The Pros and Cons of Mid-Semester Graded Work
It’s that wonderful, relaxing, peaceful, happy, copacetic time of year again — my grades are in.
And as I take a break from my celebratory revelry (and, more saliently, start working on my syllabi for my fall classes), I once again return to a question I’ve struggled with each of the four semesters that I’ve taught: Besides the final examination, how (if at all) should students be evaluated?
I’m one of those who gives a whole lot of graded work besides the final exam. For example, each of the previous times I’ve taught Federal Courts, I’ve given a take-home midterm. I also gave a separate writing assignment one of the two times, but not the second. When I’ve taught Civil Procedure to 1Ls, I’ve given two mid-semester graded assignments. And this semester, in my Constitutional Law class, I had every student write two response papers — for two different classes. Thus far, my final exam has never been worth more than 60% of the students’ grades, and usually it’s closer to 50%.
There’s an obvious downside to me of these additional assignments: More work writing and grading them. Sometimes, much more. But aside from that, I always find myself wondering at the end of the semester just how much students appreciate other opportunities to be evaluated, as opposed to a make-or-break, all-or-nothing final exam.
To me, this question is actually two very separate questions: First, do the mid-semester assignments actually facilitate the students’ assimilation of the material, and perhaps allow them to bring together the discrete topics earlier than in the rush right before the final? Put another way, do in-semester assignments make a substantive difference?
Second is the psychological question. Students usually say they appreciate not having everything ride on the final, but do they mean it? It’s additional time out of their schedule when the assignments are due, and, per the first question, probably requires organization of materials to a greater degree than a regular class meeting does. At the same time, students who are not good exam takers usually seem to appreciate the chance to have at least some of their grade based upon written and prepared work…
Ultimately, if it’s really a wash insofar as the students are concerned, then it seems to me that it’s not worth it. On the flip side, if it’s clearly better for the students to do it the way I’ve been doing it, then the extra time spent grading strikes me as well worth it. The problem is that I am in a singularly bad position to tell which is more accurate. My instinct is that it makes sense to have additional graded work in first-year classes, and in upper-level classes where there is simply a ton of material (i.e. Federal Courts, in which my final is not cumulative), but perhaps not in other upper-level classes (like the National Security Law course I’m teaching this fall).
Where do you come down?