It appears to me that the discussion of *common finals* has splintered into directions that no longer has much to do with the original question.
The original question concerned the process where a department wishes to have some inputs on the pros and cons of scheduling a
final examination in a multiple-sectioned beginning level calculus course at a *common* time.
Pros and cons should be accompanied by a fairly detailed description of the local scene. What works at one location may be totally unreasonable at another location. Philosophical and theoretical discussions without any accompanying scenario do not provide much help.
Many departments may decide to give, for administrative reasons, to give one set of examination questions to all the students taking the same course. In fact, there is no reason why this has to be the case. Indeed, it is quite common that several versions of the exams questions may be given to lessen the chance of students copying from neighbors in crammed spaces. In universities with adequate resources, it is perfectly feasible for the exams to be customized by the individual teachers so that the only thing that is *common* about the exam is the *time*.
Moreover, the weighting of the final exam can also be customized. There is really no shortage of ideas which allow faculty members to implement variations.
As for trusting individual teachers, in institutions where most of the teaching/learning take place in recitations staffed by teaching assistants, there is often a tremendous variation in the past experiences of the teachers. It is often quite helpful that the less experienced teachers are not burdened with the decision on the make up of a final examination. Of course, input from all the teaching staff should be heard. One can easily include choices on the exam. For example, students can be told that there are 11 questions on the exam, 10 would be considered as a *perfect* score and the *11-th* would be considered as *bonus*. A *common content* can, in fact, be a fair test on how well students have mastered the content of the course because the test may include problems that had not been touched by the individual teachers.
Having a common time often has the following advantages:
Students taking the exam at a later time would no longer be spending a large amount of time trying to get hold of the content of the earlier exams.
Students taking the exam at an earlier time would no longer spend time dreaming up excuses in order to take the exam at a later time.
In the case of a *common content*, the question of *uniform grading* may be dealt with by having a *grading party* where each teacher is assigned to grading one problem for all the sections (it could be increased to two or three depending on the number of problems and the number of teachers). With the distribution of a grading key, it is not all that difficult to achieve *reasonble uniformity in grading*. One rationale for *uniform content* is often connected with the fact that a beginning course is most likely to be a pre-requisite or co-requisite to other courses. As such, *final* exam has more to do with the fact that it is the *last* exam for that course, rather than *the last* exam which tests for a comprehensive understanding of the field. In addition, one should also note that U.S. is a litigation-minded society. There are many cases where students lodge official complaints about unfair grades. In such cases, having a *final exam* in a course provides some evidence in terms of student performance in the course.
In some U.S. institutions, undergraduate students may have to pass a *comprehensive* exam in their major subject. Unlike many of the European universities, U.S. students do not usually declare a major until the end of their second year. In many cases, students are still taking courses to satisfy their *distribution* requirements during their junior and senior year. Thus, a comprehensive exam may not be appropriate.
Ultimately, the question on how best to assess the students is best dealt with on a *local basis*.
Han Sah, firstname.lastname@example.org
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