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When designing an exam, would you mention the maximum score per question or not? Is it common practice?

In my view this promotes cherry-picking. This could be seen as a way to prioritize or to satisfice (leaving questions open since "they are not worth it").

Is there any scientific proof/pedagogical insight this is a "must", "nice for students " or "making it easier for students"?

Any thoughts on this (from professors and students)?

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    Why would you give a question greater or fewer points than you value the answer? – Bryan Krause Sep 14 at 22:17
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    I have never seen a test that didn't say how many points a question is worth. To be honest, I find the idea of hiding question values quite bizarre and borderline unethical. – Azor Ahai Sep 14 at 23:14
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    @AzorAhai For what it's worth, I have never had an exam where the distribution of points was given (so the 180° opposite of your experience). I have to say that my last exam dates from 2000 (and it was an oral exam without any written preparation, which I believe these days is also considered a "no-fly-zone" :-) ) – GertVdE Sep 15 at 18:47
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    >leaving questions open since "they are not worth it"< Wait.. Do you seriously think, students cherry pick questions like this? "This question only gives 3 points, so I deem it unworthy of answering". If I had time left after I finish the exams, I'd make sure to go over all unanswered questions, even if they are only worth 0.5 points, as long as I know what to answer. – infinitezero Sep 15 at 21:20
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    It seems to be an irresistible urge to put answers in the comment box. – WGroleau Sep 16 at 2:31

13 Answers 13

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Examinations are time-limited, so time is a scarce resource that students need to economise. Stipulating the marks allocated to exam questions has three main purposes:

  1. Objectivity: The stipulated marks creates a more objective assessment, insofar as the weightings on the questions are fixed by the stipulated marks. This prevents students from being unfairly penalised by subjective re-allocation of marks.

  2. Time allocation: The stipulated marks allows students to economise their time by allocating it in a manner that gives appropriate levels of time relative to the marks available for the question.

  3. Implicit expectation of detail: Ideally, marks should be allocated roughly commensurately with the time the question will take to complete if done properly. This gives the students an understanding of the proportion of time that each question should take, and so it allows them to diagnose whether they are taking too long on a question. This also means that the allocated marks gives the student an implicit hint as to how much detail they are expected to give in a question --- low mark questions usually do not require large amounts of detail.

In your question, you seem to be taking the view that it is bad for students to economise their limited time, and that this incentivises students to eschew answering entire questions. So long as there is sufficient time available in the exam, this should not be the case. (A useful rule-of-thumb I heard for exams was that the course lecturer should be able to complete the exam in 1/3 of the time limit for an undergraduate exam, or 1/2 of the time limit for a postgraduate exam. This should be done under conditions where the course lecturer first "forgets" the answers to the exam, and has to figure them out in the time limit.)

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    If you don't reveal an unequal breakdown you open yourself to the (IMO) legitimate charge that a student spent a lot of time on a low value question and couldn't complete the exam properly. This will lead to resentment which does no one any good. Students often aren't at their best or most rational in exam situations. Panic can lower performance dramatically. – Buffy Sep 15 at 13:34
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    If you are issuing an exam where different questions expect answers in different level of detail, this should be made clear explicitly in the exam, not just communicated via how many points a question is worth. – Wrzlprmft Sep 15 at 15:00
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    We were explicitly taught in school (Europe/Germany) to apply time-allocation strategies during written exams and to check for each question difficulty to us compared to point value. – cbeleites Sep 16 at 7:46
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    @Wrzlprmft also, the level of detail expected is not always inherent in the phrasing of the question. "Define epitransisoregional tetravolitional precardioepistomology" could be expecting anything from a one-liner "ETP is the process by which an organism achieves superhedronal trisummithood" to a ten-page exploration of five centuries of theoretical and empirical research that led to last year's breakthrough, which is contained in a six-chapter appendix. – Robert Columbia Sep 16 at 16:12
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    Regarding the last sentence of this answer, in my university it's common practice to have another teacher complete the exam, and they also use the 1/3 of the time rule for undergrads (not sure about postgrads). In the experiences I've had as a teacher I've been doing the same with good results, even with colleagues who are significantly more knowledgeable than me. – Blueriver Sep 16 at 21:46
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If the maximum score per question is not disclosed, a dishonest professor can retroactively change the scoring scheme to advantage or disadvantage particular students.

As an (exaggerated) example, suppose that Professor Wormer really hates Blutarsky, one of the students in his class. Wormer gives an exam with 10 questions but does not say how many points each question is worth. When the exams are handed in, he sees that Blutarsky has correctly answered every question except #4, which he got completely wrong. Wormer then decides that Question 4 will be worth 91 points, and the remaining questions will each be worth 1 point. Wormer can claim that these were the point values he intended all along; Blutarsky may be certain this is a lie, but he has no way to prove it. Blutarsky flunks the exam, fails the course, loses his draft deferment, and is sent overseas as army cannon fodder.

By announcing the maximum score per question on the exam, the students can be assured that this particular sort of malfeasance won't be possible.

(Of course there are plenty of other ways a malicious professor can abuse grading authority, but eliminating a few of them seems desirable in any case.)

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    This also protects the instructor from possibly false accusations of the type of unfairness actually practiced by the professor described in the answer. – paw88789 Sep 15 at 6:57
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    This is funny but obviously complete nonsense. Hyperbole doesn't help your argument here because this is simply not a realistic scenario, exaggerated or not. There are other, much more tangible reasons to announce the points up front than fear of favouritism. The whole answer is a straw man. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 15 at 12:06
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    For confused non-US readers, the characters in this answer reference characters in a film called Animal House that is somewhat iconic in the US and made little impact internationally. – Dancrumb Sep 15 at 15:00
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    @Konrad Rudolph: Hyperbole doesn't help your argument here because this is simply not a realistic scenario --- I agree this is not realistic, but it's probably a lot closer to what some paranoid students might actually think is possible, and what some litigious-type students might actually suggest in complaints about the teacher, than some inexperienced teachers might realize. – Dave L Renfro Sep 15 at 17:00
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    @Dilworth It was not claimed they weren't. At least where I am it is also not common to present exams to some exam board or other university staff (except TAs , but not mandatory) after designing it. – Josef Sep 16 at 9:41
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There’s nothing wrong with cherry picking because (presumably) not all parts of the course have equal importance. Indeed one could argue that assigning greater weight (and declaring this weight) to questions connected with “core concepts” will better recompense students who have mastered these important concepts rather than less important parts of the material, all the more so as exams are typically time-constrained.

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It is true that telling how many points each question is worth would allow "gaming" the exam. Ok, but not telling, that is, keeping the grading system secret, is quite strange and dishonest, since you are not telling the target that the students should aim for.

Anyway, I think it's not a serious worry, if (as @Solar Mike sugggests) the lower-weight questions are commensurately easier.

In my own practice, both for undergrad and graduate courses, as well as Written Prelims, I just make all questions equally weighted (and the questions, perhaps grouping together smaller questions) are reasonably comparable in time-required-to-respond.

Although your concern is obviously legitimate, I think this issue is, yet-again, one of those where to really squelch "gaming the system" would be inappropriately punitive for those students who are earnest and acting in good faith.

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    I think questions should be weighted by importance of knowledge, not level of difficulty. (Within Reason) – Evorlor Sep 15 at 11:48
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    I think the term gaming is far from appropriate here, even if put in quotes. Approaching something in a tactical manner is not “to exploit loopholes […] in a way which defeats or nullifies the spirit of the rules in effect […]”. Students inevitably approach exams in a tactical manner and exams need to avoid that individual students can gain advantage from this (e.g., by ignoring a part of the course that happened to be not relevant to the exam at all). This does not apply here. Every student benefits from the information the same way. – Wrzlprmft Sep 15 at 14:52
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    The "gaming" will not be possible if the points are a fair representation of the amount of work/difficulty of the questions. In other words, gaming can only happen with unfair point distribution, which in turn would be unfair even without any gaming attempts. – cbeleites Sep 16 at 7:37
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    +1 for equally weighted questions. In my experience, exams are often made to be only just doable in the time, so by putting weights on there, you have to do the math to compare your guess at the solving time versus their relative point value... it just makes the exam that much more stressful. If each is equal, I just read over them and can easily spot which ones I know best and which ones I want to start with to get as far as possible before time is up. – Luc Sep 16 at 12:06
  • @Evolor You may be interested in the Ebel scoring method, which is used extensively for multiple choice exams in medicine (at least in the UK). The idea is that questions are weighted by importance and difficulty, and the total of those weights gives the pass mark. Students can get any subset of questions correct, but the number of correct answers they need is calculated from both importance and difficulty. – JenB Sep 16 at 12:53
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As a general rule, I think it's good to maximize transparency in your procedures to the students.

This includes clear expectations for coursework, grading formula, etc. They should be able to compute and double-check their current grades at any time. Likewise, having points stated on exams is standard and expresses a truth that there's really no good reason to skip out on. It's an added signal that you're being fair, equitable, and transparent.

Moreover, it forces you to plan out in advance exactly how you will be grading it later on. In so doing, you might realize that one or more questions are problematic to grade to a certain scale and change them. (Or that the total for the exam could be changed to something more convenient.)

That said, I don't think that it's a mortal sin to not have it. If the instructor is for some reason very short on time in their first semester, making an exam at the last minute, then maybe they'll figure out the points later (again, the transparency is in regard to any currently well-defined procedure). On the other hand, an even better gold-standard would be to have a complete grading rubric and/or answer sheet worked out in advance.

8

In my view this promotes cherry-picking. This could be seen as a way to prioritize or to satisfice (leaving questions open since "they are not worth it").

You pose this as being a problem, but I don't see any problem. If you design the exam in a way that gathering 51% of the points is sufficient to pass, then there will be people that get 51% of the points and pass, be it by cherry picking or by not knowing nearly half of the material.

If you don't want people to pick the questions they like best, I guess that is because you want people to know the subject more broadly (and less in-depth) rather than knowing only a part of it (but very in-depth, to get full points on those questions). If that is indeed your true aim (rather than preventing cherry picking), then you can design your exam to reflect that. You could ask a larger number of questions to cover a broader section of the material, or make points easier to obtain (making the questions easier) and requiring they gather 90% of the points to pass.

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    More than that, there needs to be enough time for everyone except the absolute weakest candidates to complete the paper. This is not always the case in exams. It has been a number of years since I was at school and uni, but we were taught quite specifically to "triage" questions to help ourselves get as good a score as possible. If we didn't know a question, or if we felt we would have to spend longer on it, we were encouraged to move on and come back to it later. – Graham Sep 16 at 17:16
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My thoughts: this is based on the norms in your department. Simply ask your colleagues what they do and what students in your department are used to. Then do it.

As for myself, I give the marks for each question because this is the policy in my department. I have never seen any student gaming the exam though. They all try to do everything.

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    During my academic trajectory, I always answered the easiest questions and with more score firstly and never considered it "gaming". It is just a time investment. – Rui F Ribeiro Sep 15 at 5:44
  • Well, in my exams marks are distributed mostly evenly, so I would know this. In any case, I did not considered this gaming. I was replying to the OP – Dilworth Sep 15 at 11:36
  • This is one of the cases where it's easy to set out a strong but simple ethical case. I can't imagine that a department would ever penalise an instructor for labelling question marks. If others in the department don't do this then you can be the one to start it, basically risk free. – curiousdannii Sep 17 at 2:12
  • The subject has nothing to do with ethics in my opinion. Providing marks for each question is not more or less ethical than anything. – Dilworth Sep 17 at 13:03
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The policy where I am is that the points for each question are shown.

This is fine, because (and only an example):

  1. small questions can be worth 1 or 2 points,

  2. short answer questions can be 2 or 5 points,

  3. longer questions ie involved calculations, can be 5 or 10 points,

  4. essay type questions can be 10 or 15 or 20 points

All of these can be adjusted or combined in many combinations to provide an exam with a variety of questions which still challenges the students.

Note 5 or more small questions can be grouped to make one larger question worth more, but then the question is are those “sequential”? Ie if you get the first part wrong then all the other parts are wrong or are they 5 disparate questions clumped together so the exam author can say “all questions carry the same points”...

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You should give the marks for each question - it informs the student as to how much time to spend on a question.

See this related question. If the maximum mark had been anything other than 1 point, it should be clear to the student that something more than a yes/no answer is expected. If the maximum mark had been 10 points, it should be clear to the student that a full paragraph of explanation is needed.

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    If you are issuing an exam where different questions expect answers in different level of detail, this should be made clear explicitly in the exam, not just communicated via how many points a question is worth. In particular, the question should make clear whether a question expects just a yes or no as an answer or an explanation (unless one of them is the clear implicit default). – Wrzlprmft Sep 15 at 14:59
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    @Wrzlprmft I think the point that Allure is making here is that this "clear implicit default" of the level of detail can be communicated through the number of points a question is worth. I'm not necessarily saying that's good practice, though. – YiFan Sep 15 at 22:51
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    Agree with YiFan. Also the assigned marks go more than that, e.g. ten minutes from the end of the exam, it makes more sense to work on an unsolved problem worth 10 marks than an unsolved problem worth 1 mark. – Allure Sep 16 at 0:19
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    @YiFan: By clear implicit default I mean something like this: Unless stated otherwise, students are expected to provide a rationale for their answer on basis of the content of the lecture, even if the answer is superficially just a yes/no question. – Wrzlprmft Sep 16 at 5:02
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Aside from the fact that exam rules should be transparent in order to be fair to the students, I would outline that the ability to prioritize work in order to maximize the number of points is not just an irrelevant side skill. It requires accurate self-assessment with regards to the knowledge a student has on each particular topic. A student which knows their strengths and weaknesses will be able to better adapt to the work they have to do, and make better choices regarding their career or field of study.

I don't see why you think this skill is worthless and should not be rewarded (or even punished).

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With phrases like you fear "gaming the system", I presume you worry a student may skip something that is essential, but maybe can't be worth a ton of points?

Required Fields

If may be possible to declare a question a "required field", just like many forms do. So even if it's only worth 10 points, and the student has decided they'd be happy with a B or C, if you want to be SURE that a student can (for example) definitely demonstrate they know which example shows plagiarism vs correct citation, then I'd mark that question REQUIRED.

examples of various similar strategies over a whole semester...

I used to do a similar thing in my English classes. The research paper itself was "only" worth 20% of the grade, but my syllabus and assignment sheets made it clear that a non-passing grade on the research paper would mean the class requirements were NOT met, and it was an automatic failure. Basically it was a GATE, not merely a quantity.

Other profs in my department had similar "gated" systems. In order to achieve a C, a baseline level of requirements must be met. In order to achieve a B, those had to be met AND the next level of requirements. An A required all of the things. This was to prevent people who were "naturally good writers" from skipping over the process and class-interactions.

BlackBoard (our LMS) allowed assignments to be hidden unless the student had achieved other dependent requirements, and I think there were a few Econ professors who used that to good effect -- you had to score X on a comprehension test to open up the assignment details. You had to have submitted a draft before the link to submit the final would open up.

Rubrics!

If parts of your exams are mini-essays or paragraphs, make sure you have a clear rubric - a guided checklist of what you want. This helps you focus on the content (were all terms used accurately? Did they give the key exception?) and not get distracted by good or bad style.

TL;DR

Back to your exam: Discuss with others in your department about the norms and expectations, but feel free to explore alternate formats besides pure numerical, as long as they are fully disclosed. Set students up to succeed, but make sure that you're also getting the proof you need as an instructor to indicate sufficient mastery.

2

TL;DR

In some cases, not mentioning all the grading details can be acceptable


Aside from all the very good answers already given, I'd like to provide another point of view. You did not mention where you teach (or I missed it) and many answers assume classical university.

From my experience in the French "classes préparatoires", the points for each question were not given explicitly; take a 4h math exam for example: we had like 3 big problems, each worth some given amount of points and consisting on many questions that built on one another. But in each problem, the questions were not stamped with individual amount of points, you were simply required to assume that "later questions are worth more points".

Of course, this is a particular case and I don't know if this apply to you; these exams were a preparation for the engineering school, which select students on a contest system. It was not expected of you to finish the exam, in a way clever cherry-picking was encouraged so that you can maximise your amount of points.

1

Failing to provide the mark value of questions sabotages both your students and yourself.

Exams are provided to determine how well a student understands the course work, with questions weighted by the import of their subject matter. If the value of the questions is hidden, it...

  • prevents students from prioritizing questions on higher-priority matter; Time management is a valuable skill - "cherry-picking" the most important tasks in a time-constrained situation is essential for students to learn, and not to be discouraged.

  • adds randomness to (potentially critical) exam results; It is unreasonable to expect students to reliably guess your thought processes on question valuation, and will inevitably require some degree of guessing. This disproportionately harms students who are slower test-takers, as well as reduces their autonomy. Note that this can easily lead to resentment.

  • reduces the information you gain from the exam; Did Alice skip Important Question A because she didn't know how to solve it, or because Worthless Question B was easier, and she had no way of knowing which was more valuable? Does Bob intuitively understand what concepts are crucial, or was he just lucky?

There are very few, if any, situations in which the benefits of hiding question values outweigh the numerous costs.

  • Interesting answer. However it is biased and makes bold claims that are dubious about what is "reasonable", what are "the goals" of exams, etc. – Dilworth Sep 16 at 9:35
  • @Luc force of habit from other SEs where standard practice is to highlight main answer, fixed. – Larkeith Sep 16 at 14:52
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    @Dilworth I see no "bold claims" nor do I see anything "dubious." – barbecue Sep 16 at 23:25

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