Saturday, April 29

Kristina Iliopoulos: Emphasis on exams not conducive to learning


Many classes’ grades are determined almost exclusively by midterm and final exams, which does not promote true learning and can lead to student stress. Instead, professors should distribute more grade weightage to homework and mid-quarter assignments. (Daily Bruin file photo)

Many classes’ grades are determined almost exclusively by midterm and final exams, which does not promote true learning and can lead to student stress. Instead, professors should distribute more grade weightage to homework and mid-quarter assignments. (Daily Bruin file photo)


We’ve all been there – that moment right after a midterm when you don’t really know what to do with your life anymore because there’s no possible way you can stay in college after that embarrassment.

You check the syllabus to see how much of your grade the midterm was worth and – surprise – it’s generally at least 25 percent. Then you think there have to be ways to save your grade, that there will be other chances. Then you become dismayed to find only the second midterm and final remain – and maybe homework that’s worth 10 percent of your grade.

This common grading system currently in place at UCLA, especially in South Campus, puts enormous pressure on students to do well on a select few exams. The habits developed to simply perform well on tests can include cramming and sacrificing sleep to learn the material exclusively for a test, and then quickly forgetting when it’s no longer needed.

This system does not foster an environment where students can truly learn material, and it leaves no room for students to develop creativity to apply to their subject. A better system would put more weight on homework, quizzes and long- and short-term projects. This would encourage students to stay up-to-date with the material. Regular projects would give students the chance to show what they’ve learned without the time crunch of a midterm and help relieve the unhealthy pressure put on students to only perform well on tests.

And that’s a change that needs to happen. Performance on one exam certainly does not define a student’s skills in that subject. There may be many variables in play: lack of sleep that particular day, sickness, anxiety from the time constraint of the test or inability to recall one piece of information needed for five parts of a problem.

Not only is cramming unhealthy, it isn’t even an effective way to study if it cuts into normal sleeping time. According to a study conducted at UCLA in 2012, students who cram the night before a test and sacrifice sleep are more likely to have academic problems, and students perform best under a consistent study schedule.

Changing the distribution of grades more evenly across midterms, quizzes, homework, projects and the final would be a better basis for grading a student based on understanding of the material, and would also promote learning and understanding past the end of the class.

One way to genuinely learn a concept is to continuously practice it, which is the goal of homework. However, a long standing problem with homework in college is that when it’s assigned from the textbook, students will just Google the answers in order to get it done or look at the solution manual for every single problem. A way to combat this would be for professors to write their own homework sets.

Writing original homework sets gives the professor much more freedom than simply assigning from a book; the professor can choose exactly what the student should focus on and will stress what the professor considers most important to practice, which would better prepare the student for that professor’s particular testing style. The incentive of original homework actually being worth a significant percentage of a grade encourages students who have trouble with the homework to form study groups or to attend office hours to ask questions. These all lead to a community which further serves a cooperative learning environment opposed to a competitive one, and will reinforce the material.

For example, professor Josh Samani, who currently teaches Physics 131: “Mathematical Methods of Physics,” utilizes such a system, where he writes his own problem sets, and where homework is worth 20 percent of the final grade. He explained, “I write my own problem sets because this allows me to optimally align their content with my learning objectives for the course. Writing one’s own problems also affords a greater opportunity to be creative.” Students sacrifice a huge portion of their time for their classes, so it’s only fair professors put forth effort in order for their students to genuinely learn their subject.

Some professors don’t agree with the idea of assigning homework for various reasons that may have something to do with their teaching style – or really, the extra work involved with all that grading. However, for South Campus classes in particular, practice is essential to understand concepts. Professors should be in support of their students doing whatever they can to understand the material, so what’s a few extra hours of assigning and grading homework split among professors and TAs?

Grading based on a few tests puts an unhealthy stress on students’ psyches, and can often leave students who highly value their grades feeling hopeless after not performing as expected on a single test. Grading based on tests as well as homework and projects throughout the quarter allows students to show they’re progressively learning and keeping up, and if they do poorly on one thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean a bad grade in that class. Students would be less likely to have to cram if they’re given an even workload throughout the quarter.

With the quarter system as rigorous as it is, the goal of UCLA should be to have students graduating who still remember what they’ve learned – not have them forget everything the moment they step off campus.

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  • josh

    This article is a little bit silly.

    “Students sacrifice a huge portion of their time for their classes, so it’s only fair professors put forth effort in order for their students to genuinely learn their subject.”
    Professors, especially in South campus are already incredibly busy people. In general professors are expected to spend about 30% of their time teaching, 70% of their time researching and 10% doing outreach and community activities. That’s 110% of their time. Its common for professors to delay family and other life commitments in the race to get tenure.

    “Professors should be in support of their students doing whatever they can to understand the material, so what’s a few extra hours of assigning and grading homework split among professors and TAs?”
    Again do you know what its like to be a south campus TA? Do you understand that graduate students are expected to pretty much work full time at their labs, on top of outreach activities, TA’ships, and graduate student classes (which are an actual thing and require a lot of time). Do you understand that being a TA is a job? If your job offered you no choice in your hours, low pay and minimal personal satisfaction would you be willing to “spend a couple more hours a quarter” doing things you are not getting paid for?

    “The habits developed to simply perform well on tests can include cramming and sacrificing sleep to learn the material exclusively for a test, and then quickly forgetting when it’s no longer needed.”
    Do you also understand that you are in college? The whole difference between being in college and being in high school is that you are responsible for the organization of your own time here. If your class is only graded based on one midterm and one final then you had better be aware of that and plan your time accordingly. If you start studying from the first day of class and work a little bit each day and go to every office hour and discussion, then you will have no problem on the midterm. If you are busy with many outside activities and have limited amounts of time, then either your grades will suffer or you will have to rethink how you use your time. I personally do not have a very high GPA, but i understand that that was a trade off for having a rich CV full of outside activities. I recognize that for some GPA is very important to their planned future (ie. for many premeds), then you need to be on top of your classes and NOT CRAMMING AT THE LAST MINUTE, THEN COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR GRADES.

    The real solution here is to increase funding for educational programs. This would allow for the hiring of more full time teaching faculty, who often offer excellent, engaging and well thought out classes. It would also allow departments to hire graders, allowing for more bespoke homeworks, without unfairly increasing workload on graduate students.

  • DJ

    “Waah, waah. Goo goo gah gah.”