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Wrapping my mind around a new approach to the final exam

August 28, 2012
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Before I came back to St. Andrew’s, exams were a simple affair. The exam was required to count 20% of the student’s grade (25% in the spring) and students got their exams back with a traditional 0-100 grade. Of course, this was an odd juxtaposition with my the rest of the course which is all about standards based grading, but I don’t call the shots, so that was that.

At my new old school, teachers have more flexibility in how they use exams to determine student grades—there is no fixed percentage requirement. In fact, Kelly O’Shea and Mark Hammond have come up with a pretty ingenious system that I’ve never been able to fully wrap my head around until Kelly explained it to me for the tenth time today.

What follows are my attempts to explain how the exam works in our honors physics class, mostly for myself, but you might find this interesting as well. Also, I’m sure I’m going to get some terminology wrong in this description or make some factual errors, which I’m sure Mark and Kelly will correct me on.

First, let’s start with two guiding ideas:

  1. The teacher’s job is to use all of the available information (assessment scores and exam scores) to make the best possible estimate of what the student really understands and use this (and only this)  to decide upon a numerical grade.
  2. The purpose of the exam is to give the student a chance to do his/her best possible work, and demonstrate how much physics he understands. If both I and my students have been doing our jobs properly, this will happen naturally.

These two ideas set up the basic notion of how I approach grading. I’m the student’s coach and biggest cheerleader. I want them to succeed, and will coach them to do their very best in the big game, but ultimately, they must play the game and demonstrate mastery—it isn’t enough to be the best player at practice. The exam is an opportunity that students should look forward to, just like the playoff game, not something they should fear.

The next thing I think Kelly and Mark have done is sort of think up some fundamental ideas about what sorts of performances constitute what sorts of grades overall. Here are some guiding ideas that Kelly mentioned to me:

  • Demonstrating mastery of all of the core (A) and intermediate (B) concepts at the end of the term (on the exam) should be equivalent to a grade of 90.
  • Earning a grade above 90 requires some sort of synthesis. For Mark and Kelly, this has meant doing an exceptionally good job on goalless problems on the exam.
  • We all have bad days, so at the same time, walking into the exam and failing it shouldn’t mean that you fail the class, if you’ve previously shown mastery of some of the concepts. This brings about the idea of the safety grade. A few caveats here:
    • If you walk into the exam and can’t do anything, then it shouldn’t be possible to earn an Honors grade, i.e. the highest grade you should be able to get is an 84. This would be true in a regular exam world too—failing an exam that counts 20% of your grade with a 50% would drop a 90 to an 82.
    • Your safety grade depends on the number intermediate concepts you’ve mastered before the exam and ranges from 70-84, via interpolation.
    • In the closing weeks of the semester, students who haven’t mastered core concepts (and are therefore in danger of failing) are the focus of aggressive intervention—they’re put in academic detention to work on those ideas, tracked down on dorm, etc. The end result is that no one enters the exam without having mastered all core concepts.
    • It is an extremely, extremely, rare case that a student actually winds up needing the safety grade (this has never happened in honors physics).
    • The safety grade isn’t’ a base grade. It isn’t where students have to work from on the exam. a student with a safety grade of 74 and a student who has a safety grade of 84 both have equal chances of earning a 100 by showing complete mastery of all questions and goalless problems on the exam.
  • There are some mistakes that students make on the exam that are a really big deal, like solving an energy problem with forces, and those alone can prevent you from earning a higher grade. You might do well on two goalless problems, but a big mistake on the third might show a lack of understanding that necessitates you not earning a grade above 90. Of course, a big mistake also likely means you’re not demonstrating mastery of an intermediate concept, and won’t earn a 90 that way, too.
  • There are also small mistakes that may or may not indicate a lack of understanding, like leaving out a negative sign. These are moments where the teacher needs to go back and look at a student’s history on a particular concept and see if a pattern of mastery exists. If it looks like the student has clearly been mastering the concept, then it may be a simple oversight, and the mistake can be disregarded. But if the pattern shows inconsistent mastery, it’s probably more evidence that the student hasn’t mastered that concept.

Overall, this sounds like an incredibly thoughtful and nuanced approach to the final exam. Kelly tells me that the students really appreciate the effort that teachers put into the exams and this really helps them to understand why they don’t get a strict numerical score on the exam, or there isn’t some point breakdown on every question.

All of this fits naturally into how I view grades, and how I want to help students view grades, focused on the feedback, and not the number. I think there’s room for some very healthy conversations that don’t have to be reduced to detailed rubrics and point-by-point accounting, and instead, focus on our shared goal of understanding and the value of feedback.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 29, 2012 7:16 am

    That was good. Only one picky thing. I think I wasn’t clear about the “three problems” thing. I was referring to the three main questions on the exam (three big problems that are the actually required part). There are usually also 3 or 4 goal-less problems, but students only do 2 of them.

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