Several professors have kept pandemic-inspired changes to midterms this semester in efforts to help students, but both professors and students are still struggling with the added stress of adapting to in-person exams after three virtual semesters.
Professors told The Daily Pennsylvanian that online learning influenced the way they administer midterm exams, and that the return to in-person education has eliminated academic integrity concerns. Students, meanwhile, said that balancing an in-person social life and extracurricular activities with midterms has caused anxiety.
Professors are keeping many pandemic-inspired exam formats
Many instructors incorporated benefits they found from using online platforms into their midterms this semester.
Lecturer Harry Smith and assistant professor Eric Fouh, who are teaching CIS 110: "Introduction to Computer Programming" this semester, said that while the class administered traditional closed-note blue book/paper midterms before the pandemic, they decided to continue administering exams online this year. Fouh said the online, open-book exams have led to slightly higher midterm grades and have reduced students' anxiety levels and tendency to cram right before tests.
“For two hours, you have no resources, and you need to answer the questions,” Fouh said of traditional exams on paper. "Personally, I think it creates anxiety for very little benefit.”
Similarly, Marketing professor Cait Lamberton, who teaches MKTG 101: "Introduction to Marketing," said she chose to continue using Canvas for her midterms this semester, which are are now proctored during in-person recitations.
She said online midterms “equalize” the exam experience for students with accommodations and allows for individualized tests, as the exam pulls from a question bank and gives each student a different set of questions. She added that the online format helps prevent cheating.
Another change professors are making are incorporating more "low-stake" assignments, like weekly quizzes, to offset large exam grades this semester, which is another change they had made during the pandemic.
Economics professor Anne Duchene incorporated weekly quizzes into her class during online learning and kept them this semester, while Physics professor Christopher Mauger, adopted them this semester. Like Fouh, Duchene said the quizzes encourage her students to learn concepts along the way, rather than studying all at once before midterms and finals.
Due to remote learning, Mathematics professor Robert Ghrist and Director of the Portuguese Language Program Mercia Santana Flannery also switched their midterm formats to include a larger number of exams that are worth less individually.
“For me, it makes a lot made sense to have smaller tests, and check periodically to see if they're learning the grammatical structures, and if they can express the ideas and points of view in writing form,” Flannery said.
Some professors, including Physics professor Christopher Mauger and Chemistry professor Donald H. Berry, who increased the number of exams they gave online during the pandemic, have now lessened the number of tests they're giving students this semester.
While Mauger taught his PHYS 150: "Principles of Physics I: Mechanics and Wave Motion" class remotely last fall with five assessments to reduce the impact of individual grades, he has returned to his previous test schedule — two midterms and a final exam. Berry added in an email that his reasoning to readopt the exam schedule for his CHEM 102: "General Chemistry II" class was based on student feedback.
“The [four] midterms were supposed to lower stress for the students, but most students told me having [four] instead of [three] only increased the stress,” Berry wrote.
Adapting to the stress of in-person midterms
Despite the intention of improving students' exam experiences, professors and students alike said that there is a unique type of stress related to in-person midterms. Some students are finding it especially hard to adjust to in-person exams after taking virtual exams for many months, which often had an "open note" policy.
Lamberton said that she has seen students, particularly sophomores, struggling to adapt to both in-person life and a challenging set of classes and exams. They did not experience the typical “slow ramp-up” of the first semester, she said, where first years take an easier course load while they acclimate to on-campus life.
“I think there is an extra layer of stress this year because they're navigating more advanced and challenging coursework often in areas they expect to be their major at the same time that they're trying to integrate themselves into this new community,” Lamberton said.
Wharton sophomore Hamad Shah echoed these sentiments and said he felt anxious before his midterms this semester — his first in-person exams at Penn. Shah said he struggled with being more “easily distracted” this semester compared to the spring, since in-person campus life brought more friends and freedom to participate in different activities.
One reason College sophomore Edward Lopez experienced extra stress this semester was the closed-note format of exams for his PHYS 150: "Principles of Physics I: Mechanics and Wave Motion" class.
“I think, overall, it has been more stressful just because a lot of us obtained the habit of relying on our notes to an extent and now we don’t have that at our disposal,” Lopez said.
Similarly, College senior Jillian Wong said that, for her, the transition back to in-person exams has been challenging — especially the rote memorization that was required to study for her CHEM 251: "Principles of Biological Chemistry" and BIBB 251: "Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology" midterms.
“Last semester, when it was remote, there was more [of an] emphasis on conceptual things, which I thought was kind of more of an accurate representation of how things will be like in a professional, real-world environment,” Wong said.
Wong added that professors may no longer be considering the hardships students are facing outside of the classroom.
“Last year, when we were remote, I think that a lot more professors gave more weight to the fact that so many people are having a hard time and struggling with life,” Wong said. “People are still having a very hard time outside of academics, and that's affecting their academics. And I think that professors may have lost sight of that just a little bit.”
Students and professors told the DP in October 2020 that difficulties in regulating online exams led to a wave of cheating during the virtual semester. But this year, professors largely said cheating has been less of a problem because of the in-person environment.
Ghrist, who, like Duchene, noted that academic integrity was a significant concern last year in some of his classes, said in-person learning has entirely eliminated the issue.
“I've had zero issues this year,” Ghrist said. “Everyone's straight and narrow.”
Mauger and Berry agreed that in-person exams this semester helped alleviate concerns about potential instances of cheating.
“We are not aware of any cheating on the in-person midterm this semester,” Berry wrote. “There was plenty of evidence for cheating during remote exams in the online semesters — for example, students turning in answers for a different version of a problem than they were randomly given by Canvas.”
In light of student concerns, professors are taking extra measures to reduce stress.
Duchene said that she has aimed to reduce students' testing anxiety by only giving one midterm, and permitting students to drop this grade if they score higher on their final. But she worries that these strategies and her implementation of weekly quizzes have not been enough.
“I know that the level of stress affects their performance a lot, and I want to avoid that as much as possible, so it's still a work in progress,” Duchene said.
Though Ghrist was initially worried about the seemingly elevated levels of student anxiety he noticed, he, along with Flannery, said the changes they made this semester with midterms succeeded in reducing student stress.
“I'm pleased to say that I think things have gone much better than I feared they would,” Ghrist said.
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