Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Motivating and assessing undergraduate students

In the "good old days" university students were "self-motivated", assessment was almost all based on exams and whether students showed up for tutorials and lectures or read the textbook was their own problem. However, the painful reality today is that most students will usually only do some work under a "carrot and stick" system of continuous assessment. Consequently, in many courses students can get credit for just showing up at tutorials and can get easy marks for assignments, some of which they get "help" with from their friends. This means that a student can pass a course even though they get a failing mark on the final exam. 

This semester I am co-teaching PHYS2020 Thermodynamics and Condensed Matter Physics with Joel Corney. [I have previously posted lectures I have given in this course]. Joel recently came up with a new assessment system that I think addresses some of the problems mentioned above. The details are below. I would be interested in hearing from people who have used such a system or other alternatives.

Summative Assessment  
Laboratory Reports    25%
Midsemester Exam    20%
Final Exam    55%
Total for Summative Assessment: 100%

Formative Assessment
Tutorial group work    40 points
Homework Problems    40 points
Reading Quiz    20 points

Total for Formative Assessment: 100 points

Your overall grade will primarily be determined by the total summative mark.  However, you cannot pass the course without also passing the formative component, and an excellent mark for the formative component may push you up into the next highest grade.

The assessment matrix shows the minimum summative mark (along the bottom) and formative mark (down the side) required to achieve each grade:

Assessment Matrix
85 points2345677
75 points1234567
65 points1234567
50 points1234567
45 points1222222
25 points1222222
0 points1111111


  1. This is an interesting setup!

    In my courses, I've made the formative assessments (reading quizzes, practice problems, and class participation) each worth 7% of the grading scale, the summative assessments (weekly quizzes, labs, and project-based homework) each worth 23% of the grading scale, and the final exam worth 10%.

    With this setup, they cannot pass by completing the formative assessments alone, but each formative assessment category will make the difference between a B and a B+, a D+ and a C-, etc.

    I also periodically show them the correlations between their grades in the different categories. (For example, the weekly quiz grade is strongly correlated with the daily reading quiz grade, indicating that only the students who keep pace with the class discussion can expect to succeed at the end of a unit of material.)

  2. I like the shift to more lab work. When I did the course in 07 there were no labs.