Faculty Retain Pandemic-Inspired Exam Formats To Alleviate Student Anxiety

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Penn professors have administered a mix of in-person and online exams this semester.

Credit: Savanna Cohen

Several faculty have maintained the pandemic-inspired changes mid-term this semester in an effort to help students, but faculty and students still struggle with the added stress of adjusting to in-person exams after three semesters. virtual.

Professors told the Daily Pennsylvanian that online learning influenced the way they administered midterm exams and that a return to in-person education eliminated issues of academic integrity. Students, meanwhile, said balancing in-person social life and extracurricular activities with midterms caused anxiety.

Professors Keep Many Exam Formats Inspired By The Pandemic

Many instructors have incorporated the benefits they have found from using online platforms into their midterm sessions this semester.

Lecturer Harry Smith and Assistant Professor Eric Fouh, who are teaching CIS 110: “Introduction to Computer Programming” this semester, said that although the class was administering traditional blue books / papers midway before the pandemic, they did decided to continue administering the online exams this year. Fouh said the open-book online exams led to slightly higher mid-term marks and reduced students’ anxiety levels and tendency to pile up just before testing.

“For two hours you have no resources and you have to answer questions,” Fouh said of traditional paper exams. “Personally, I think it creates anxiety for very little benefit.”

Likewise, Marketing Professor Cait Lamberton, who teaches MKTG 101: “Introduction to Marketing,” said she chose to continue using Canvas for her midterm exams this semester, which are now monitored during recitations. in person.

She said online midterms “equalize” the exam experience for students with accommodations and allow for individualized testing, as the exam is pulled from a question bank and gives each student a set. different questions. She added that the online format helps prevent cheating.

Another change professors are making is to incorporate more ‘low-stakes’ homework, like weekly quizzes, to offset high exam scores this semester, which is another change they made during the pandemic.

Economics professor Anne Duchene built weekly quizzes into her classroom during online learning and kept them this semester, while physics professor Christopher Mauger adopted them this semester. Like Fouh, Duchene said the quizzes encourage his students to learn concepts along the way, rather than studying all at once before midterms and finals.

Due to distance learning, math teacher Robert Ghrist and Portuguese language program director Mercia Santana Flannery have also changed their midterm formats to include more exams that are worth less individually.

“For me it makes a lot of sense to have smaller tests and to periodically check to see if they are learning grammatical structures and if they can express ideas and views in written form,” said Flannery.

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 reduced the number of tests they give to students this semester.

While Mauger was remotely teaching his PHYS 150 course: “Principles of Physics I: Mechanics and Wave Motion” last fall with five assessments to reduce the impact of individual scores, he reverted to his previous testing schedule: two mid-term exams and a final exam. Berry added in an email that his reasoning for re-adopting the exam schedule for his CHEM 102 course: “General Chemistry II” was based on student feedback.

“The [four] midterm exams were supposed to reduce student stress, but most students told me they had [four] in the place of [three] only increased the stress, ”Berry wrote.

Adapting to the stress of in-person internships

Despite the intention to improve student exam experiences, faculty and students have said that there is a unique type of stress associated with in-person midterms. Some students find it particularly difficult to adjust to in-person exams after taking virtual exams for several months, which often had an “open mark” policy.

Lamberton said she has seen students, especially sophomores, struggling to adjust to both life in person and a difficult set of classes and exams. They haven’t experienced the typical “slow ramp-up” of the first semester, she said, where the early years take an easier course load as they acclimatize to campus life.

“I think there is an extra layer of stress this year because they go through more advanced and difficult courses often in areas where they expect to be their major at the same time as they try to make it. integrate into this new community, ”Lamberton mentioned.

Wharton sophomore Hamad Shah echoed those sentiments and said he was feeling anxious heading into his midterms this semester – his first in-person exams at Penn. Shah said he struggled to be more “easily distracted” this semester compared to spring, as life on campus in person brought more friends and the freedom to participate in different activities.

One of the reasons why college sophomore Edward Lopez experienced extra stress this semester was the closed-grade exam format for his PHYS 150 course: “Principles of Physics I: Mechanics and Wave Motion.” .

“I think overall it’s been more stressful just because a lot of us have gotten used to relying on our notes to some extent and now we don’t have that available to us anymore.” , Lopez said.

Likewise, Jillian Wong, a senior at the college, said that for her, the transition to in-person exams had been difficult – especially the rote memorization that was required to study for her CHEM 251: “Principles of Biological Chemistry.” and BIBB 251: “Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology” mid-term.

“Last semester, when it was remote, there was more [of an] the emphasis on conceptual things, which I thought was a more accurate representation of how things will be in a professional and real environment, ”Wong said.

Wong added that teachers may no longer take into account the difficulties students face outside of the classroom.

“Last year when we were away, I think a lot more teachers put more weight on the fact that so many people are struggling and struggling with life,” Wong said. “People are still going through very difficult times outside of academics, and it affects their academics. And I think the teachers may have lost sight of that a bit. ”

Students and faculty 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 have widely said cheating is less of a problem due to the in-person environment.

Ghrist, who like Duchene noted that academic integrity was a big concern last year in some of his classes, said in-person learning had eliminated the problem altogether.

“I haven’t had any problems this year,” Ghrist said. “Everyone is straight and narrow.”

Mauger and Berry agreed that this semester’s in-person exams helped alleviate concerns about potential cheating cases.

“We’re not aware of any in-person midterm cheating this semester,” Berry wrote. “There was a lot of evidence of cheating on distance exams in online semesters – for example, students handing in answers for a different version of a problem than the one randomly given to them by Canvas.”

In light of student concerns, faculty are taking additional steps to reduce stress.

Duchene said it aims to reduce students’ anxiety during tests by only giving one halfway through and allowing students to drop that grade if they score higher in their final. . But she fears that these strategies and her implementation of weekly quizzes have not been enough.

“I know the stress level affects their performance a lot, and I want to avoid that as much as possible, so it’s still a work in progress,” said Duchene.

Although Ghrist initially worried about the apparently high levels of student anxiety he had noticed, he said, along with Flannery, that the changes they made this mid-term semester had succeeded in reducing the student stress.

“I’m happy to say that I think things turned out a lot better than I feared,” Ghrist said.


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