The Meteo 421 Exam

Before I started college, someone gave me a piece of insight that Iíll never forget. "The main purpose of college," he said, "is to put off entering the Real World for four more years." At the time I thought he was joking. Now I know better.

Iíd have to say that the first strong sign I encountered that showed me college does terrible things to the human mind was early in my first semester, when two trips to the water fountain in the dormitory, taken forty-five minutes apart, found the same two people sitting in the hallway engaged in an animated and emotional discussion of the similarities and differences between antheridiums and aspergillums. Normal people donít discuss things like that. Walk into any bar in America and odds are you wonít hear a single word about antheridiums and aspergillums. It takes college to do that sort of damage to a personís brain.

This isnít to say that college doesnít teach important lessons. Iíve picked up a few lessons on how to calm down raving violent drunks before anyone gets hurt, which will probably come in handy somewhere down the line. But outside of a very few widely scattered exceptions, these important lessons donít come in the classroom. College classes are societyís way of telling you that your best bet is to become a master thief. Because frankly, some of the things it takes to get through some of these classes just arenít worth it, assuming you can even figure out what those things are.

For example, what does it take to get a good grade on an exam? If you think that showing the work you used to get to the correct answer is enough, youíve obviously been breathing fumes directly out of the exhaust pipe. More than once Iíve discovered that work plus a correct answer can lead to points taken off. Sometimes a LOT of points.

Now let me state up front that I can understand this to a certain extent. If thereís no work shown for a problem, itís quite possible that the person simply copied off the person next to him. The work is important.

But should a person be penalized for not showing exactly the work that the teacher wants? I recently got back an exam on which I got five of twenty-five points for question three and eighteen of twenty-five for problem four, despite getting the correct answers for both problems. Both problems had handwritten comments from the grader telling me to show more detail. Now I had no problem with this explanation for problem three. I spent forty minutes trying to figure it out, and went through a number of different possibilities before finally finding the right one, and the work I put down was less than spectacular. But some work was there, and it was the work that led me to the correct answer. And for problem number four, I wrote down every last bit of work I did. Everything I did to solve the problem was right there on the paper. You would think that that would be enough, right?

Donít be an idiot. Of course it wasnít enough. I lost points for not showing a formula. Also written in with red ink was a calculus term that I apparently was supposed to use. Now, letís be honest. If there are two ways to solve a problem, and one involves multiplying something followed by simple subtraction, and the other involves calculus, which method are you going to use? My point exactly.

So I met with the recitation instructor, who had graded the exam, during office hours to discuss this and plead my case for full credit for number four and a bit less of a hit for number three. I explained where I was coming from. I felt I did a very good job. She was unmoved. She said that she wanted to give me points, but couldnít. Her contention was that the work was very important, more important than the final answer. "If a person is giving a presentation and their result is wrong," she told me, "but the problem is a small error in the work near the end, people will see that the method is sound, and give more credit than they would for an unsupported correct result."

I maintained that the final result was the most important thing. I countered, "So when you turn on the TV to see the weather forecast, do you care about the work that went into producing that forecast, or do you just care that the forecast is correct?"

"Thatís different," she explained.

She also insisted that I had to use proper formulas. I told her that using proper formulas doesnít necessarily show any more understanding of the work than what I did. I hammered it out on my own, which I feel shows some true understanding of the material. Plugging numbers into a formula and getting a correct answer means nothing. A chimpanzee or advanced fish could do that without having any idea what on earth the equation was for. This analogy didnít seem to impress her.

After about twenty minutes of going in circles on this, she said that she wouldnít give me any extra credit, but if I wanted I could talk it over with the lecture teacher and see what she had to say.

Not long after this, I was doing some poking around on the internet about urban legends, and found one about a physics exam on which the students were asked explain how to measure the height of a building using a barometer. One student answered that he would tie a rope to the barometer, lower it from the roof to the ground, and measure the length of rope used to do this. While correct, the answer showed no real knowledge of physics, so he was given another chance to answer the question, this time using physics principles. He said that he would throw the barometer off the roof, time its fall, and use the formula S=½at² to determine the distance of the fall. He later said that other options include measuring the length of the shadow of both the building and the barometer, and the height of the barometer, and using a simple proportion. Or using the barometer as a pendulum at the top and bottom of the building to determine two different values for gravity, and using that to determine the height. Or finding the superintendent and him the barometer if heíll tell you how tall the building is. He admitted to knowing the conventional answer but was tired of being told how to think by teachers, and learning surface mechanics without really understanding the hows or whys involved. While not the answer the instructor was looking for, the answer he gave on the exam was no less valid. One shouldnít be penalized for ingenuity.

While thereís no way to tell if this story is actually true or not, the point of it is still valid. When confronted with a problem, there are often numerous, equally valid ways to solve said problem, and just because one method doesnít necessarily happen to be the one the instructor wanted doesnít make it any less valid.

I did eventually talk to the lecture teacher, and I got back the seven points Iíd lost on number four. She didnít give me anything for number three, and her reasoning seemed a bit specious to me, but I decided that I was awfully close to crossing the line between raising a legitimate concern and becoming a humongous pain in the ass. Since thatís the sort of thing that can make life really hard for a person, I let the issue rest, but I wasnít real happy about it. It wasnít a total victory, but Iíll take what I can get.

I also consoled myself with the fact that I had recounted this story to numerous people, and was clearly winning in the court of public opinion. I was rather pleased by that until Steve reminded me, "The court of public opinion is presided over by idiots." Thanks a ton, Steve.

Nonetheless, itís frustrating, and not just because I lost points on an exam. The fact is, this goes on all the time. It happened to me in high school, on an exam by a chemistry teacher referred to by my homeroom teacher as "The Shark Lady." Itís happened to me other times as well. And it happens to a lot of other people. All too often, students are told to memorize things and spit them back out, to put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole, to follow a procedure to its proper conclusion without understanding it, and are told that this is education. Teachers who can actually teach are all too rare... but thatís a discussion for another day. The point for today is...

Well, just look around you. Youíre in a building (unless youíre reading a printout or have an internet connection outdoors somewhere). Do you know for sure what sort of education the people who built it have? Or do you just care that the ceiling not collapse on your head?

Or look at Yankees fans. Do they care that their team is just a soulless corporate entity throwing millions of dollars at below-average players owned by an egomaniac who has far less love of baseball than of how much money baseball can make for him? No, of course not; they just care about how many World Series victories he can buy for them, at least before he takes the team and moves it.

Do you care how the medicine works, or just that you get healthier?

I could go on, but the point should be clear. When push comes to shove, itís the results that count.

But only in the real world.

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