Boosting Knowledge Retention through Skill-based Grading

In the interest of retention, UC San Diego courses should promote skill-based learning by utilizing grading systems based on students’ applications of skills. An ideal grading system wouldn’t emphasize test-taking skills as much as understanding the content. This isn’t to say that exams should be eliminated, but rather that exams should adopt skill-oriented problems and account for a smaller percentage of the course grade. Skill-based learning attaches meaning to grades when assignments, projects and exams are created with clear goals in mind for the students so that an A means that the student has mastered a particular skill — one that isn’t routine test-taking or cramming for exams.

As part of a shift toward skill-based grading, professors should give leniency to poor grades by offering methods to make up points through extra credit assignments or exam corrections, with the end goal being that students can display their understanding of the material even after the exam date. If students perform poorly on a quiz, for instance, professors should allow them to receive partial points back by creating something like an educational YouTube video on the concept they failed to master, in order to show that they are capable of applying it in the future. Doing this can give students a chance to redeem themselves by honing the concepts on which they initially performed poorly. This would ensure that students are provided the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in a course for the sake of understanding the content and larger concepts in the long run, instead of trying to cram material for a test and moving on without reflecting on the skills they have acquired or don’t fully understand.

Project-based assignments should also represent larger portions of course grades to encourage students to be creative and show their understanding of course concepts through mediums they are comfortable with, such as creating a game that incorporates certain skills, making a poster or crafting an infographic. Rather than a timed, grueling test, these projects would make it easier for them to succeed in the course and help with knowledge retention in the long-run since students have to fully comprehend the material for a longer period of time than a one-hour test.

With the same intent of prioritizing students’ understanding of concepts over their performance on tests, increasing the number of real-world assignments would give students opportunities to apply course material in practical settings and ensure that their knowledge isn’t limited to a classroom. Linear algebra courses that have MATLAB assignments to model real-world data help students understand the various applications of skills developed from course material in diverse settings. This exposes students to practices and tools used in respective career fields, allowing them to gain awareness of how course material applies to situations both outside of theoretical textbook problems and in the future.

Although real-world applications and project-based assignments will increase retention and grade students based on their understanding of content, the fact remains that exams are a convenient and easy grading method in a public university with thousands of students, and therefore unlikely to disappear. Accordingly, one way professors can better prepare students for exams — and thus prevent students from aimlessly cramming — is by providing concept lists in preparation for exams, in order to set clear goals for students throughout the studying process. Providing concept lists and practice problems for those concepts encourages students to utilize metacognition in studying, a method that helps students to think about what and how they want to study to get a better grade, in contrast to immediately diving into the studying process and trying to retain as much information as possible. In a study done by a Stanford researcher, students who were told to think about how they should study performed on average one-third of a grade better than students who mindlessly studied without thinking about the methods they used. When students learn to analyze and evaluate their own methods and thinking through metacognition, they are able to improve their studying methods with a goal in mind, ultimately making room for a more meaningful relationship with the content — one that exceeds cramming. Ultimately, metacognitive testing strategies combined with makeup assignments, project-based learning and real-world applications will help students learn the skills they need to survive outside of college.