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Faculty reflect on exams and evaluations one year into the COVID-19 pandemic

Faculty consider inclusivity, academic honesty, and flexibility when designing virtual midterms, projects and essays

A packed Salomon auditorium filled to the brim with students is often a familiar sight for exam-takers at Brown. This year, COVID-19 restrictions have reshaped midterm season entirely, and faculty have had to rethink their approach to evaluating students’ comprehension in a new digital learning landscape. 

The Herald spoke to four professors about their experience trying to best evaluate their students’ performances amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greg Landsberg, professor of physics, said he had to restructure the way he evaluated students in PHYS 0030: “Basic Physics A.” When designing virtual examinations, Landsberg worried that students would consult outside sources that they would otherwise not be able to access while taking a traditional exam.

In PHYS 0030, students will be given a 24-hour window to take the course's two-part midterm exam. The first part is fully online and consists of multiple choice and more simple  calculation questions, which are automatically graded by Macmillan Learning’s Sapling program. For the second part, students solve problems on paper and scan and submit them to be graded manually. 

“Essentially, we assume that it’s an open book exam,” Landsberg said. “We cannot really prohibit them to use the book because it's so tempting, it's sitting on their desks. They have 24 hours; no one is watching. We assume that they're going to use the books, although we discourage this.” 

For Jacob Rosenstein ’05, assistant professor of engineering, his policy on consulting outside sources and student collaborations during his exams has not changed since before the pandemic. 

“That kind of thing is always a possibility, whether or not we’re all remote,” Rosenstein said. 

Rosenstein, who is currently teaching ENGN 0500: “Digital Computing Systems,” stressed that he always encourages student collaborations. “Overall, I trust the students,” he said, “and that would be true this semester or in another one.”

Eric Kaldor, senior associate director for assessment and interdisciplinary teaching communities at the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, believes that flexibility is key in evaluations during the pandemic. Flexibility can make the evaluation process less stressful for students and balance out cheating concerns, Kaldor said. For those professors who tried to stick closely to traditional exam formats while teaching virtually, he added, “everything kind of fell apart.”

Deborah Hurley, adjunct professor of the practice of computer science, teaches three courses — CSCI 1800: “Cybersecurity and International Relations,” DATA 0080: “Data, Ethics and Society” and DATA 2080: “Data and Society” — and has found that the paper and project-based nature of these courses made the transition easier. She said her experience teaching hybrid and online courses in the past inspired her use of “public facing” assignments, where students can see each other's submissions and weigh in, which “enriches the classroom structure”.

Leslie Bostrom, department chair and professor of visual art, is teaching VISA 1210L: “Political Constructions” this semester, a course focused on politically motivated and directed collage pieces.

Bostrom’s main form of evaluation is project critiques, in which masked and socially-distanced students take turns discussing each other’s pieces in person. Still, with one remote student in the class, Bostrom has had to adapt to make sure that the student is as actively involved as the in-person students. “I have to make sure I remember that he’s there and that he has to participate,” she said.

As the visual arts department chair, Bostrom noted the challenges of evaluating in other art courses. Classes that involve more in-person student-to-student collaboration, such as those that involve wood and metal work, have become especially difficult due to the pandemic. 

Despite the adjustments necessitated by the pandemic, professors and students alike have made the most of the situation. Hurley said she commends both students and faculty for the way they embraced the new style of exams and evaluations with an “open spirit.”

“Everyone has been a good trooper,” Hurley said. “I know people at least from the faculty side have worked extremely hard to try and fashion these courses and figure out ways to do it effectively. The students' attitudes have been very open and excellent and willing to give it a go.”

Kaldor also praised the way faculty have learned new styles of running a course. But with this, he acknowledged there have been and will be struggles as faculty and students continue to adjust.

“One of the key things we’ve asked of professors, and I would ask of students, is everyone should be kind to each other and take the perspective that we’re still figuring this out,” Kaldor said. “We’re all trying to make this work. The idea of empathy for each other has really been critical.”

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