Curve Breakers: Professor Gives As To Entire Class for Not Taking Exam

peter-baltimore-2011-tnProfessor Peter Frölich at Johns Hopkins University has always had an idiosyncratic grading curve. he would take the highest grade of his class and designate it as an A and then adjust every lower grade accordingly. Thus, if the highest score is 60 out of 100, 60 points is treated as 100 percent. It is an elegant curve until students discovered a sure fire why of guaranteeing perfect scores for everyone — they simply declined to answer any question making the top score 0. Notably, the professor (shown here) includes gaming as his academic focus.

The conspiracy of curve breakers was hatched in Frölich’s “Intermediate Programming”, “Computer Science Fundamentals,” and “Introduction to Programming for Scientists and Engineers. The key was to guarantee that no one gamed them as they gamed the system by at the last minute answering one question correctly. To keep everyone honest, they all stood guards on everyone else outside of the class.

The professor decided to reward the students for successfully rigging his system. However, he has changed his policy to expressly state that if “everybody has 0 points means that everybody gets 0 percent.”

Source: Inside Higher Education

25 thoughts on “Curve Breakers: Professor Gives As To Entire Class for Not Taking Exam

  1. I wouldn’t call it “idiosyncratic”, I’d call it idiotic. If the highest mark in my class were 60%, I’d make the lot of them retake the test or even retake the entire course – especially if they tried to game the system.

    Grading should always be measured in knowledge and ability, whether one knows the material, never graded on a curve. If the lowest mark was 85%, that’s something to be celebrated, not punished with a failing grade.

    There’s an apocryphal story of Sparta, about a very good soldier who tried out for the 300 guardians of the city. He failed to make the 300, and went home happy. When asked why he was happy, he said it’s because there were 300 soldiers better than him.

  2. I think it is up to the students who are paying upwards of $50,000 per year to attend JHU to decide whether they are getting their money´s worth….

  3. It’s not usual to peg grades based on the highest score–I haven’t done it when I taught, but I have always structured things so that there is some writing, and some material not in the text, so that people can’t get an A based on memorization of the book. Students hate it but i don’t care, it just means that the skilled regurgitators get Bs rather than As. Still, I know people who’ve anchored in his way and classes usually have enough people who don’t know each other that they don’t rig the system to accept something outlandish like 60%=A and the competition results in a distribution no more skewed than in classes with other approaches. besides the cohesiveness among the students, there’s also skill in constructing tests so that they can distinguish between different levels of mastery 9or skill in cheating).

  4. P Smith,

    There’s a school of thought that the exam with the best gauge of relative student ability is one which comprises a variety of questions ranging from those so easy one might have to be asleep not to answer correctly and those so difficult only the most intuitively adept students even have a chance of answering, in which scores follow a purely Gaussian distribution in which the average score is 50% and no one (in the statistical sense) scores 100% or 0%. They are indeed good at separating out and rewarding students more adept at the material than their peers, though, and I know from experience, they tend to be pretty bad for morale. Engineering professors tend to like these curve schemes because they’re so logical.

  5. Leadership, teamwork, and innovative thinking are much more important skills than those students are likely to learn in most classes. So, kudos to the students for successfully gaming the system and kudos to the prof for following his rules.

  6. “However, he has changed his policy to expressly state that if “everybody has 0 points means that everybody gets 0 percent.”

    ***********************

    Not sure how that Nazi prison guard approach is any better. Johnny likes Sue. Sue doesn’t like Johnny. Johnny is hurt. Sue needs a 3.0 GPA per semester to keep her scholarship and also needs a B in Professor Frölich’s class to do that. Johnny, sporting a 4.0 GPA, tanks the final exam. Sue gets tanked and out she goes.

    Professor (Banter N.) Frölich should have taken Professor’s Turley’s class where he undoubtedly would have learned that hurriedly-fashioned, hard and fast rules make for really bad results. There are no short cuts in the race for reason. You really do have to think your way around the track.

  7. Waldo:

    “Leadership, teamwork, and innovative thinking are much more important skills than those students are likely to learn in most classes. So, kudos to the students for successfully gaming the system and kudos to the prof for following his rules.”

    *****************

    You left out that integrity part. No bother, a lot of people do.

  8. Mespo727272, you present an interesting possibility, but I don’t find it probable. There would likely be many people in the class, so I’m not sure how that would happen.

  9. I think that this professor is wonderful and I also think his students learned their lessons well. The professor teaches game theory and all of the students deserved an “A” for absorbing his lessons. I believe in curving grades for this simple reason: there is now way for a teacher to know whether or not the test prepared is a fair one. To discover after the fact that it was too hard, or too easy, doesn’t do the student any good. The whole concept of education being about grades is ridiculous and counter productive.

  10. WAIT! I think there is a problem with this story! Given the clever loop hole they exploited I am sure these are all law school students ;)

  11. Jude:

    Probably so, but my point was that hard and fast rules about evaluating performance rarely work out well. We had a true bell curve in law school. I never thought that was particularly fair either.

  12. I know a professor who, when the grades are rather poor will offer time for the students to come in so they can learn what they did not absorb the first time around.
    “Leadership, teamwork, and innovative thinking are much more important skills than those students are likely to learn in most classes”
    Like Mespo added “integrity” but I would also add facts are important, knowing the basics is important or how can you advance to the next level (degree or class)?

  13. “If the highest mark in my class were 60%, I’d make the lot of them retake the test or even retake the entire course – especially if they tried to game the system.”
    -P. Smith

    If the highest mark in your class is 60%, there’s either something wrong with your test or something wrong with your teaching.

  14. “Leadership, teamwork, and innovative thinking are much more important skills than those students are likely to learn in most classes. So, kudos to the students for successfully gaming the system and kudos to the prof for following his rules.” – Waldo

    Right. Now prof needs to change is grading system to more than 0=0.

    “If the highest mark in your class is 60%, there’s either something wrong with your test or something wrong with your teaching.” – Scott

    Right. I was a consistent A student in math and science classes. Later I took calculus in a company sponsored class. Two classes, a different engineer as teacher for each. I got a C each time but it should have been apparent that I didn’t have a clue! I’m capable of learning calculus, just not from these engineers. I don’t know about the validity of the tests since, as I said, I didn’t have a clue. The Teaching Company has DVDs that did a good job. I learned more from the first DVD that I learned from the two classes.

  15. This seems to me to be a fascinating example of the two schools of arguments that are regularly played out in this blawgs comments regarding the role of education and teachers: A: teach to the test or B: for other, equally important attributes not readily measured on standardized tests.

    The professor appears to me to be a B style teacher and his students excelled at the shadow curriculum. I’m with Waldo regarding the result. Now the teacher is going to have to come up with a new series of learning hoops for his students to jump through and that will make him a better teacher, if he views his mission as getting his students from Level 1 to Level X in the game of education/problem solving/life. If he’s really a gamer (as his bio/web page indicates) he’s going to have some interesting classes in the future.

  16. Scott – “If the highest mark in your class is 60%, there’s either something wrong with your test or something wrong with your teaching.”

    Did you never attend college? Or never encounter a course that was obscure and incomprehensible to smart students? Or do you just like making assumptions based on no information?

    In my college (business program) nearly all the 200+ students in the program had GPAs over 3, myself included. But one particular course on information systems drove a class of thirty over the edge, the best mark being a C and most getting bare passes. I’m sure other people can tell of similar cases.

  17. “In my college (business program) nearly all the 200+ students in the program had GPAs over 3, myself included. But one particular course on information systems drove a class of thirty over the edge, the best mark being a C and most getting bare passes. I’m sure other people can tell of similar cases.”

    P. Smith,

    When I was in Grad school working for my Masters in Social Work, Social Work Statistics was a required course. My GPA was also very high, but the highest grade on the final test was a 37, which got an “A”. My grade of 31 got me a B+.

  18. A followup on BoingBoing on the game being played (the Stag Hunt) and within it a link “Right On Queue” that explains the implications of that particular game in the real world, using a recent example. It reinforces my appreciation for the students actions as well as being an entertaining and enlightening read.

    ” Stag Hunts: fascinating and useful game theory model for collective action problems”

    http://boingboing.net/2013/02/20/stag-hunts-fascinating-and-us.html

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