Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The buzzing B

And nonplussed

The end of each semester is a time for reflection and renewal. The school term is over, the new term has yet to begin, and the days are free for contemplation, consideration, and ... complaining students. You can always count on the student who learned the “squeaky wheel” adage better than he learned the subject matter. He imagines that his grade is negotiable and fails to note that no negotiating is actually occurring. It can take weeks for the spate of wheedling communiqu├ęs to peter out.
If ever there was a time to consider a grading scheme where if the majority of your exams are A's including the final you get an A. My dad said he got a math teacher to bump him up a grade by doing a card trick.  Are you game?
Family legends and Rudyard Kipling notwithstanding (“If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss”), skill at sleight of hand does not translate into grade points in my class. Sorry about that. He moved on to plan B:
My grandmother would give an A if you got an A on the final but maybe she gave harder finals or something.  
Not to criticize the young man's sainted grandmother, with whom I should never be confused, the old girl was offering her students the ancient “sucker bet” routine. I've seen it often enough before. It's deadly.

When an instructor tells a class at the beginning of the semester that grades will be based on either an overall average or the final exam score, whichever is best, a significant minority of the students immediately falls into the trap: I just need to do well on the final. That'll be enough! Of course it never is. Most such students begin slacking off in that class in order to concentrate on other courses or activities. More immediate concerns take over because I just need to do well on the final. They dig the hole deep, taking comfort in the thought that a single Olympian jump at the end will permit them to escape their subterranean situation, even as they neglect the exercises that would make the feat feasible (and, more to the point, unnecessary, because they would be earning the points that would put them into a position to pass without a miraculously redemptive performance on the final exam).

I never offer my students the sucker bet. My student was undeterred.
Just curious now; did anyone else get two A's on exams and an A on the final and still not get an A?  Is there anyone I can commiserate with or is this an anomaly?
Although misery may love company, privacy considerations intervened. I answered him:
Yes, there were two other students, so it wasn’t exactly an anomaly. It was a matter of getting relatively low A’s that were counterbalanced by lower grades, preventing the composite score from being in the A range. You’d be welcome to commiserate with them, but privacy concerns forbid me from sharing their names. —Z
My student kept harping on his “majority” argument and insisted on ignoring the relative strength of his scores. The semester grade was a weighted average of six scores: one for homework and quizzes, four chapter tests, and one final exam. The composite score was computed thus:

Comp = 0.15*HQ + 0.70*E_average + 0.15*Final

My diligent correspondent had a low A for HQ, a high C for E_average, and a low A for Final. His Comp result was 83.4. That's not A territory. Interestingly, he kept his focus on the exams and ignored the HQ result. Thus his argument was, in effect, three A's on five exams should work out to an A in the class. But here are the exam scores:

Exam 1: 90, Exam 2: 80, Exam 3: 95, Exam 4: 54, Final: 92

That's right: He outright flunked Exam 4. It's really tough to be an A student when you flunk an exam, especially that severely. This never figured into his arguments, for obvious reasons. He fussed over the weights. The final wasn't worth enough! Sorry, but short of going the “sucker bet” route it could hardly ever be worth enough to suit his purposes. Besides, I had already sweetened the pot by building some bonus points into the final exam's grading scheme, giving a perfect paper a value of 105 instead of a mere 100. In reality, his 92 on the final was 87.6%. I had already cut everyone as much slack as I intended to.

He had one more card up his sleeve:
Is there nothing that can be done... a test I can take to challenge?
Lord have mercy! Can you imagine? I tried to be nice:
No, there isn’t anything. If you think about it a little bit, you’ll realize for yourself there couldn’t be any after-the-fact exam that students could take to tweak their grades. Otherwise the college would spend the first several weeks of summer vacation giving the special exams to students who were unsatisfied with the outcome of the semester. Six of your classmates who earned B’s did better than you; ten did more poorly. You earned an unambiguous mid-range B in the class, a good solid grade. —Z
It did not satisfy him. I received one more lengthy message in which he noted his regular attendance, active participation, his “majority” of A's, and his work ethic. “It seems that for one reason or another, I end up coming up short somehow.”

The main reason, as best as I can tell, is that you're a B student whose grades range across the spectrum from A to F. It's not mysterious.
I'm sure you're tired of this by now.


Kathie said...

Exam 1: 90, Exam 2: 80, Exam 3: 95, Exam 4: 54, Final: 92.

How did the student manage to fail Exam 4, yet rally sufficiently to earn 92 on the final (unless the final wasn't a comprehensive test of the term's work but instead essentially Exam 5)?

BTW, I long ago had a few professors who would eliminate each student's worst exam grade from the total, then average out (x-1) scores.

Zeno said...

The final exam contained problems coming from across the four chapters we covered, but was less than fully comprehensive. Choices had to be made, and they mostly reflected priorities I'd already established in the four chapter tests. Students who paid attention knew where to focus their study sessions.

I had a UC professor who was very clear about dropping exams from the course average: "Dropping the lowest exam score is deletion of data. Deletion of data is immoral!" Despite his exhortation, I usually drop the low exam score if there are five or more chapter tests. But not in the case of only four.

A funny postscript. If I had dropped my importunate student's failed exam, his composite score would have been or 89.5 or 89.9, depending on choice of weights. That probably would have been enough for an immoral A, but dropping an exam was not in the cards. He needed not to fail any.

Kathie said...

Any notion why the student flunked Exam 4, then rallied on the final?

The Ridger, FCD said...

You could always be an ice-skating judge and drop the low AND high tests ;-)

But seriously. With that few exams, you don't drop any of them.

Zeno said...

Kathie, I think it was just lack of preparation. He slacked off and it caught up with him. Exam 4 was the test he didn't even finish, getting stuck on everything. Abundant distraction was also provided by his other courses, I'm sure. His final exam result was more in keeping with the rest of his work.

Anonymous said...

"You can always count on the student who learned the 'squeaky wheel' adage better than he learned the subject matter."

Unfortunately I had a now-ex-PhD student who tried that last term. It turns out you need to do research to get a PhD, not figure out how you can fulfill requirements without doing research.