Iowa State’s biggest puzzle: Scheduling finals


The Campanile in November, taken from the southeast.

Talon Delaney

Finals is the one of the most stressful times of the semester, and not just for students. As the term winds down, professors have to worry about administering finals to countless students, and they have little input when it comes to getting a room and time reserved for the big week.

It’s stressful for the Office of the Registrar who are responsible for scheduling thousands of final exams within a one week period, and have to do so without any conflicts.

“It’s not an easy puzzle to put together,” said Tim Cullinan, a materials engineering lecturer at Iowa State. “It’s true that instructors like me don’t have a lot of say in the process, but it’s a fairly optimized system with a lot of variables.”

Cullinan taught nearly 800 students this semester, and is responsible for administering final exams to all of them. One of his courses is a materials engineering class for non-majors, which consists of around 750 students, and they’ll all be taking the final at the same time.

“It makes sense to have everybody take the final at once,” Cullinan said. “There really is a small number of classes this large, and we’re all competing with other classes to get convenient rooms. The registrar tries to balance that and avoid any conflicts. In general, it’s a good system.”

One way that Cullinan and other instructors do exercise control is by submitting requests for certain class rooms and times for finals week. They make similar requests for regular test times during the semester, and they have to submit these requests months in advance.

“Students are registering for classes months ahead of time, so the process has to start early,” Cullinan said. “If you’ve ever been picking out classes and you see information about night exams or something like that, it’s because we’ve already gone through the scheduling process.”

The Daily contacted the Office of the Registrar to get more details about this process, but they were unable to disclose that information at the time this article was written.

There are also restrictions about having on campus review sessions around finals week, and sometimes finals are scheduled in rooms far away from the regular classroom or on a day the class never meets.

“It’s kind of odd for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class to have a final on a Tuesday,” said Eric Cooper, professor of psychology at Iowa State. “It seems like there’s a risk that the someone might have a schedule conflict.”

Cooper specializes in cognitive psychology, and he’s taught the first section of Psych 101 for years. Thousands of students take that class, and at times this means 2 percent of the Ames population is actually in that course.

“Lucky enough for me I don’t actually administer the final for that class,” Cooper said, pointing out that the instructor of the third and final section has that responsibility.

Cooper said he’s had “an easy semester” because he’s only taught one other course, a psychology research methods class of about 90 students.

“In general it’s all worked pretty well for me,” Cooper said. “I’ve maybe had one problem in more than 20 years of teaching here.”

The Registrar can have their hands full scheduling so many finals, but lots of classes don’t even have paper finals, such as Biology 211. Professor Lori Biederman teaches that class, and the process is done completely online.

“I don’t have to worry about schedules or anything like that,” Biederman said. “There’s a certain degree of control you get with online finals.”

Around 270 students take Biology 211 every semester, and Biederman gives her students until Thursday to complete the final.

“I imagine some instructors leave it open the whole week,” Biederman said. “But I’d like to get a jumpstart on grading, and that’s plenty of time for my students to get to the testing centers.”

The testing centers opened up Saturday, and will remain open throughout the week. They only do this during finals periods, and Biederman wishes more students knew about this practice.

“Lots of students like to get these tests out of the way,” Biederman said. “Of course others like to keep studying and would prefer to take it at the last minute, but I don’t think enough people know the testing centers actually open on the weekends around this time.”