‘100% in favor’: Professors embrace in-person finals season

Jason+Buffer%2C+left%2C+and+Shalini+Jose%2C+graduate+students+in+the+School+of+Medicine%E2%80%99s+biomedical+masters+program%2C+study+for+their+biochemistry+final+in+Hillman+Library+on+Friday+evening.

Clare Sheedy | Assistant Visual Editor

Jason Buffer, left, and Shalini Jose, graduate students in the School of Medicine’s biomedical masters program, study for their biochemistry final in Hillman Library on Friday evening.

By Alexandra Ross, Staff Writer

Students taking Sara Morrison’s Neurochemical Basis of Behavior class this semester will prepare for her final exam by looking over their notes, doing practice problems, rereading the textbook and maybe grabbing a cup of coffee.

“It’s unfortunately at 8 a.m. on Monday,” Morrison, a research assistant professor of neuroscience, said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me, that I had to give an 8 a.m. final, so I was like, ‘Sorry, guys.’”

The past three semesters, Pitt required professors to provide a remote option for final exams. But this semester, professors can choose their own format, whether it’s in person, online or a combination of the two.

While classes moved online last year, Morrison said the way she held her finals — and all other exams — changed drastically. She said tests were open book, not proctored and could be started at any point within a 24-hour window. This year, despite the early exam time, she said she is happy to see students learning and taking tests in the classroom — where she can better see and understand their work.

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“I prefer to see people writing and puzzling out their exams, I prefer to be in the room with them and have them ask me questions if they need help immediately and I kind of like grading paper exams and seeing the students doodles and notes to me on it,” Morrison said. “They show their work better when they’re writing it by hand in person. I get a better sense of their thought process.”

George Bandik, a chemistry professor who currently teaches Organic Chemistry I, said he was “100% in favor” of finals being fully in person this semester. He said the in-person format of exams allows him to better help his students with any questions, which was a struggle last year.

“I love the fact that final exams are in person,” Bandik said. “If students have questions, I’ll be in the room, I can answer them. If a question doesn’t make sense, I can do that. It was hard to do all that stuff on Zoom, because if a student wants to ask a question on Zoom, the whole class would hear the question. There was no way to just have one particular student be able to answer a question.”

Bandik said his final exam will not look too different from the one he gave last fall, because he offered his students an in-person final last year, in addition to online.

“I actually got permission, and I gave my final last fall in person [to] the people that were willing to take it in person,” Bandik said. “And so my final, format-wise, has not changed at all. I used the exact same format last fall when we were in the pandemic as I am this fall. But last fall, I did have to give it to people in person and people on Zoom.”

Changes to final exams this year don’t just involve format, but content as well. Neal Becker, who teaches Introduction to Microeconomic Theory and Sports Economics, said he replaced his typical cumulative final exams last year with tests that just spanned the last quarter of each course. This fall, he is returning to the cumulative form, which he said is better for students.

“I’d rather give a cumulative final,” Becker said. “It’s [going to] take some students longer for the stuff to make sense. I want to give them the opportunity to put things together.”

Despite finals coming up next week, Bandik said he has not come up with a concrete plan yet for students who are unable to complete the final in person because of COVID-19. He said he is considering giving those students a “G” grade, which indicates “class work unfinished because of extenuating personal circumstances,” and create a make-up final exam for them to take next semester. Because of the online class format, Pitt modified the “G” grade last March to allow students more time to complete their courses.

“I’m leaning towards saying right now, I would give them an incomplete grade,” Bandik said. “I am not gonna give those kids that can’t be in the opportunity to take the final online. I’m just not going to do that. I think that in-class and online finals, we’re going to do one or the other. So they’re going to have to come back and take an exam in person eventually.”

Morrison said she will try to avoid giving an online make-up exam if possible, but would consider it if there were no other option for a student to complete the exam during finals week. She said she would use the same final exam that she had prepared for last year, when it was online.

“If someone was really ill, and they couldn’t take it same-day, I would try to implement a make-up, since we have all of finals week,” Morrison said. “But if someone absolutely can’t take it in person, at least I have last year’s final that was all online that I could give them via Canvas.”

Some professors took extra steps to prevent cheating in last year’s exams, from implementing proctoring programs like Gradescope to increasing the tests’ level of difficulty. Becker said the inability to access Chegg and other online resources during in-person exams is beneficial to students because it allows professors to ask simpler questions.

“With more and more and more online research, you have to get more and more creative with your questions,” Becker said. “So you can’t ask very standard questions, because those are too easy to search for.”

Morrison said even though some students might have preferred online finals to this year’s in-person exams, they can find comfort and solidarity in being with their fellow students on exam day this semester.

“I’m sure some people prefer open book,” Morrison said. “I’m sure it gives some people testing anxiety to be back in the classroom with the fluorescent lights and the masks don’t make anyone’s hyperventilating better. But I think there is a certain amount of solidarity in taking an exam in a room with 19 of your buddies, or at least your co-neuroscience majors.”