Wednesday, June 15, 2011


It's been suggested that college students should be graded on attendance.
First, a couple anecdotes, and then a better idea.

I had an engineering class called Stress, with a low pass rate. The prof did everything he could think of to get students to pass. Tons of office hour time, etc. 1st day, he passed out a syllabus noting the 3 open book exam dates and all homework. All homework counted the same as an exam. Of the 4 grades, the lowest was dropped. I started the 1st week's homework, but it was clear there was only time for half of it. I was careful to hit all types of problems. I passed it in, but, of course, 50% is not a passing grade. It became clear that the prof taught the material in the book. But i could read faster than he could talk, so i stopped going to class. I did OK on the first exam. One Friday, i came in for what i thought was the 2nd exam, but he passed out a quiz. At a glance, it covered next week's homework. I hadn't done that yet. I rechecked the syllabus, and it said that the 2nd exam was the following Monday - i hadn't missed it. I handed the quiz back. The prof told me that i'd likely fail the course. I looked him in the eye, but didn't tell him i'd do OK if i didn't miss any exams. The last exam was held at the start of the last week. It didn't cover the last week's homework. I did half of that anyway. And, i passed the course.

I would never have skipped half the homework if it weren't impossible to finish. I would never have skipped the classes if the pressure to optimize my time weren't so severe. Exams have high time pressure, and i already knew that my performance would be awful on them. It was just the only choice available. I liked the course material and the prof, but it still pisses me off that the course was set up that way. If i'd known in advance, i'd have dropped another course from my schedule, so i could devote twice the time to it. So the degree means what? These are the students who managed to get through by cheating, optimization, or by being unbelievably quick? Are these skills one needs in industry? Not as far as i can tell.

There was a brief break. Then Stress 2 was taught by the same prof. I figured he'd pass out a syllabus on the first day, so i didn't bring my books or calculator. He passed out an exam! I ran home, grabbed my stuff and ran back in 20 minutes. Panting, i asked for an exam. He found me a seat and an exam that didn't match my neighbors. At the 50 minute mark, i was done (!). I looked around and there was panic on 109 faces. I figured i must have done something wrong. All these kids are brilliant. I checked my answers. No errors. So at the 55 minute mark, i got up and handed it in.

Next day, the prof writes something like this on the board:


At first i wondered how i'd lost 3 points. But then i realized that i'd done the course right. One of the four questions was on that last week's homework, and i was the only one who'd done even half of it. In this course, there'd be 4 exams, homework with the lowest dropped. I did half the homework. Then it was announced that the lowest two grades would be dropped. But i took the 4th exam even though i'd already passed the course.

Years later i auditioned for a chorus. It involved sight singing and a bunch of music things i'd never done before. That morning, i ran 4 miles, showered, and took the train. The director gave me my starting tenor note and played the accompaniment. I dived in, but stumbled. But then i started getting where the piece was going, relaxed a bit and read ahead. At the start of the last line, i turned the page over (while singing), but it was blank. I looked up and finished the page, adding dynamics. The director was stunned. So was i. I'm simply not that good. But a 4 mile warm up does wonders. Phys Ed should be held for 20 minutes every morning for all students. They don't have to be awake for it.

1 comment:

DQKennard said...

"Phys Ed should be held for 20 minutes every morning for all students."

I've made that suggestion to my daughter. She just looks at me in horror.

It's not just for students, of course. I should do 20 minutes of exercise every morning. The thought horrifies me, too, despite knowing how good an idea it is.