I teach English, not math, but when I was preparing my own students for this week’s semester exam, I explained the grading breakdown like this: “This exam is 20% of your semester grade, with 90 multiple choice questions at one point each and then a ten-point essay at the end. So…how much of your overall semester grade depends just on that essay question?”
Most of them guessed quickly and guessed wrong. Several got the right answer, but only a couple got it right away. (The answer is 2%. Basically, 10% of 20.)
That led me to share a couple of other math-based exam observations I’ve made over the years.
I asked classes what someone should do if they had a combined semester grade of 9% going into the exam. Most of them said to study and work really hard. Many of them were shocked when I said the correct answer would be to sleep in and skip it. “In that situation, you could ace the test twice and still fail the class, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over the test at that point could save you from months of consistently bad choices, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”
Some of the less studious among them seemed offended at the very idea, but most of them were receptive, some even seeming to have a “eureka” moment.
Then I told them that there’s another, more positive side to that coin: “What if the exam were worth 10% of the semester grade and you had earned 103% up until that point. What should you do then?”
After a variety of guesses, I again suggested that the best course of action would be sleeping in and taking the day off. Again, many were shocked, but the most studious among them seemed greatly gratified by the observation. For those who were still stymied by the idea, I gave a similar explanation: “In that situation, you could take a goose egg on the exam and still have a 93% for the semester, which looks the same as 103% on your transcript, which is what matters, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over that test at that point could hurt or improve the bulletproof grade you’d already worked so hard to earn, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”
I told my classes that I’d seen a lot of students over the years work their hearts out on exams for no real gain, some because their grades were too high, and some because their grades were too low.
Finally, I hastened to make clear that neither of those situations applied to any of them! I just wanted to emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic, situational awareness, and math.