As midterms are taking place, students, professors share thoughts on final exam formats

Students and professors share their thoughts on final exam formats. Graphic by Janet Lovera.


As Butler’s midterm season commences, many students are wondering about the format of spring 2021 final exams. The fall 2020 semester concluded with mandatory remote exam dates following Thanksgiving break, upending the university’s traditional, in-person final exam routine. This semester, spring 2021 final exams will take place April 29 through May 4, while the majority of students still reside on campus. Because of this, students may experience a spectrum of exam taking — from online, to in-person, to a hybrid of the two.

Associate provost Michelle Jarvis explained the reasoning behind this different exam arrangement. She said university leadership now has a better understanding of COVID-19, and they recognize that students can safely take exams on campus. 

Since there are no major holidays before the end of spring semester, the university may not have to worry about many students wanting to travel home right before exams, like they did last semester. Jarvis said that while the fall 2020 exam format was not ideal, it was necessary to keep students safe. 

Robert Soltis, a pharmacy professor and the dean of the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, said the way exams are conducted in his department depends on each professor’s preference; however, the pharmacy program does have a standard dictated through their accreditation program to ensure the integrity of the exams. This usually includes checking students in as they arrive at the site of the exam, meaning the college plans to administer exams in person if at all possible. 

“The plan for finals is pretty much what we’ve been doing all semester, with what we have been doing in person,” Soltis said. 

While the goal is to have exams in person, there is a contingency plan to proctor exams through Zoom if COVID-19 takes a turn for the worse. 

Soltis said there is no difference between the quality or difficulty of in-person versus online exams for his program.

“We’ve adopted exams for those two programs [pharmacy and pre-PA], and we’ve done some assessments looking at how students have scored this year versus previous years when it was a typical paper exam,” Soltis said. “There haven’t been any changes, so we’re pretty confident [online exams] present no disadvantage to the students.”

Ben Varner, a junior mechanical engineering and economics double major, recently took his midterms in person. 

“I do prefer having exams in person,” Varner said. “I think [professors] make the online tests much more difficult than the in-person ones just to prevent people from being able to cheat.”

As an engineering major, Varner also takes classes at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. While IUPUI is a “touch more online than we are,” he said overall both universities have very similar protocols for classes and exams during the pandemic. 

Last semester, Varner said most of his exams and lectures were online, whereas most of them are in person this semester. However, he said most of his roommate’s classes are online. Depending on the professor and department, students will have different experiences with their exams.

Altogether, Varner said learning online is not nearly as beneficial, in his experience.

“The instruction is much easier to comprehend — and it is easier to understand the material — when you’re in person,” Varner said. “You can properly ask questions, and you can better see what [the professor] is doing on the board.”

Varner said the quality is not always the best for his online classes, and there are times when it can be challenging to see the whiteboard. He said there are also glitches with the internet, so it can be difficult to see or hear what the professors are doing. 

Grace Judy, a first-year pre-pharmacy major, is also preparing for her midterms, which will take place later this week. She will have both in-person and online exams.

Judy said she hasn’t noticed a difference in the quality between online and in-person exams. For one of her classes, she has quizzes on Canvas, but she said it doesn’t feel any different than any other test because she had a similar setup in high school during COVID-19. 

This semester, many labs are hybrid. Judy does half of her labs in person and the other half virtually.

“I prefer to do [labs] in person, because I’m more of a visual learner,” Judy said. “I like to actually see it happen. So for me personally, it’s better to actually do the experiment rather than someone record a video or tell me the results. I rather do it on my own.”

For her accounting class, Judy said her exams are monitored by Proctorio, a learning integrity platform that uses software with facial detection to ensure academic integrity. One of her chemistry exams, on the other hand, was conducted while her professor observed on Zoom. She said it was “pretty lenient,” as it was an open book and open note exam, and her professor was just there to make sure everyone stayed on task.

“I like online [exams] because I don’t feel as pressured,” Judy said. “I just feel less stress than I would if I were in person, but honestly I’m fine with either.”

While Judy said she feels less stress during online exams, she said she feels more pressure with Proctorio than Zoom. 

“It doesn’t feel necessarily like an actual exam [on Zoom], but with Proctorio you can’t have anything [open on your computer], they can see you and any random movement triggers an alert on their part,” Judy said. “I don’t want to [trigger an alert], so I feel very confined while taking it.”

In general, Soltis said he doesn’t think the workload this year is any harder or easier than previous years; rather, it is a different experience. 

Soltis said many faculty members have noticed more Zoom fatigue this semester, so they are making adjustments to help students. Many professors are having more advising in the evening to help students, and there are more check-ins to help students stay up-to-date and on top of the material. Soltis said he believes professors are at the same place curricular-wise they have been in the past, but that it is just a different procedure for presenting information than previous years.

“It has certainly been difficult for students and difficult for faculty,” Soltis said. “I’ve seen people step up and apply what they learned from the fall semester into the spring. While it’s still difficult, I think we’ve learned some things that made it a bit more sufficient in the spring semester.”


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