As he sat in his Ph.D. student’s dissertation defense on Tuesday, Prof. Jayadev Acharya, electrical and computer engineering, received an email notifying him that his Electrical and Computer Engineering 4200: Fundamentals of Machine Learning exam, scheduled for 2 p.m., would have to move online as Cornell moved to alert level red.
Acharya had already planned to offer the exam online to some students who were COVID-19 positive or were in quarantine because of possible exposure, so he had already done some of the work needed to convert his exam to an online format for the entire class.
“Over the weekend I decided that the students that were concerned could take the exam remotely at the same time, and the other students would just come and [take] an in-person exam,” Acharya said. “This had actually helped me a lot because we already had planned for some students to take the exam online. We could just adapt it to everyone.”
On Tuesday, as active student cases surpassed 400, Cornell moved all final exams online. But some professors had already moved exams online for some or all of their students earlier in the week, taking precautions as active student cases spiked on campus.
Professors with exams scheduled for Tuesday received a message that morning from Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii, notifying them to either proceed with online exams if they had already planned them, to find a way to move their exam online within the day, or to work with a central scheduling team to find a way to reschedule.
Acharya credits the hard work of his teaching assistants and the flexibility of his students for making the rapid change of plans possible. Acharya had originally planned to host an in-person exam for students who could safely attend, while offering an online version for students in quarantine or isolation, thinking that masking and distancing in a large lecture hall would be enough to limit risk. He said he ultimately agreed with the University’s decision to move all final exams online.
“The students were extremely patient, my TAs did an excellent job,” Acharya said. “It was a good move to move everything online.”
Like Acharya, many faculty had been watching the University’s case count rise this week and heard from students who tested positive or were exposed to COVID-19 in the days leading up to Cornell’s shift to the red alert on Tuesday — leaving some prepared for the University’s online exam mandate.
Prof. Larry Brown, earth and atmospheric sciences, made the decision last week to move his Earth and Atmospheric Sciences 1220: Earthquake!. final exam online — days before the University mandated the change. Brown said he made this shift on Friday, Dec. 10, because some of his students notified him late last week that they had tested positive for COVID-19 or were in quarantine as they awaited test results.
He said he wanted to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by not bringing students together for an exam and to make sure the testing format was fair for everyone.
“With the case count climbing, even before it really took off, I decided it just makes sense to do the entire exam online,” Brown said. “That way the people who couldn’t make it because of quarantine could take the exam without the added disadvantage or an advantage relative to other students.”
While the questions and timing were the same for what Brown’s exam would have been on paper, there was one major difference — he made the online exam open book. Brown had mixed feelings about the open book test format, although he said he thinks it was his best possible choice given the circumstances.
“I know that the temptation to look up answers is just too much for some students,” Brown said. “To be fair enough for all the students, I just decided to make it an open book exam.”
The Earthquakes! final exams were held on Monday and Tuesday — Brown offered both times as options for students so they could take whichever time best fit the rest of their finals schedule.
Brown said he’s concerned by the University’s rising case count, as well as the implications for public health of Tompkins County as a whole — Cornell is reporting 1,442 positive cases this week, as of Thursday evening. While Brown said he prefers teaching and conducting exams in-person, he is glad the University took precautions by moving exams online and shutting down campus.
“While I think teaching is much more effective in person, it can be done online,” Brown said. “In the interest of both my personal safety and public safety, I’m happy to go online as a precaution whenever it seems reasonable.”
Prof. Ronald Harris-Warrick, neurobiology and behavior, decided over the weekend to move the Tuesday 2 p.m. exam online for his Neurobiology and Behavior 3920: Drugs and the Brain class, after the Saturday email about significant rise in cases and after receiving emails from students that they tested positive. He also made his Monday office hours and review sessions virtual.
“As I saw those numbers, I thought this is not going to get better in the immediate future,” Harris-Warrick said. “I figured I better move proactively.”
Harris-Warrick credits the assistance of Center for Teaching Innovation for making his rapid change in final exam modalities. According to Harris-Warrick, he has worked with CTI in the past to learn how to make videos for his class and different ways of using Canvas.
“As soon as they sent that notice, I sent a note to the CTI asking for help and moving my exam online,” Harris-Warrick said. “They walked me through basically how to migrate my exam to my Canvas website, where it went into the quizzes folder. I don’t think I could have done it without them, so I give them a huge amount of credit for helping me set this up.”