Make Final Exams Worth 100% of Student's Grades
I propose a grading system which I believe is more accurate, ethical, conducive to learning and less stressful.
Within the area of higher education, a course grade usually consists of a weighted average of homework assignments, a couple exams, maybe some lab reports or essays, and a final exam. As with many issues in education, the status quo persists despite being less than ideal. I’d like to propose a radical change of making the final exam worth 100% of the final grade for most classes. I see this as the most logical and ethical way for a professor to grade.
There will be exceptions! There are many classes in which a final exam is not a good idea—such as a creative writing course or a course involving laboratory work. In these cases, it is too hard to use the exam format to evaluate the knowledge that a student has accumulated. However, most professors could create a decent sample of the knowledge he or she wishes to impart of his or her students.
Most would acknowledge that there is at least some ethical considerations in grading. A professor giving the most attractive students the best grade would unethical. A common concern expressed among conservative students is that their professors will discriminate against them if they take a conservative position in a class debate or essay. Letting only half of your math class have a calculator for a math test would be another example. This would be clearly unfair, and in the area of academics, many take the position of justice as fairness.
I believe that the goal of a professor should be to provide students with the information and skills described in the course description. The grade should serve both as an incentive to work hard and as a method for identifying the hard working students and intelligent students. The students’s grade should reflect their understanding of the material upon completion of the course, rather than superficial characteristics like being pleasant, attractive or sycophantic.
There are two approaches to the economics of education: the signaling theory and the human capital theory. The latter views education as valuable because it gives students skills and knowledge which makes them more productive in the workplace. The former views education as way of successfully identifying traits that students already had. Regardless of which theory is correct, it is economically most efficient to accurately measure a student’s acquired knowledge.
It is not efficient, nor is it just, to evaluate a student based on their knowledge during a portion of the semester. What good is it to know you perfectly understood the first third of the course if you have forgotten everything by the end of the course? And yet, students are evaluated on their past knowledge, rather than the knowledge they have when they exit the course—which is the only thing that matters in terms of economic value of their knowledge. If you’ve forgotten the content before you have even finished the course, what good was the course?
A perfectly designed course grade would be most just, most accurate, and effectively incentivize learning without inducing unnecessary stress. Although my proposed system may not be perfect, I believe that a comprehensive exam for the final grade is better than the current model provided students are granted multiple opportunities to take the exam.
Under my proposed system, students would have zero point homework and zero point quizzes. These homework and quizzes would be the same difficulty as the final exam and serve as checks, letting a student see if she is falling behind or keeping pace with her desired grade. The professor would not have to individually grade them, just provide an answer key. Approximately three to four weeks before the course ends, the professor would allow students to begin taking final exams. The last of the final exams taken would be the course grade the student receives.
If the student is content with their final exam score, then the course is finished and they do not have to keep attending. Otherwise, they have the opportunity to review the final exam and study more before trying again. They can do this until the course must be complete, but we would expect students to eventually stop once they are content. This would involve more grading on the professors part toward the end of the semester, but would save them from grading quizzes, midterms and homework.
One advantage of this approach is that I believe it would be less stressful. At present, students often make major errors on midterms or finals without the opportunity to try again. What matter is the knowledge—not how that particularly day went for the test taker. Not allowing correcting for mistakes and future attempts to do better means that students need to engage in a stressful sort of risk management. They have to ask themselves: “Did I study enough?”; “Will the test be as hard as the homework?”; “What will the final be like?”; “Should I focus on chemistry or calculus?”; “Should I cram or go out with my friends?”
If a professor allows many attempts at a final exam, then most students can merely quit when they’ve had enough. Rather than a matter of calculated risk, students stop when they are satisfied or have demonstrated that they either aren’t smart enough or refuse to work hard enough to pass the course with an adequate amount of knowledge. If they mess up a few times, they can continue studying until they get it right. The one chance doesn’t count for so much. Of course, there could be a cap in which the returns on additional tests are very marginal.
Another benefit is that this incentivizes learning the content even if the student messed up, whereas if the student does poorly on a final exam at present, he or she has no incentive to review the content because the course is over. Students eager to learn more should be provided the opportunity.
There are exceptions, but generally speaking, a system of repeated comprehensive exams worth 100% of a student’s grade is a more ethical and accurate way of evaluating student’s knowledge, provides an incentive to learn more, and reduces the level of stress felt by students. For these reasons, I think it is preferable to have this system in many courses rather than the present status quo arrangement of a weighted average of various components that are not at the end of the semester. What matters is the knowledge the student has at the end of the course, rather than the knowledge they had at one point but forgot.
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Everything you've written here is correct, and I don't think you're pointing out anything here that many people haven't observed before, yet this is not the way it's done. So there must be a pretty good reason why not.
I'll suggest it's the same reason many people live hand-to-mouth and get paid weekly.
Many people - maybe most - aren't good at planning for the future, or sacrificing things now for a distant reward. Without a short-term incentive to study hard (regular exams and graded homework), many won't. When the end of the term comes and the final exam looms, they'll try to cram, but won't learn or retain as much as if they'd been studying all along. Regular exams do more than give feedback on how the student is doing - they provide continual incentive that's otherwise missing.
A separate but perhaps related question is why people attend school at all, rather than just read books and practice what they learn (in the fields where that's a reasonable thing to do). I'm sure some people learn better from live lectures, but many - most? - need the structure and grade incentives to motivate them to put in the effort to learn things.
Unfortunately, from a when-to-test-knowledge basis, rather than cramming for each individual exam/quiz along the way, I think you've just replaced it with incentivizing cramming just before the final exam and/or between retakes, and then still forgetting everything just afterwards.