Never using a scale.

Previously I mentioned not using scales, because I don’t believe in someone doing better because their classmates did poorly.  My goal is to foster cooperation and community.

This summer we’re seeing the downside of this–more than half of my class just failed their first quiz.  I drop the lowest quiz grade, so definitely they can recover, but if they don’t then things are going to get ugly.  Stay tuned!

Video: Berklee Votes

Here’s the video, titled “Berklee Votes”  Hope you like it!  It’s a bit over 4 minutes long, and I’m there in the second half of it, giving the nuts-and-bolts of voting absentee.  It was a great experience to be able to make this, and I only can hope that it will have the intended effect.


Two Berklee Projects

Sorry for falling a bit behind on reviews of Capital in the 21st Century.  I’ve been busy these last couple of months.  One is a video which professor Patricia Peknik (Liberal Arts – History) and myself made all about Berklee students voting and encouraging folks to do so.  It’s not yet visible and I’ll say more about that once it’s up.  I can say that it was far more work than I ever thought it would be–not so much the making of the video, but everything else–getting it funded, getting it hosted somewhere, finding video people, etc.  My dept. chair, Dr. Simone Pilon, was absolutely wonderful and it would not have happened several times over had it not been for her.  However, dealing with the rest of Berklee was like pushing a cart through knee-deep mud, where you’re thinking that aren’t these wheels supposed to make this easier?
The other thing was this event, which happened last week:

Perspectives on Love flyer

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Another semester complete; tightening up the “15/40 Rule”

Finished up another semester.  First time in quite some time…ever?…that I taught a full semester and didn’t fail a single student.  Not sure how I feel about that.

People fretted way too much about the 15/40 Rule.  Ironically, it only affected a handful of people, and the ones who were affected only lost a point or two.  So I’m going to tighten it up:  it’ll heretofore be known as The 10/30 Rule.

Overall, it was a fun semester.  One thing to note:  my 3 Economics sections were 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 Music Business majors (who are required to take the class).  The best section–they asked the most questions, got the most into it, and performed the best–was the one which was 1/2 Music Business majors.  Which pretty much serves as confirmation that the % Music Business majors has nothing to do with how good a class is.

I’ll also declare success on eliminating the Economics midterm.  It made timing less awkward, feed up 2 hours of class time, and allowed for larger, more challenging take-home quizzes during the semester.

Filtering out the Free-Riders: the 15/40 Rule

My last post on this topic was about encouraging everyone to work together on quizzes by making them all take-home and not scaling anything.  The benefit is that it fosters community and valuable people-skills, but it has a drawback:  that a student with little grasp of the material may make it through the class on the efforts of others, copying the quizzes of students who have worked hard to learn the material.

free rider
I should have done this long ago, but starting a couple of years ago I instituted the “15/40 Rule.”

Here’s how it goes:
If a student’s final exam is at least 15 points above their quiz average then the quiz average is automatically raised to 15 below the final exam grade.  This allows a student who took longer to master the material or missed a quiz due to life circumstances to still do reasonably well.

If a student’s final exam is at least 40 points below their quiz average, then the quiz average is automatically lowered to 40 above the final exam grade.  This filters out the occasional free-rider who  copied other people’s work but couldn’t get into the lower 40s on their final exam, and ensures that nobody who doesn’t at least pass the final exam gets above a C+.

Typically about 10% student are bit by the “40” part of the rule.  I think once someone was helped by the “15,” but it’s extremely rare.

Overall I’m quite happy with the way it works.  I’ve thought about tightening it to a 10/30 or even 10/25 Rule or something like that, but worry that the Powers That Be may get on my case if too many people fail the class.  Also, if people start to feel like their quiz grades won’t matter, they may try less hard on the quizzes and thus learn the material less well, making failing the class a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Does anyone else do something like this?  Any thoughts on whether the rule should be tightened or not are welcome.  Currently the final exam represents roughly half of the total grade, so the maximum grade is more-or-less the final exam + 20.

Fostering Community Among Students

Senator Rand Paul (Republican, Kentucky) once told medical school students that his secret to doing well in medical school was to spread false rumors about what would be on the exam so that his classmates would do worse.

This reprehensible strategy (Has anyone died because their doctor didn’t know something they should have?) only worked because his professor at the time used a scale on exams, allowing one to do better by making classmates do worse.

My goal is to foster communication and community among students. And get them used to working with others.  Aside from community being important for both human health and a healthy political system, much of people’s careers involve working productively with others.


One thing I do is that the following policies for exams:

1)  All exams—before the comprehensive final exam (and possibly a comprehensive midterm)—are take-home, where students are actively encouraged to work together.

2)  Nothing is ever scaled.  Thus, nobody has the perverse incentive to make others do worse.  It also prevents students from settling back with confidence simply because they know more than their classmates. Similarly, people who did really well  didn’t “blow the curve,” as there was no curve to blow.  Rather other students see them as potential sources of good information and higher grades and seek them out.

With these two simple tweaks, the Rand Pauls of the world won’t get ahead, and while those who learn with others do best.