UW professors rethink final exams, mark bittersweet end of year

Yvonne Kim:

To most fairly assess a semester that has been far from normal, professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are taking liberties with final exams and projects.

Approaching the standard finals week, which runs from May 3 through May 8, many instructors have eased grading requirements or time constraints. They have become more accepting of peer collaboration or open-note exams and may even extend these accommodations into future semesters. Some worry about opportunities to cheat, but not too much — mostly, they trust their students and want them to learn, not stress.

Genetics 564 is a capstone course in genomics, but professor Ahna Skop also calls it a lesson in collaboration and communicating science, two goals that have been challenged since UW-Madison transitioned all spring coursework online in March. Before the pandemic, her 16 students would gather in pairs each Tuesday to present scientific papers, sometimes getting up and switching seats to review their classmates’ work. Thursdays are lab days, which Skop said have frequently run long with the disruptions associated with video calls.

Skop, who has dyslexia and relies heavily on non-verbal cues for assessment, paid for video software to use with her class. Though the final project she assigned remained the same — creating a website with a written grant and visually presenting it to the class — her students have realized in the process that “talking for 15 minutes by Zoom is so exhausting.”