European universities are running the so called "Bologna plan" which includes the recommendation of keeping some percentage of the final grades to be filled with various activities during the lessons period. Like everything in life, it has pros and cons.

I will tell you the cons I have seen (in the particular case of mathematics related students), then I will appreciate a list of pros (because I don't see any of them).

  1. The world isn't perfect, so, although mathematics is really time consuming, there are people who work while they study, so they physically can't attend classes, which usually is one of the activities taken into account directly (signature lists) or indirectly (correcting problems in the blackboard). So they begin with a clear disadvantage compared to their classmates (they de facto lose a fraction of their grades).
  2. Again, the world is not perfect, there are teachers whose lessons simply aren't worth, and, for sure, a student who had spent the lesson time in the library reading a book about the subject will know more than his lesson-attending mates, and, probably, get a worse grade, despite having a way better done exam. In some (but not infrequent) cases passing the exam without attending lessons is formally impossible.
  3. Over again, the world isn't a wonderland, and every student has lots of subjects, every one of them with lots of continuous evaluation stuff (mandatory lesson attending, non-liberating partial exams, sets handing over,...), so, students tend (and sometimes are kind of forced) to do the work of each subject as fast as they can without really understanding what they are doing (really sad, even more in math-related stuff). I think university is about learning, not about getting constantly evaluated. With continuous evaluation student have $n$ weeks getting evaluated and $0$ weeks learning while the ideal will be $n$ weeks learning and maybe $3$ weeks getting evaluated.
  4. I have heard that continuous evaluation produces better overall results. I must disagree. I have seen really brilliant students getting a $7$ out of $10$ as a final grade with a perfect final exam, as well as people who really doesn't understand the subject getting a $6$ (pass) while failing the final exam with a $3$. Also I have seen people with a good exam $6$ or $7$ out of $10$ having failed the subject with a $3$ or a $4$. Is this fair?
  5. In general, this dedicated fraction of the grading (usually around a 30 %) is kept for the extraordinary calls. ¿Isn't it nonsense?

I know some students like continuous evaluation, some of them because it allows them to pass the subject without really understanding it deeply, some others because they say it helps them to study. So, why not let students decide? If some of them don't want this system, just evaluate them by the final exam while the system keeps running for the others. Maybe another solution is to make a good use of the $\max$ function?

  • $\begingroup$ Not being familiar with the term "Continuous Evaluation," your description sounds a lot like "Participation Points" in the US. My current department puts a caveat in the syllabus that says if a student somehow manages a grade higher than a "D" by the numbers (which include a small fraction of participation credit), but does not achieve any grade higher than a "D" on a test, then the instructor reserves the right to assign a "D" in the course. Would this help your concerns? $\endgroup$
    – Opal E
    Oct 1, 2017 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ "I have heard that continuous evaluation produce better overall results." "Better" results doesn't mean "perfect" results, so a couple anecdotes about bad outcomes isn't really relevant. It's easy to find anecdotes of students who get unfair results when evaluated on a single test - because they get anxious on tests, or because they were sick that day, or because a family member died two days earlier. Establishing better results calls for a numerical comparison, not a couple anecdotes. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2017 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTowsner of course, i'm not talking about totally destroying the participation points system, only to apply the rule $\max$ between the exam and the exam with participation points. Or to let each student make a choice. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2017 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTowsner the point is that participation points tend to encourage the student to don't really understand the subject, but learn how to do the typical problems to get as many participation points as possible and just study the minimum to get a $2$ out of $10$ in the exam and pass the subject (the minimum effort law always holds i'm afraid) $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2017 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @OpalE it is an option, but it will only solve partially point (3.). Maybe it will solve others (depending on how big is the participation points fraction). $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2017 at 17:21

2 Answers 2


I will use the term "formative assessment" to refer to the "activity" points you describe.

Here are some positives to awarding points in this way:

  1. You can give students the opportunity to practice math “under pressure”. Not every “formative assessment” has to be called out as such before it is given. I tell my students that there will be an assessment each-and-every class period. It turns out that half the time it’s simply a “practice” quiz, and students grade themselves (everyone gets the 5 points if they were present) – the other half are “real” quizzes with just a few questions, and I grade those for correctness. Taking a timed assessment is something that requires practice – many students need to actually learn how to take one, so this is something we practice. I find they get better and more comfortable with them over the term. Because I think this is important, I will award points for it.
  2. You can give immediate feedback. Students want to know if they’re keeping pace with the learning, and there is no harm in giving them that feedback. I remember taking classes where, until the midterm exam (5 weeks in), my instructor had no way of knowing if the class was “getting it”. Similarly, we students didn’t really know how we would perform on an exam, because we didn’t know the instructor’s style of question-writing, expected depth of understanding, etc. It’s great to get and give feedback, and it’s great if students can learn something in the process. Again, because I think it is important, I award points for it.
  3. You can tailor subsequent assessments to previous performance. If your students fail a particular question on a quiz, then you can change how that particular question is asked on the next assessment – driving at the real issue: Was the question poorly worded, or did they just not understand the concept, etc.? Example: I gave a formula for a function $f(x)$ and asked students to “Solve the equation $f(x) = 5$.” I got a variety of answer types: $x = 7$, or the point $(5, 7)$, or some evaluating $f(5)$. It occurred that some knew what the question meant, but needed prompting that they were just finding an $x$-value. So on the next day’s assessment, I wrote a new function and said “Find $x$ if $f(x) = 13$. Give your answer in the form $x = $.” I used it to instruct them that the two quiz questions were identical in meaning, and that they should be wording their answers to both questions as they were prompted to in the 2nd version. Because I want students to practice what they'll encounter on the exam, I will award points for it.
  4. You get more data points for an overview of a student’s progress. There is something about actually being present for lessons (provided they aren’t terrible) that is what we’re selling in higher ed. I wouldn’t want to pass a student if they skipped the whole term and just showed up to ace the final. There are larger discussions they need to engage in, problem solving skills they need to practice, pitfalls they need to learn to avoid – there is more going on than just the things I ask on the final exam. A student can come to class on the first day with all of the knowledge necessary to pass the final exam (I see this every term), but they haven’t “taken the class” for all it is worth.
  • $\begingroup$ I see point 1 okay for "first-yearers" in mathematics degree, however I think the points awarded to this tests should be only "additive". I mean, if someone makes a perfect exam, it gets a perfect grade, despide of being a disaster en the quizzes, because at the end, he managed to work out the mother of all timed assessments (and i will apply this additive rule to points 2, 3 and 4). $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2017 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ I think students are really diverse, some of then demands the feedback of point two, some others maybe only demand this feedback for certain subjects,... So, why not to make this optional? I insist everywhere in the idea of optionality when talking with teachers and I usually get a resounding "no" as an answer. $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2017 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ "I wouldn’t want to pass a student if they skipped the whole term and just showed up to ace the final". I must disagree, a exam is just a problem set, you if someone pass it, he/she has has proved his/her problem solving skills, also, why not to put pitfalls in the exam to avoid? I think a final exam should be balanced this way. $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2017 at 16:16

In addition to 138's points, it can serve as a motivation to push some work getting done by the student. Not everyone is a perfectly rational time utilizer balancing work and study.

This doesn't mean I agree that all the pros overcome the cons. I do think there can be some busy work on being in a class versus self studying. But also, there can be students that just never get the kick in the butt needed until the final (failure) who would be better caught with intermediate interventions.

My preference for math would be intermediate testing steps rather than class participation though. One of the best courses I ever took was a 5-day a week class that had every Friday as an hour test.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree with the kick in the butt issue, however, in the context of university education I think it should be optional (because of points 1,2,3 and 5 in the question). I mean, a weekly test (with a certain weight in the grades) may (will) disturb self-studying students planning and therefore its global performance. $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2017 at 15:47

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