UT-Austin students face distractions, loud environments during online midterms

Zoe Tzanis

Before sitting down to take her exam, Emily Pearson taped a note on the outside of her door that read “I’m taking a midterm” with a frowning face, hoping her neighbors would notice. 

Only the thin walls of Carothers Residence Hall stood between a loud group of students and Pearson’s room. She hoped the background noise wouldn’t cause Proctorio, an online proctoring program, to flag her for suspicious behavior. 

“I was already stressed,” biology freshman Pearson said. “I was so afraid the background sound might get me in trouble because the system might have thought I was cheating by collaborating with someone else. It was so distracting.”

Like many of her peers, Pearson has spent the semester taking exams from her dorm room, but her space isn’t always conducive for learning and studying. While virtual classes have given students the opportunity to learn from anywhere, for some, test taking outside of the classroom can be difficult.

Amanda Hager, an associate professor of instruction in mathematics, said it’s the professor's responsibility to create a virtual classroom that meets students’ needs. 

“More professors should radically rethink their course structure in an online environment,” Hager said. “I think too many professors are trying to do the same old thing. … Every policy has to be rethought and redecided.”

When it comes to exams, Hager has opted for Canvas quizzes that are open for 24 hours and allow students to use any outside notes or sources. 

“My motto going into this whole endeavor was that the only thing that should be hard is the math,” Hager said. “Everything else should be dead easy, and if it’s not, I’m not doing my job.”


Neuroscience freshman Madeline Pederson stayed home in Arlington, Texas, this semester. She said living with her family has made exam interruptions impossible to avoid.

“I’ve had exams at the same time as my brother’s Zoom band class,” Pederson said. “That can be pretty distracting. I think professors should give students more leniency in the way of exam scheduling.”

Jennifer Moon, an associate professor of instruction in biology, said she designed her classes’ online assessments to foster collaboration. The exams are broken up into two sections: The first half is an individual quiz, then students are put into teams to complete the second half. 

“This gives students the opportunity to talk over the questions together and bounce ideas off of each other,” Moon said. 

Moon said she understands why Proctorio would be useful in circumstances like licensing or board exams, but using the program in her own classroom goes against her teaching values. 

“I don’t like Proctorio because I work really hard in my classroom to get students to trust me,” Moon said. “I feel like using Proctorio undermines the trust I am trying to establish.”

While Proctorio didn’t flag Pearson for suspicious activity, she said she wished she didn’t have so many distractions. 

“It all worked out in the end with Proctorio,” Pearson said. “But I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.”