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Colleges had to adapt to virtual final exams. What they learned could shape the future on campuses.

In the end, interviews with students, professors and administrators at a half dozen schools showed, they all learned something over the last few months and those lessons could reshape the college experience going forward.

Haverford College student Soha Saghir works on her bibliography during final exam week.
Haverford College student Soha Saghir works on her bibliography during final exam week.Read morePATRICK MONTERO / HAVERFORD COLLEGE

When Haverford College students took their final exams online this spring, they did what they always do: They signed a statement, agreeing to adhere to the school’s honor code.

No online proctors or outside monitoring was needed. At the small, selective liberal arts college, exams aren’t supervised even when they are given on campus and students self-schedule them. There’s a long-standing atmosphere of mutual trust, professors and students say, that helped during the coronavirus.

“Haverford was better prepared for the crisis than most schools,” said Soha Saghir, a rising senior who cochairs Haverford’s honor council. “Taking tests on our own or doing tests on our own is a practice that is very much ingrained in our culture already.”

» READ MORE: Drexel will conduct all final exams remotely because of coronavirus

Moving final exams online, while maintaining their integrity and yet not putting undue pressure on students already struggling to survive a pandemic, was just the latest historical first for the nation’s colleges.

At some schools, professors gave more take-home exams and assigned final papers, projects, and presentations as alternatives to tests. Other schools relied on more technology to police exam-taking, including locked-down browsers and online proctors who monitored test-takers. At West Chester University, for instance, so many professors wanted electronically monitored exams that the university employed a second company to help, said deputy provost Jeffery Osgood.

Interviews with students, professors, and administrators at a half-dozen schools suggest that the lessons they learned during the pandemic could reshape the college experience. Some schools may rethink how they evaluate students. And although many have adapted to remote learning, the experience also has reinforced how critical in-person instruction is and the importance of having a level playing field, like a college campus, for students from varying backgrounds.

» READ MORE: Colleges holding on-campus classes in the fall? Maybe.

“We are working with students who are in environments that we have very, very little control over,” said Casey Londergan, a Haverford chemistry professor and department chair. Having constant, clear, and open lines of communication “is really super, super important in this kind of environment.”

‘Most relaxed finals week’

In the end, most schools allowed students to choose a credit or no-credit option for their final course grades, realizing it wasn’t fair to hold students to the same standard as before the coronavirus.

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, nearly a third of undergraduates took the no-credit option, the school said, with time still to elect it. About 600 Drexel students have asked to go that route, but the term is still ongoing and more could opt for it next month. At West Chester, it was 21% of undergraduates.

Students, for their part, found that exam time this year was much less stressful.

“It was the most relaxed finals week I’ve had thus far,” said Emma Glasser, a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania.

She said she had several take-home exams that probably would have been in-person and timed if students were on campus. One class gave several midterms instead of one pressure-filled final. Her exams also were more spread out than they would have been on campus.

Saghir, 22, the Haverford political science major, said that for this spring’s finals she wrote 20 pages and took one test — down from the typical 60 pages and multiple exams — and completed an annotated bibliography and a podcast.

She appreciated professors’ flexibility, given the stress of being separated from her family in Pakistan, unable to get a flight home, and largely isolated in her residence hall room. “It’s been very hard to focus,” she said.

Faculty and administrators knew that students who did make it home went to drastically different learning environments. Some had to get jobs to help support the family. Some were in crowded residences that made concentrating a struggle. Others lacked internet.

Mark Rimple, a music professor at West Chester and faculty union president, saw a student from Philadelphia struggling with internet access and had the university provide her with a hotspot. “If you had a connection that was really bad, it made school unbearable," he said.

Although professors say there’s no replacement for the in-person classroom experience, universities will need to improve their connection to students if online learning continues.

At Haverford, the trust environment created by the honor code helped. Londergan said students self-reported issues: One said his brother entered the room to talk during his exam and he didn’t stop the clock.

“I let them retake the exam, or gave them back a little time,” he said. “That is the kind of open and honest conversation that is facilitated by the honor code.”

There were unexpected surprises. At West Chester, Osgood said the number of students taking and passing their final exams reached an all-time high, while course withdrawals were down. For undergraduates, there was a 7% increase in A’s this semester, he said, maintaining that exams were as rigorous as ever.

Kathryne Corbin, an assistant professor of French at Haverford, said her students’ grades also trended higher, as did the quality of work in some cases. Haverford also allowed a pass/fail option; the whole process may cause the college to rethink the importance of grading, she said. Not all colleges use traditional grades.

For months to come, universities are likely to assess what they learned and apply it moving forward.

“If we go back to doing business the way we did business before COVID, then we actually failed to learn anything from this,” said Osgood.

The West Chester administrator said one of those lessons emerged from outside the classroom: Students seemed to enjoy accessing support services remotely.

“While students want to receive instruction in person, they don’t want to have to go to the financial aid office,” he said. “They don’t want to go to the library. They want to be able to access those things wherever they want to be, and we actually demonstrated that we can deliver those services in a high-quality fashion. We’re going to continue doing that moving forward.”