October 22nd, 2015

Dropping Scores: The Case for Hope


frustrated student

In “Calculating Final Course Grades: What About Dropping Scores or Offering a Replacement?” (The Teaching Professor March 2014), the editor notes that “some students … assume that course content is a breeze, [so] the first exam serve[s] as a wake-up call.” (p. 6) In two Introductory Psychology classes (150 students), I recently implemented an effective three-step strategy for getting the best out of such students (and, indeed, all students).

First, I constructed a difficult first assessment: my “welcome to university exam.” The mean on that exam was 55 percent. I definitely had my students’ attention. At that point I told my classes that if the first exam score turned out to be the lowest among their four assessments (worth 15 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent, and 35 percent, respectively), I would drop the first mark and add its value to the best of their subsequent exams (which were of equal, above-average difficulty, though slightly less challenging than the first exam). For example, if a student performed worst on the first exam and best on the third exam, the third exam would then be worth 35 percent, i.e., its original 20 percent value plus the 15 percent value of the first exam. This manipulation allowed students who had initially performed poorly to keep alive the possibility of a good grade in the course, because they could potentially be starting afresh after the first exam (and 85 percent of students did score better on at least one of the last three exams).

Finally, following the third exam and several weeks before the final, I told students that if their score on the final exam was the highest of the four, that score would become their course grade. This revelation was intended to encourage students to work hard toward the final exam by allowing them to remain hopeful of a good (or, at least, better) grade until the very end of the course.

I applied this strategy in good conscience, as the final exam was the most comprehensive of the four. Because it was cumulative (covered the entire course) and contained the largest number of questions, it could accurately be characterized as the most difficult exam and thus the best test of student competence. Consequently, if students achieved their strongest performance on the hardest test, surely that was the optimal measure of their ability.

Was this strategy effective? Compared to previous years, in which 1 to 2 percent of students typically obtained their highest mark on the final exam, using this procedure 50 percent of “borderline” students (those whose grade going into the final exam was below 55 percent), and even 20 percent of remaining students, earned their highest mark on the final exam, suggesting that there is something to be said for Alexander Pope’s venerable assertion that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” If this strategy was implemented long term, the concern that students in subsequent years might be tempted to take a “Russian roulette” approach (i.e., write only the final exam) would be forestalled by the stipulation that students be required to take all four exams to be eligible for the possibility that only their final exam grade would be counted.

Nicholas F. Skinner, psychology department, King’s University College, Canada.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.5 (2014): 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Dave

    I am concerned that a course’s learning objectives might not be fulfilled if students know that they need not study as much as possible for one or more of the examinations. This deficiency might be very critical if the information in the course is cumulative. It might be even more critical if the student uses this course as a prerequisite for other courses. However, in the most severe case, a student might need to know all of the information in the course, because it is necessary for a career for which she or he is preparing

    • Liam

      Amen. This implies that only the final "Hail Mary Pass" counts and it will be the only thing studetns will pay attention to

    • Laura S

      Don't forget, students are not told about this option until late in the semester (after the earlier exams have already been taken). So I don't think the scenario you paint would actually occur.

  • Laura S

    Interesting strategy. I might consider something similar.
    However, my real concern with your approach to grading student learning is that is seems entirely based on exams only. Students who are "poor test takers" but otherwise know the material, do not have any opportunity to demonstrate what they really know. I always provide plenty of varied opportunities for lower stakes grading to appeal to all sorts of "learning styles": exams might be worth 30 or 40 percent of a course grade but written work (papers), participation in class, journaling, online discussion, etc. afford all students the opportunity to do their best work in some way. And no one poor grade alone will result in less than a C at the end.
    But your strategy that a final cumulative exam (or project?) might be the basis for the course grade warrants consideration – CUMULATIVE being the operative word here.