MSAF: Relief or grief? Shifting the weight of assessments to final exams does more harm than good

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By: Grace Huang

As midterm season continues, discussions about the McMaster Student Absence Form can be heard everywhere on campus. Since 2010, students have been using the MSAF to get out of tests and assignments. Depending on the course, the assignment or midterm would be pushed back to a later date or the equivalent weighting would get carried over to the final exam. Both of these ways generate temporary relief, but how much is the MSAF really benefitting students?

Being evaluated on knowledge and applications at the intended date is as beneficial to the student as being evaluated on the same thing a few days later. The only difference would be that they would have had a few more days to gather their thoughts and have more confidence before submitting their work or writing their test.

The MSAF becomes questionable when the weights of these assessments get pushed into the final exam. This can make exams worth well over 60 per cent of their final course grade and puts unnecessary stress on students at the final push of exams. The MSAF should only be used to extend deadlines and push back test days rather than be used to skip midterms.

The MSAF is special to McMaster. Most universities in Canada only excuse students from missing schoolwork if they provide a valid reason with proof. Prior to 2010, McMaster had the same policy, but students began forging doctor’s notes to get out of evaluations. In response to this problem, the school created the MSAF so students could excuse themselves once a term. This was a great idea to begin with, but students have gradually taken advantage of this with the “strategic MSAF.”

The strategic MSAF has been used as a saving grace to get out of perceptually challenging midterms, but this is not conveying the right message. Being able to opt out of something unfavourable is simply not something that happens in the real world. While it may feel relieving in the moment, it adds extra unnecessary pressure to the final exam.

Many professors have informed their classes that students who use their MSAF on the midterm do not do as well on the final exam as the rest of the students. Reasons for this include the stress factor stated previously as well as the fact that missing a midterm means missing a checkpoint that prepares students for the final.

In other words, if students do not prepare for a midterm because they plan to use MSAF, they would have to work twice as hard in preparation for the final. Again, pushing a midterm back a few days in a period of bunched up midterms is certainly beneficial for students, but temporarily getting rid of it and reweighing the mark distribution to the final exam is simply unwise and ludicrous.

In addition to the stress and forecasted low performance, using the MSAF to reweight marks to the final can also harm the content stored in a student’s long-term memory. Students often lose focus of how the point of studying is to be evaluated on their knowledge. Students who do not have these evaluations will have gaps in their understanding of content, especially if the final is cumulative, because of the lack of reinforcement studying. The consequences could carry over to the next year, as lots of material can be prerequisite to the next year’s courses. With negative outcomes outweighing the positive, it is undeniable that the MSAF should not be available to reweight midterms.

The use of the MSAF is beneficial when assignments and midterms are cluttered and the student just needs a few more days for one evaluation. The McMaster administrative team and course coordinators should seriously consider eliminating the trap of shifting the weight of a midterm to the final because it causes unnecessary stress and reduces overall learning for the student.

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