Mad scribblings and inexpert musing

Stop Counting Your Points

published: 9 May 2012 05:05:00PM

I walked into class yesterday afternoon where my professor teaches, back-to-back, a section of upper division Data Structures and Algorithms followed by my section of Formal Languages and Automata. On Monday, both classes had an exam. (Not my best I'm afraid, I spent the weekend at FarmhouseConf rather than studying. Worth it.) I arrived to class today and overheard a familiar story as the last class was leaving. A student was contesting his score on a particular problem. The crux of his reasoning was that while he was wrong, he "felt" he "earned more points" than what was recorded. I'm normally not a fan of the air-quotes for emphasis or sarcasm, but in this case they were also the exact words used by the student in question.

There's something odd about people who pay attention to the points rather than what they learned. I will be the first to jump in and bitch about how much I pay for tuition but also freely admit that I pay far less than an out-of-state or private school student. School is fucking expensive. So why? Why why why why why? would you haggle over how many points you "earned", when you can and should be figuring out what you didn't learn which cost you those points. On tests where I do poorly, I often spend about as much time trying to figure out what I did wrong as I did taking the test in the first place. I'm also a really shitty student. I elect not to take notes and I am presently writing the first draft of this post in class while something I already know is being reviewed.

Situations like this one baffle me, but also emphasizes that there's no metric I can use other than day-to-day individual progress to represent the achievements of my students lest they (or I) become fixated on the metric. I keep incredibly detailed notes about the individual skills and weak points of anyone who I regularly teach or mentor, but I neither have nor will try to grade or rate them. Why fixate on numerals when you could fixate on learning new stuff?

The vocabulary choices of this student remind me of something my seventh grade history teacher talked about on the first day of school. Which is the subtle and subconscious vocabulary choices of students when discussing grades. "I got an A. I got an A. He gave me an F." It's only human to want to take credit for our achievements while marginalizing our failures. I have certainly been guilty of this in the past. I have been given achieved three failing grades in my life, two in high school and one in college.

  • I earned an F in second semester Geometry because I failed to find the subject interesting and couldn't be arsed to do the homework or get up before 7AM to get to class on time.

  • I earned an F in second semester American History because I elected to take no notes in spite of the fact that our notebooks were going to be collected and graded.

  • Incidentally, the one college course I failed was an online Jazz History course during a winter session. I failed because I completely forgot I registered. I never signed in or even thought about it until it showed up on my transcript.

I don't look too far down on this guy though. When I was taking the very same Data Structures class, albeit with a different professor, we were required to submit our assignments online to a system which auto-grades our programming assignments by running our own JUnit tests, and analyzing them for coverage. As well as JUnit tests written by our professor on our code. One thing the system did that I absolutely hated was run Checkstyle with the official SJSU Java Style guidelines encoded in XML. Well, this style guide was written before Java had Generics and had never been updated. So Checkstyle threw a fit when I had Node<E> instead of Node < E >. In order to get it to shut up (and claim the final five points on the assignment) I had to ruin my code with this offensively spaced style.

I mentioned this to the professor and he suggested that it was always an option to sacrifice those points in the name of doing things right and grades be damned. Since then, I've submitted plenty of assignments that don't precisely meet specification. Mostly I get docked because I don't include Eclipse project files with my source code which means the professors have to find the command line and run Ant (I also provide Makefiles). In any case, it was eye opening to hear a professor give me permission to get a less-than-optimal score simply because something else is more important.

So stop counting your points and start making sure you learn. Besides, learning is more fun.