Rolling grades and the final exam.


cc licensed by flickr photo shared by DS Bigham

In March I wrote about rolling grades and now with final exam season upon us, the full potential of rolling grades comes into to play.

At our high school, we have a common 25% value of the overall course grade for all final exams in grade 12 and the expectation that the final exam will occur during the designated time slot. This policy is a holdover from when provincial exams (in BC) were no longer mandatory.

Although I am limited in some respects, I have made the following changes to how final exams look over the last 2 years:

1. No multiple choice only open-ended questions. A sample exam is provided below.

2. Emphasize big ideas of the course and a move away from details only type questions.

3. Questions on the final exam that are similar or the same as the ones we have been discussing and working on all year.

4. Final exam as a showcase of what students know now to replace outdated data we have about their learning.

5. Option to use this new information (or parts of this new information) to replace old data. This exam can potentially count for up to 100% of student’s final mark if this advantages the student.

General Observations:

1. Students value memory based questions: Students feel “ripped off” if some questions do not ask for memorized details. They feel this devalues their hard work as many of them have highly developed short-term memories. I have tried to value this by providing some detail type questions without letting them become the focus of the exam.

2. Currency of value is points: Students struggle (really struggle) to know how much to write or understand how important a question is without the points provided. I have tried exams without assigned points and I have tried linking questions to specific standards (as the questions are anyways). But like a visitor in a foreign country, currency is to a large part intuitive and so for this reason I put the point value to indicate to them what questions are really important and roughly how many thoughts they should have in their answer.

3. Providing the questions in advance does not mean everyone gets 100%. You might think giving questions in advance makes the exam “too easy” but students still struggle and still have to work at the process to do well. Moreover, giving them a set goal gives them the hope that they can get there with effort and preparation.

4. Preparation, preparation, preparation: My hope is to give value to the process of getting ready (the learning) and not just value to the event. As well, to discourage cramming we are not covering new content up until the last second. Student need significant time and opportunity to get organized, ask questions, and take ownership of the situation. This means finishing the course with lots of time to do meaningful pulling it all together type activities in class together.

5. Emphasize big trends: This is a big change for students and naturally their focus is drawn to the dazzling array of details. It is a daily conversation to get them to consider: What is the big idea here?; Why does this matter; Does it matter?

6. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue: As with any significant change to long-standing practices you must be willing to create space, time and safety for ongoing conversations. I talk about how this works on a daily basis.

What next?

1. I recognize this time as a time of transition and so I accept the limitations of my ability to create exactly what I think is best. I must be sensitive to the culture of my school, my department and most importantly to the culture of my students.

2. Continue to foster an atmosphere of learning. Continue to find examples that speak to the value of learning over and above the value of marks.

3. Continue to unpack through dialogue unconscious preconceptions about learning and grades with students and parents.

4. Work to find ways that give parents a peep-hole into their students learning (as compared to just a glimpse at their marks). This is a priority for next year.

And finally, here is an example of the final exam I used with my students last semester.


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