There are a handful of students in my course who came to class, did acceptably well on the midterm, and contributed to the (group) assignments, but did poorly on the final exam. The exam was a combination of multiple choice and long-answer "problem solving" questions. The class is heavily applied and has a strong emphasis on team project work but there was also a 50% exam component.

These students were surprised that they did so poorly in the course.

Is this an indication of a poor exam or poor instruction on my part? Is there something that I can do throughout my course to avoid this situation in the future?

Some articles (ex: http://chronicle.com/article/Stop-Telling-Students-to-Study/131622) advocate moving away from summative evaluations altogether for example.

  • Downvote. This has no definitive answer and will just lead to discussion.
    – James
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 20:33
  • 15
    Disagreed. Discussion is a natural thing that will benefit us all.
    – JFW
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 1:10
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    @JFW: Regardless of its benefits in the abstract, this site is not the right context for extended discussion.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 15:37
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    @James so to this day you're the only downvoter vs 25 upvoters?
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 8:29

3 Answers 3


Apart from the natural response of blaming someone else for one's shortcomings (as students often do), it is difficult to see where the problem may lie. I have studied under a summative system and always found my grades were very clear and understandable to me, particularly if I understood why answers were graded as they were. Now I usually did not question someone's judgement unless I felt it was absolutely necessary.

Now, many years later, I am teaching in a system where courses are set up with learning objectives. At first I found this quite strenuous since each objective must be underpinned by clear grading criteria for each of the grades A-E and F. Note that the major difference is that the learning objectives means you do not grade on a curve but in terms of how students fulfill the goals.

Working with goal oriented criteria demands a lot from the teacher in first setting up the appropriate goals and then to make sensible criteria for how to judge fulfilling them. At first it seems tempting to describe the fulfillment as good, better, much better and outstandingly good or something of that sort but the point is to pinpoint what characterizes the standard for the specific grade. Since many criteria make up a final grade one must also explain the ways in which the different criteria are weighted together but that is a only a minor problem reminiscent of the summative system.

What I have found in the end is that not only should the criteria give the students better ways to understand where they stand but they actually provide me with more fuel to explain why they got the result they did. I now have a thought-through list of arguments for a specific grade which is not relative to others but relating to a set of goals and how to fulfill them.

If this is manageable everywhere is beyond my horizon to speculate on but I must say that after battling with the system (after it was imposed on us) I have found that it actually works in my favour—and hopefully also the students'). It makes the grading transparent. It is also possible to stake out issues that may reduce grades such as spelling errors in essays or missing labels in graphs or whatever details may matter.

Now so far this concerned the setup of the course in terms of grading. It is of course necessary to also add structure to a class that forces students to work with the new knowledge during the course. This could of course be any activity that makes students read the literature and reflect on its content. As an undergraduate I was in a system where studying was mainly done during a few 24-hour days before the exam. Once it was passed most was forgotten. As a graduate student I was in a system with lots of homework and other activities and I found that I really did not have to study that hard for the exam. So activities may play a role to help students reflect on the material. Exactly what activities can and should be used depends on the subject but the main objective should be to have students digest and reflect on the material.

A final issue concerns examination. Does the examination reflect the type of knowledge in the course? This is a big question and one which needs thought. There are many alternative ways of examining apart from written exams and since I hate correcting exams I try to test other ways. Again, what works depends on the type of course but look into other ways of examining the course to see if that will help.

I do not know if this is helpful as an attempt to answer your question but the topic of learning outcomes is difficult and whereas the learning at university level really IS the student's responsibility, it is the learning activities and assessments we make that can help them reach results.

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    After much thought I've decided that this answer is the "correct" one as it covers two key points: the first is that it discusses how to speak with students who have doubts that their grade reflects their performance (i.e. speak to them with respect to the learning objectives, and indicate how the exam covers these objectives) as well as discussing the necessity of an exam. However, I found great value from the two other responses and the associated comments below as well.
    – Irwin
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 16:55

I was just speaking with another instructor and received this advice:

  • Grades are non-negotiable unless there's a clerical mistake.
  • Transparency will help avoid issues at the end regarding mistakes. One way to easily post marks is to assign each student a unique number at the start of the course, which enables you to post marks as they come in.

I posted it as an answer to my own question because I believe it's helpful advice to know and something I wish I had considered more strongly at the beginning (especially regarding transparency).

  • 2
    Transparency is absolutely vital. I used to post grades under student-supplied pseudonyms; more recently, I record grades on my university's course management system, which allows every student to look up their own grades. But another aspect of transparency (along the lines of Peter Jansson's answer) is to provide clear grading rubrics, ideally detailed enough for the student to verify their own grades.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 20:42
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    On the other hand, I don't agree with "Grades are non-negotiable." Everyone makes mistakes, including you. Any student should be allowed to argue — with clear, compelling evidence, of course — that their grade does not reflect the posted rubric. It's quite common in the classes I teach for students to submit non-standard solutions that are perfectly correct; sometimes those solutions get low grades just because the grader was tired.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 20:46
  • Thank you for the advice, JeffE. Do instructors on this board post final exam solutions after the course is over so students can verify their performance?
    – Irwin
    Commented Mar 26, 2013 at 21:39
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    Everywhere I've been as a student I had the right to at least look at my graded exam. Once I've changed from a failing to a passing grade after discovering an error in the grading.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 12:28
  • @Irwin: I always post solutions and rubrics for homework and midterms. I usually don't do that for final exams, but I do allow students to see their final exams and request regrades. Like gerrit, I've changed a student's failing grade to a passing grade after regrading their exam.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 15:36

If you believe these students understood the material (based on other measures like projects), but they did badly on the exam, then it's a problem with the exam.

While I was in college, problems like this came up a couple of times, and the professors handled it with one of the following solutions:

  • Not having the exam, or removing the exam from final grades.
  • Grading students with and without the exam and giving them the higher grade.
  • Changing the grading scale for the exam (not necessarily on a curve).
  • Offering a chance to re-take the exam.

Since your class already has projects, the first two seem like good options.

Of course, this is all based on the assumption that you think they understand the material and just did badly on the exam. If they also did badly on the projects, then there's a good chance they're just trying to avoid responsibility.

  • But can you really do these things (other than the third one) with a final exam? With a midterm, sure, but a final exam is a beast of a different nature. Midterms may exist solely due to an instructor's whims, but final exams are often required by the university itself. As such there tend to be much different rules on what you can do. I'm not entirely sure that re-taking the exam is actually permissible unless they can be (legitimately) given an incomplete. You also have to be careful on whether you're employing these to give preferential treatment to the minority of under performers. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 2:49
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    @zibadawatimmy I guess it depends on your university. When I got my computer science degree a few years, I saw all of these options used, and not having an exam was fairly common in high-level classes (since projects were a better judge of students' understanding). Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 12:36

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