For a course with a final exam, is it more common to: (a) require that the final exam be passed to pass the course, or (b) allow for a student to fail the final exam and still pass the course?

How could we estimate the relative proportion of the two policies? If someone argued that case (a) was "rare" in higher education, how could we respond?

Edit: Consider restricting to mathematics classes at American universities, with a comprehensive final exam, if that's clarifying.

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    @O.R.Mapper: Typically, in the US system (which seems to be where the OP is coming from), the course is what counts toward graduation. The final exam is one requirement within the course. The grade for the course is computed, according to some system determined by the instructor, based on the student's performance on the assigned work in the course, including the final exam. The grading system could include the requirement "if the final exam score is below X, the student gets a failing grade for the course, regardless of their scores on other assignments". Commented May 14, 2016 at 17:44
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    Nate has it. The final exam occurs before the course grade is given. Assume this question is in the context of American higher education, if that's clarifying. Commented May 14, 2016 at 18:22
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    Single data point: I adopted this (by which I mean option "a") into my syllabi, in part because I had seen the condition used by a very good lecturer (at a very good public university). On the downside, I have actually had to fail a student who was otherwise a solid B+/A- student as a result of this clause. But usually it only applies to those who were already in danger of failing the course. Commented May 14, 2016 at 19:19
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    At the California community college where I teach, I know people who have such a policy, but it's probably only 10% of the faculty or less. I think it's common in courses where the instructor has provided lots of ways for students to earn points without necessarily doing anything intellectually challenging -- attendance, participation, homework, extra credit, lab reports, etc. The instructor wants to make sure that a student can't build up all these points and then pass without actually learning anything. IMO it fails to address the underlying problem of why "fluff" activities count so much.
    – user1482
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 20:08
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    I see you are limiting it to American Universities. I just want to throw out there that 100% finals are extremely common outside of the U.S., sometimes even the standard practice. Commented May 15, 2016 at 4:33

2 Answers 2


If someone argued that case (a) was "rare" in higher education, respond by:

  1. asking for the data they used to come to that conclusion
  2. determine if sample size is large enough to make any reliable conclusions
  3. determine what 'rare' means
  4. measure if the number of pass/fail final exams is greater than or less than the rare threshold

If they don't have data, then respond by saying that their personal experiences probably do not represent a national average.


I'm a little confused by the question. Are you asking the question in your first paragraph, or how to respond to a claim about that?

Anyway, most undergrad math classes in the US with a final exam I know about have the exam as one component of the course grade, as in Nate's comment. The grading policies should be written clearly in syllabi and occasionally there are clauses like the final exam grade is a lower bound on the course grade, but I have not often seen the other way around.

If you want to respond with data, you would need some sort of survey, but you also need to clarify meanings as there need not be an inherent meaning of "passing a final exam." The instructor may set a cut-off and call exams over certain scores passing (though this is sort of artificial if the instructor "curves"), but I never assign passing or failing grades specifically for the final exam, so for me "passing the final exam" means doing well enough on the final exam to make one's cumulative average high enough for me to assign a passing grade.

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