirsh. 

The semi-final for the course functioned as a hybrid between a prelim and a final exam and there will be no final exam for the course, according to Hirsh.

“I made two compromises with the semi-final,” Hirsh said. “One of them was the split test. The other was the fact that I had to carve out three weeks of material that I wouldn’t be putting on an exam.”

As the semifinal tested students on all of the cumulative material for the course, Hirsh’s lectures for the rest of the semester will cover more stand-alone concepts. This eliminates the need for a final cumulative exam at the end of the semester and instead, students will take short quizzes. 

“There was no major exam that was going to cover three weeks of the semester, so I had to make a choice about what I was going to cover,” he said.