A Little Help Here

ORIE Professors Robert Bland and David Shmoys improve Cornell's final exam scheduling.

Thanks to some fancy number crunching by two Cornell operations research faculty members and a graduate student, the number of undergraduate students facing three finals in a 24-hour period this May will fall by roughly 85 percent from what the average was over the previous three spring terms.

Likewise, the number of students facing three exams in the same day will drop by about 75 percent and those having back-to-back exams should fall by about 65 percent of what they were over the past three springs.

“Kudos to Professors Bob Bland and David Shmoys in operations research and grad student Dmitriy Levchenkov for pulling this off,” said Charles Walcott, the dean of the faculty. He said that he’d received many complaints around finals time in the past from unhappy students who faced three exams in one day or back-to-back finals with just 30 minutes between them. “Students often had to ask their professors to give them make-ups because of back-to-back exams,” Walcott said. “That required a lot of negotiations, especially for professors of large classes.”

Walcott’s predecessor, J. Robert Cooke, professor of biological and environmental engineering, formed a task force in 2002 to address scheduling issues and turned to Bland and Shmoys, knowing that their field of operations research engineering specializes in developing more efficient ways of handling data and processes.

Cindy Sedlacek, an expert on the university’s student data, played a crucial role by extracting and analyzing the historical and current data into a form suitable for the optimization methods. “Without her tireless efforts, there is no way this project would ever have even started,” said Shmoys.

Under the new schedule, which was constructed by optimization techniques commonly used in a wide variety of business and government settings, only 51 students who pre-registered for their courses will have three exams in a 24-hour period. That’s down from 341 students that would have had three exams in one day under the old method of scheduling finals.

Other Articles of Interest