ANAHEIM, CALIF. — In the winter of 2013, Oregon State University experienced a major snowstorm at the beginning of finals week, closing campus for two days. A total of 700 finals had to be rescheduled; five days of finals had to be compressed into three, and 18,000 students were impacted directly by the rescheduling. The Registrar’s Office was given 48 hours to reschedule all finals, a process that usually takes more than two weeks. Cindy Lehto, the master scheduler at OSU, shared lessons learned during the Pacific Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers annual conference for this final exam scheduling emergency and how the emergency impacted OSU’s crisis playbook going forward. “We had to really rethink how we did things, how we didn’t plan for things,” Lehto said.

Campus officials were aware of the possibility of a rescheduling crisis in the week leading up to finals, as personnel anxiously tracked the progress of the impending storm. The Saturday before finals, the provost contacted the registrar to come up with emergency scenarios in the event that finals would have to be rescheduled. Lehto and her team needed to get buy-in and support from the campus staff in a very short time period as well as create a comprehensive plan to provide multiple scenarios for rescheduling options.

  • Look at all possible plans. Lehto and her team had to determine all the different possibilities that could arise if the institution were closed during the storm. Scenarios brainstormed included canceling the finals and rescheduling finals for the beginning of the next semester; conducting finals online; and conducting finals into what would have been the first week of winter break. “Everything that was best for the Registrar’s Office was the worst for students,” Lehto said.
  • Don’t panic. Figure out who are the key players and determine how to get them where they need to be. For Lehto, this included figuring out which faculty members would be most affected by the timetable of the storm and which faculty members or administrative staff members might be available to help proctor exams. Lehto’s office even looked for alternative solutions to proctor exams, reaching out to alumni, media services and conference specialists to help provide staff and support to meet student needs. Lehto advised breaking tasks up by skill-set strengths and looking for help in unexpected places — for example, reaching out to the grounds crew to help proctor exams or cover tasks that would not normally be expected.
  • Create a manageable framework. Lehto and her team broke up each day of finals into two-hour increments. Lehto was easily able to identify those time blocks that had the biggest scheduling conflicts and those with the most availability, which helped her manage rescheduling of finals when five days had to be compressed into three.
  • Communicate the details. One of the most important components to rescheduling final exams was communicating the details in a timely and consistent manner to students. Lehto and her team promised students that the schedule for finals would be up on the OSU website by 10 p.m. However, Lehto acknowledges that her team, at the time, had no comprehensive plan for communicating schedule changes to students. In retrospect, she suggested using learning management systems like Blackboard or Canvas and listservs to ensure that all students receive timely updates of final scheduling changes.
  • Expect the unexpected. After Monday’s exams had to be rescheduled, Lehto and her team faced further setbacks. The campus was also closed on Tuesday of finals week. Plus, OSU’s largest auditorium and seven other classrooms were unusable because windows in the building had been left open and the rooms were snowed in. Lehto and her team thought outside the box and created alternate testing locations by using basketball courts, the club-level football arena spaces, and rented tables and chairs to create usable testing centers. Lehto found staff to proctor exams for 10 hours over two days in these large spaces. Often, multiple final exams were administered at the same time. “Sometimes your biggest spaces are not going to be classrooms,” Lehto said.
  • Be prepared to deal with parents. After the rescheduled finals, Lehto heard from several parents and others who were not happy with how finals were rescheduled. “Those people who weren’t happy mostly just needed an opportunity to vent,” Lehto said, adding that explaining why OSU officials made the choices they did in the moment went a long way toward addressing the problem. You can’t worry about making everyone happy, Lehto concluded. Instead, you must find the best solution for the majority of your students and staff.