Monday, April 15, 2013

The zero-to-100 trick

In the news not long ago: at John Hopkins University, students in one professor’s computer-programming classes received grades of 100 on their final exams after refusing to take the exams. The professor was grading on a curve, with the highest exam grade in each class becoming a 100 and other grades bumped up accordingly. So with a highest grade of zero — you know the rest. The Johns Hopkins students have been praised for initiative and teamwork: whether they were working as a cheerful community or a dastardly cabal, I cannot say. But I can say that they should not have received 100s.

Not because they have cheated: academic misconduct is not in any obvious way the problem here. The Johns Hopkins students collaborated, but collaboration is not necessarily forbidden, as when students study together for an exam. These students showed no intention to deceive: they didn’t share answers or use unacknowledged sources or purchase work from a term-paper mill. Indeed, the students were transparent in their intentions, standing in the hallways to check whether anyone went in to take an exam (and prepared to take the exam if necessary). There is, in any event, something odd about a charge of academic misconduct in the absence of academic work.

One can argue, as many observers have, that all these students did was to exploit a loophole in a grading policy. But such observers have overlooked important points about the workings of a curve. A curve assumes that students are making a genuine effort to do well in a course by doing its work. If that condition doesn’t hold, a curve becomes a joke, as students can decide as a group to answer, say, just one question each for an exam or assignment. More important: a curve applies only to students who have done the work. A student who doesn’t take an exam when other students do receives a zero, not a grade based on the others’ performance (a grade in the single digits perhaps, instead of a zero).

We can assume that the professor’s syllabi said nothing about these points. They are rightly left as tacit understandings shared by the members of an academic community, understandings that fall under the handy, all-encompassing alligator rule. You don’t write essays in Morse code. You don’t read novels in an English class in Spanish translation. You don’t show up for a 2:00 exam in the wee small hours of the morning, even if the professor left out p.m. You don’t get any grade other than a zero if you don’t take an exam. And guess what: the Johns Hopkins students knew that. As one of them explained in an e-mail, “Handing out 0’s to your classmates will not improve your performance in this course.” In other words, if just one student were to take the exam, those who didn’t would receive zeros, because a curve does not apply to an exam not taken. And if no one takes an exam, there are no grades to curve.

And if it doesn’t go without saying, you don’t bring an alligator to class, or a typewriter.

When I first posted about this incident, my response was indignation. I said that the organizers and those who went along with them should be ashamed. For getting 100s, yes. But only now do I realize that even in my indignation, I didn’t recommend zeros. I think that the best response to the zero-to-100 trick would have been neither a reward nor a punishment but an acknowledgement of the students’ cleverness — touché — and rescheduled examinations. Such a response would have permitted the students to maintain their intellectual integrity, if not their perfect grades.

[Thanks to Curtis Corlew, who wrote about the alligator rule in this comment. Unlike the John Hopkins e-mailer, I follow Garner’s Modern American Usage in pluralizing numbers: -s with no apostrophe.]

comments: 1

zzi said...

You can bet the nuns wouldn't allow a rescheduling of examinations. Their next text would have no curve and be twice as hard.