Grades: The Random Factor, Problem 2

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Problem 1, as outlined yesterday is that we really have no objective way of ensuring that our exams actually ‘cover’ the course content.

Now, what about exams from the student’s perspective?

I know, I know, tons of people have talked about issues with exams, but bear with me for a bit.

Think about the actual conditions for the exam:

  • Is everyone focused?
  • Who has another exam the same day?
  • What day of the week is it?
  • Early morning vs. late afternoon.
  • Is everyone healthy?
  • Regularly scheduled vs. deferred vs accommodated?

Can we assume all of these things affect students exactly the same way?
If not, then our exam is not the same for everyone, is it?

What about the kinds of questions we ask?

  • All Multiple Choice?
  • Subjective Questions?
  • Are questions JUST like what they’ve been practicing?
  • Graded on a curve?
  • Supplied by Textbook Author?
  • Thoroughly analyzed?
  • Your OWN assumptions/Biases (we ALL have them).

Here’s the real kicker:

Since there is no way we can reliably ‘cover’ all of the course content in our exams, it is clear that we will be choosing some SUBSET of the content to put in the test. That means we are testing students on a subset of the course content.

Choosing what goes into that subset is inherently SUBJECTIVE.

What if they study the wrong subset?

How many times have you heard students complain that they studied things that weren’t on the exam? Is that a problem?

*I* think it is. How does this accurately reflect a student’s mastery of the material?

Student X studies all the right stuff and aces the exam, while Student Y studies the wrong stuff and barely passes. Now, let’s further suppose that Student X did an adequate job on their assignments, and Student Y did exceptionally well on theirs. The final is worth 50% of the course, but the assignments are only worth 25% Let’s say they both got the same score on the midterm.

That means Student X got: 50% (final) + 15% (midterm) + 15% (assignments) = 80% = A-
Student Y got: 25% (final) + 15% (midterm) + 25% (Assignments) = 65% = C

Can you REALLY be sure that Student X is an ‘A Student’, and that Student Y is only a ‘C Student’ based on a single exam on a single day?


Next, we’ll look at whether an ‘A’ is always an ‘A’.

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