Is there an academic justification behind most U.S. classes weighting exams at very high percentages of the overall grade in a course? So if a student does exceedingly well throughout the course in all projects, but bombs both tests, their grade is drastically skewed towards the exams rather than the coursework leading up to the exams.

Full disclosure, this happened to me this semester. I have a 97.75% on our projects throughout the course (4 major projects, each taking ~20 hours to complete). However, I admittedly bombed the final and did fairly poorly on the midterm (37% and 70%, respectively). Projects in our course are weighted 60%, but the remaining 40% is entirely midterm/final. My final grade for the class is hovering around 80% before the curve.

I want to understand the mindset behind these weights though, and where the idea of heavy cumulative exam weights came from? In other words, if I've demonstrated the understanding of the material to almost perfect standards, but I failed to represent that on a test, how does that translate to me being given a grade that doesn't really represent a strong understanding in the subject?

  • 18
    Just for the record, 60% for projects and 40% for midterm/final is actually a pretty fair split. I've had classes where 80% (50+30) came from the midterm/final combo, and the rest from class work. From my teaching experience, labs/assignments/projects are often not weighed as heavily because students can get external help (StackOverflow, friends, past students, etc) in order to complete the work, but that does not necessarily show great knowledge of the material.
    – Mewa
    May 12, 2015 at 22:15
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    One of my most stressful tests in college was a class that had no midterm and no homework apart from readings, so the final had a 90% weight in the overall grade. The professor also let us to switch to pass-fail grading up until you turned in your final, and I know at least one person who took him up on that offer and ended up acing the test.
    – Roger Fan
    May 12, 2015 at 22:24
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    Depending on the subject I would actually say this is a very low % weight for the exams. For reference, for my undergrad (Physics in the UK) almost all the courses were almost entirely marked on the final exam. The only ones I did that weren't were labs and computational physics although some of the other options had more project based stuff. The point being exams test what you actually know, while they have their flaws they are better at this than projects.
    – nivag
    May 13, 2015 at 8:23
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    In Germany it is pretty common to have only one final test dictating the 100% of your final note. Sometimes it is even worse, I had a one-year class which had only one 100% test at the end of the second semester. Obviously the entire year of content was evaluated, easily one of the most "intense" tests I have ever had.
    – Keine
    May 13, 2015 at 8:40
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    Having spent some time in the British system, I'm surprised to see the "typical" U.S. system being regarded as weighting a final test heavily.
    – Fomite
    May 14, 2015 at 12:27

2 Answers 2


Cumulative tests show that you understand everything so far; they are meant to help students who perform poorly on the first exam, so they can do better on the second one, since they will have an idea of what to expect on the second one. It is uncommon when a student does worse from one test to the next.

Also, going back to projects, some professors don't value homework/projects as much because any student can copy / get help for their projects. Some professors I know would even give 100% for homework/projects just for turning them in, as they are meant for students to practice and learn by themselves. They are meant to help students prepare for tests. Because of this projects and homework are not a good (trusted) indicator of how a student is doing in a class.

By the looks on your grades, most likely you still don't know the topics of your class, if it was a more strict professor / class, just for failing the cumulative final, you would have failed the class as well, as this would be an indicator that you (maybe) cheated on your projects.

Cumulative tests are usually weighted high because in order to do the last topic you need to know the previous topics as well.

  • If the reason exams are weighted so heavy is because they're harder to cheat on, why not just make assignments more difficult to cheat on (or, graded more strictly)? Weighing an exam high for this reason seems like it was just deemed the easiest solution for the professor, regardless of fairness to the students.
    – MrDuk
    May 13, 2015 at 14:29
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    It is the easiest solution for professors. Making projects/homework harder to cheat on require an enormous time of the professor, not all professors have that amount of time. Making the assignment(or different assignments) and also grading. Remember that grading different assignments is time consuming.
    – luisluix
    May 13, 2015 at 14:46
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    @MrDuk, well, how would you propose they regulate projects/assignments so that students don't cheat? Even out of class discussions with lab mates/colleagues/other students would constitute help, and you cannot just lock students in separate rooms for the entire semester with no access to the internet. You can use the projects/assignments to get practice with the components taught in class, but they are not a replacement (usually) for studying the actual material in depth.
    – Mewa
    May 13, 2015 at 18:40
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    Understand and/or have memorized.
    – jvriesem
    May 4, 2017 at 15:22

At my department, the final exam is typically worth around 50% of the grade. This has two main causes:

  • Our department has a rule that requires at least 50% of the evaluation of the student to be done by the professor. Since assignments and midterms are typically graded by TAs, this leaves only the final exam.
  • It is much harder to cheat on the final exam. A determined unscrupulous student could easily cheat on most assignments and midterms. By weighting the final exam at 50%, it is much harder to pass the course without a solid understanding of the material.
  • 1
    Out of curiosity: why is it easier to cheat on the midterm exams than the final? May 13, 2015 at 5:53
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    In this recently concluded semester, my midterms happened in class, where students had to sit close together (due to the number of chairs in the classroom), whereas the final took place in a larger room where I asked them to be more spread out. I expect that it was easier to cheat on the midterms than the final as a result. (Of course this can be mitigated by having midterms in larger rooms too, something I'll think about next time).
    – Aru Ray
    May 13, 2015 at 10:52
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    this leaves only the final exam. - doesn't this imply more of a lack of effort (or motivation maybe) from the professor than a limitation in the available coursework to grade, though?
    – MrDuk
    May 13, 2015 at 14:41
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    @PeteL.Clark The midterms are held in regular classrooms, with very little space between students, and are typically invigilated only by the professor. On the other hand, final exam rooms have significant spacing between students, many more invigilators, and strict regulations for what you are allowed to take into the room, bathroom breaks, etc.
    – Mangara
    May 13, 2015 at 21:29
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    @MrDuk I suppose you could see it that way, although I think the professors feel that their time is better spent focusing on the actual teaching.
    – Mangara
    May 13, 2015 at 21:32

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