When Everyone Wins … With a Zero

Inside Higher Ed has an amusing story of the unanticipated consequences of a professor’s grading system.   (“Dangerous Curves,” Zack Budryk, 12 February 2013.)  Johns Hopkins computer science professor Peter Frohlich used the following rule for his grading curve:

[E]ach class’s highest grade on the final counts as an A, with all other scores adjusted accordingly. So if a midterm is worth 40 points, and the highest actual score is 36 points, “that person gets 100 percent and everybody else gets a percentage relative to it,” said Fröhlich.

His Young Game Theorists, however, thought about the payoff table and realized the unintended consequences of the grading policy.  So they organized a collective boycott of the final exam.  Because they all did so,

a zero was the highest score in each of the three classes, which, by the rules of Fröhlich’s curve, meant every student received an A. “The students refused to come into the room and take the exam, so we sat there for a while: me on the inside, they on the outside,” Fröhlich said. “After about 20-30 minutes I would give up…. Then we all left.” The students waited outside the rooms to make sure that others honored the boycott, and were poised to go in if someone had. No one did, though.

Why didn’t anyone decide to go in?  As one of the students explained:

“Handing out 0’s to your classmates will not improve your performance in this course … So if you can walk in with 100 percent confidence of answering every question correctly, then your payoff would be the same for either decision. Just consider the impact on your other exam performances if you studied for [the final] at the level required to guarantee yourself 100. Otherwise, it’s best to work with your colleagues to ensure a 100 for all and a very pleasant start to the holidays.”

Professor Fröhlich was sanguine about the collective boycott, congratulating the students on their ability to come to a collective strategy, and abiding by the unintended consequence of his grading policy.  He has also changed it going forward, however, to say that “0 points = 0%.”



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