How do you incorporate the results from a final exam into evidence of learning in a valid and justifiable way (i.e. grade determination)?

This question is open to all education levels.

What is your weighting and the justification for this weight? How do you incorporate past evidence of learning and the results from the final exam into the overall grade? If past assessments showed that a student was proficient, but the final exam showed otherwise, what would you do about the discrepancy? How do you assess a students' ability of working within a group of people on a final exam? (isn't this an important skill?)

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    $\begingroup$ Related: Exam Philosophy (MESE 1899) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ In my experience, group work is seldom group work. It's the work of the responsible subset of student(s) in the group. I would hope the grade of a course is primarily reflective of the student's comprehension and competence in the content of the course. Working within a group of people is something that seems nearly impossible to grade equitably unless you have complete knowledge of the particular skill-set of each member of the group. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesS.Cook in my experience students are instructed to get into groups but are seldom taught what this entails, what role each person plays, HOW to equitably share different parts of the tasks, and how students can contribute in different ways. Individual comprehension is important, but being able to collaborate and communicate ideas needs to be emphasized as a necessary skill; I don't want to assess individual comprehension of a skill from a group activity, rather I would hope to incorporate the assessment of communication skills in the context of problem solving. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ At MIT, course grades theoretically represent levels of mastery of the subject, not amounts learned during the course. This is also a plausible justification for allowing students to "test out" of courses, often by taking an exam similar to a final exam. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 5:45

2 Answers 2


I have always found this to be an extremely hard proposition in the US system of grading (hw + 2-3midterms + final=Grade).

All of the systems I've seen were imperfect, but some were better than others.

I find it is essential to correctly structure the final exam in the first instance. You want to make sure that the students performance on it actually in some way measures their mastery of the subject. This means making sure most things are covered and there is enough granularity to distinguish knowing almost nothing, knowing a decent amount and actually having mastered the material. This also means making sure that you cover most of the material, though we usually tend to be more focused on the latest material learned. This is supported both by the fact that the other material has been covered by midterms and the fact that the latest material tends to often presuppose knowledge of older material.

With regards to grading usually the Final will count more than the midterms but not overwhelmingly so. Something like 10% hw, 20% each midterm, 30% final.

There is always the question what to do if someone seems do well in general and then flunks the final. This might be due to a random occurrence and should be considered. Usually we would do our best to give people the benefit of the doubt and not let their grade suffer too terribly but there's only so much you can do.

The opposite situation where a person does bad on midterms and than great on the final is not great either since really you should care what they know at the end, but I tend to chalk that up to a lesson in consistency being important.

Altogether I'm a much bigger fan of oral exams that can be retaken multiple times as is the custom in many EU institutions. As a professor you can actually gauge the knowledge of the student instead of guessing, a fluke day doesn't ruin your chances and it's much easier to just tell the student to pack up and come back when they've actually learned something.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for oral exams. From my own personal experience, they were terrifying, but, effective in getting me to learn as much as possible. As an instructor, I can certainly now see the oral exam has the potential to test much more robustly than a static test has hope to do. But, I also cannot imagine arranging oral exams for a class of 40 students who are not all so great at keeping appointments... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 8:59

Assuming the comprehensive exam is well-constructed, it should be the most valid data there is, and therefore the easiest to justify weighting highly. As many ways as students have to game the system, I trust a good exam much more than I do homework to tell me what a student really knows.

When students do well on earlier tests or quizzes and then crash and burn on the final, that tells me one of two things. One possibility is that students were using short-term methods such as cramming to achieve the temporary illusion of mastery. The other is that they have previously seen only one unit's worth of material at a time, so they've never learned to select the right concept from an entire semester's material. Either way, their success on earlier tests does not indicate that they truly understand the material at the end of the course. Therefore, I see little to entitle them to a good grade.

That being said, I also believe that some traditional course structures inadvertently enable these weaknesses. That means that before we tell students that only what they know at the end truly matters, we need to do a better job of preparing them for that final comprehensive exam.

For what it's worth, the way I have chosen to address this is to make all of my tests contain a lot of material from earlier units. That means that students don't forget as much since they keep using old concepts, and they spend the entire course learning to select the right ideas from more than just the most recently learned concepts. It also means that the final is really just a slightly larger version of what they've been doing all along. That makes it much less likely that conscientious students will do poorly on the final just because they didn't know what to expect.

A few years ago, I abandoned the traditional approach of testing one unit at a time (with a comprehensive final) in favor of the approach I just described, and I've been very happy with the results. The final exam scores now match students' previous test scores pretty closely. Under the previous system, all but the best students' exam scores tended to lag the unit test scores by at least a letter grade. (If it matters to you, I teach high school calculus and pre-calculus.)

  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a nice viewpoint, but could you clarify "one unit at a time"? So each test is essentially cumulative? I just can't imagine what a unit is describing, given only two to three midterms (it seems like each exam would have to blend together multiple topics, although not necessarily be cumulative). $\endgroup$
    – pjs36
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ @pjs36 Since I teach high school, we typically test more often than you would in a university setting. When I tested single units, there were typically six or seven tests in a trimester. Now I test every week, for a total of twelve weekly tests since we're in 60 day trimesters. It may sound like a lot of instructional time is lost to testing that way, but it works out because the frequent cumulative tests greatly reduce the amount of time I have to spend reviewing. $\endgroup$
    – DLH
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 1:03

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