In asking how much stress should be laid on the final examination in computing the grades for Government I, Professor Holcombe, whose letter appears in an adjoining column, raises a question of fundamental importance for all elementary courses at Harvard. Grades in advanced courses may usually without misgivings be determined on the basis of one or two examinations and possible a thesis. But the problem is not so easily solved for such large elementary courses as Government I, History I, or English 28.
The large proportion of Freshmen in these courses and the wide range of subject matter covered by them make comparatively frequent check-ups in the form of tests advisable. But this fact does not answer the question as to how heavily these periodic tests should count toward the final grade. The arguments in favor of laying great stress on the weekly or monthly marks constitute in reality an indictment of examinations as an accurate test of knowledge. The good student may have an off day mentally or physically or may be so afflicted with examination nervousness as to fall far short of realizing his full potentialities. On the other hand the opportunities for successful cramming are particularly bright in elementary courses.
But however inadequate a single three hour examination may be to test the fruits of a whole year's work, it would seem to be a sound principle that a man should be graded on his knowledge and ability at the completion of his labors rather than during their course. It is partially the recognition of this principle that has given rise to the divisional examinations. And just as in the awarding of a degree it is of importance what a student can show in the second half of his Senior year and not what he has done as a Sophomore or Freshman, so in the determination of a course grade the student's competence in June rather than in December or February should be the deciding factor.
To what extent this principle can be applied in such courses as Government I must depend largely on the examiners' estimate of the adequacy of the best examination the nature of the subject matter will enable them to draw up.