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TLDR: In a course where students are required to do exercises, a programming project and write a report in small groups, the lecturer announced that grading will be based on 'creativity' and how funny or interesting he thinks the results are. How can I cope with this as a student?


I am taking a mandatory course where a programming project and exercises are carried out in small groups of students. Over the last years, the projects were relatively similar from what I've heard, and the course is known for a comparatively large workload with no deadline or fixed extent.

An anecdotal example told by the lecturer is that someone wrote a 170 page report and implemented his own wireless transfer protocol (which is only partly related to the course contents). Students from the last semesters took up to around a year in total to finish their projects.

This is my final semester where I take courses (hopefully), and the only semester I am able to take this course specifically. After that, there will be my masters thesis.

In the introduction to the course, the lecturer has mentioned that he does not want to keep the old format of long reports about the basics, but rather wants students to write 'creative' blog posts in addition to a report to be turned in. In particular, he is looking for us to write about things he likes or perceives as funny (but is still related to the topic, which according to him has a lot of potential for this).

In addition to the report and programming exercises, he lecturer wants students to write creative written blog posts about topics closely related to the exercises. These posts are supposed to contain funny and interesting information, as in "we accidentally made a mistake but the outcome looks/sounds funny" or "during the exercises we found out/made an assumption and verified it by xyz".

I want to mention that this is the same lecturer who fell asleep during two of my talks he had to grade, and I was previously dissatisfied with his grading on one of these. Now I have a new task where the desired outcome is unclear, and the task description is very subjective. During the introduction, I have explicitly asked for fixed deadlines and a statement about the extent of the project and report (as in, how many pages and such). He replied that he would 'probably' write down a few sentences about the task soon.

My worry is that there will be a lot of work for me, since i would like to get a very good grade. In addition, I fear that my work won't result in what the lecturer wants, and I am worried that I might get a worse grade than desired due to 'creative' grading.

My questions are:

  • Should I communicate this to the lecturer?
  • If yes, how?
  • How can I effectively deal with this unclear task in a way that will not leave me frustrated and overworked?

I understand that me being unsatisfied with a grade is not so much a problem and rather common in students, but my main concern is that I don't want to do unproportional amounts of work and then be given an average or worse grade.

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    Real problems have often several solutions which satisfy a requirement, some elegant, some short, some more convoluted. Finding a good solution there is a creative effort - and making that part of the grade seems valid (even when it sounds quite fuzzy) – planetmaker May 5 at 8:51
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    This feels like a good time to file for credit/no credit grading in advance based on the past experience with said professor. – Joshua May 5 at 18:19
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    You should demand that your professor pose an interesting and, if possible, funny problem. – A. I. Breveleri May 6 at 6:28
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    "things he likes or perceives as funny" If he said it like that, then I am in the "this is wrong" camp. "I am the king, make me laugh" as harryak put it should not be a criterion for grading. Many people probably assume that he phrased it differently. If you are unsure how it was meant, you could ask him to clarify what he means by "creative". "You probably don't mean creative writing, right? I mean we are comp sci after all". Tone is very important. Try to make the questions feel lighthearted/curious if you can. But creative solutions to a problem is appropriate, if that is the answer. – Felix B. May 6 at 13:23
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    I'd push for the lecturer to give y'all the grading rubric in advance. I have lots of sympathy for open format assignments. But students should be given clear goals about what the assignment should accomplish content-wise other than "impress me!". – Joooeey May 6 at 17:07
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tl;dr: your lecturer is right in principle. Commit time and effort to your project and try to be creative.

In higher education, students are expected to develop the skills which enable them to apply a number of techniques, compare the results, evaluate their effectiveness, synthesise new methods, or even suggest new approaches to a problem. Your lecturer is right to expect students to be creative.

In the last decades academia is under an increasing pressure of corporate managerial culture: education is considered as service and students are treated as customers. This creates a new kind of relations. Some students expect to acquire complex skills without spending sufficient time practising them (without feeling overworked) and expect first-class grades without committing themselves to the work required. Some students, supported and encouraged by academic managers, require more strict and deterministic rules to be set for academic assessments, such as precise specification of assessments, past papers to be provided with model solutions, and new assessments to be very predictable. Under this pressure, academics are forced to remove creative elements from their assessments and ultimately from their courses. As the result, many students don't develop the creative, teamwork and communication skills which are important for employers.

Even if your lecturer was not very efficient in communicating expectations, they are right in principle: they actually want you to use education as the opportunity to develop right skills. You want security and a good mark. Your think as a consumer; your lecturer thinks as an educator.

So my suggestion is: trust your lecturer; commit time to the project; try to be creative as much as possible. For this, learn at least 3 different methods to solve the problem, reproduce them, and try to create one more from scratch. Compare the results and present results in an engaging and visual way. Plan at least 5 hours of work for 1 minute of final presentation or 1 page of final report.

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    I think the OP should rather take a course in creative writing or improvision theatre to be more funny if he wants the good grade than "learn at least 3 different methods to solve the problem" – user111388 May 5 at 10:01
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    @user111388 I understand where your sarcasm is coming from. But creative writing can actually help one advance their career; perhaps even more than using social media to criticise their lecturer. Sure, "funny" is not a good word to describe the desired outcome. I ask my students to write in accessible and engaging way. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 5 at 11:15
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    As I said, the lecturer might've used an imperfect word to describe an example, but what they probably want is for posts to be engaging, not overly technical, not academically dry, but instead aimed at wider audience. Writing for broad audience is an important skill nowadays. One can hardly get funding for a research project with no outreach / public engagement element in it. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 5 at 12:18
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    @DmitrySavostyanov, that last comment about trying to be engaging and appealing to a wider audience and not "academically dry" is a much better explanation than your existing answer, imho. I'd offer to include that as opposed to being "creative". – CramerTV May 5 at 19:49
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    @DmitrySavostyanov OP DID say funny: In particular, he is looking for us to write about things he likes or perceives as funny (but is still related to the topic, which according to him has a lot of potential for this). – Michael Durrant May 6 at 8:58
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My first impression of what you describe is that the instructor tries to achieve two things:

  1. he wants to avoid teaching you to write long reports, which could be a good thing; there are many fields where writing long reports should not be a priority.
  2. he is gradually allowing more freedom as students progress through the curriculum.

The latter is what I do as well: for first year bachelor students I give very short strucutured exercises, and last year master students get an exercise to do some analysis of your choice on a topic you like with data you found using one or more of the methods we discussed in class as appropriate. I do of course reward creativity in the latter exercise. This is (at least for me) the goal of a university education: at the end they should be able to do tasks like these on their own. This does mean that each time you make a step in that direction, you will push students outside their comfort zone, but that is the point: you cannot grow if you stay in your comfort zone. This also means that if you give students more freedom, the exercise by necessity become less structured and the grading less predictable.

So one possible solution to your problem is a change of perspective: Don't focus on the grade, but instead view this as an opportunity to grow. You might fail, but failure is also very much a part of learning. Moreover, failure in a project does not necessarily mean failure of that class. One of the courses I learned most about as a student was one where I had a cool idea, but I could not get it to work. Eventually, I had to hand in what I got. I got points for the idea but also lost points for the fact that it was not done, which I though was fair enough. More importantly, I use the lessons I learned from getting stuck in that course till this day.

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    I think in your last paragraph you raise an important point (which can be easily overlooked from a student's perspective): a lecturer usually knows how this goes and can see and value and grade the effort and work (and will try his best to do so in a fair manner), even when the final product is not one which works. Such failure is not necessarly a "not pass" grade. And a perfect solution with no comments on how it was reached might not give perfect grade either (depending on requirements) – planetmaker May 5 at 8:56
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    I do think your eduation method (students have to choose the method) is reasonable. However, I perceive the question differently: Students should write creative blog posts about things the lecturer finds funny or interesting (as in: he awards creative writing). Did we understand the question differently or did I misunderstand your answer? – user111388 May 5 at 9:18
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    It is about what the students thought was funny or interesting. I (the lecturer) do not have to find that funny, but it does allow me to see if the student is engaged with her or his topic and is able to think outside the box. So I don't think that this is an exercise in creative writing. Normally I would try to gage this through face to face interaction with the student, but that is now impossible. I can see this as an attempt to replace that. Whether it works is empirical question, but in this situation experimentation is unavoidable. – Maarten Buis May 5 at 10:47
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    So could you maybe clarify: As I see it, the question is about a lecturer who grades based on "things he likes or perceives as funny" while your answer is about unstructured exercises. Could you say why your answer answers the question? As I see it, your teaching method is certainly reasonable and common; for the method of the instructor in question, the method may or may not be reasonable, but it is certainly not common. Could you clarify for me why your answer answers the question? Or am I missing your point? Please don't take this as a critique, I'd just like to understand your answer. – user111388 May 5 at 15:08
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    I mostly agree with @DmitrySavostyanov : As I said before (and this will be the last time I will say it): the exercise is probably meant as documenting what the student found funy, interesting, or difficult, not about what the instructor might find funy. This can give the instructor insight about how the student is engaged with the subject. As an instructor you don't want to be entertained by students, if only because most are just not that funny. You do want to know how students are dealing with the material. – Maarten Buis May 5 at 19:05
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I am surprised, or, better said, appalled, by the answers given so far. It looks like the general consensus is that the instructor is right and you should just shut up and comply. I strongly disagree. If this is a technical course, the instructor should only grade technical accomplishment. Extra credit for "creativity" or "humor" are OK, but those are subjective and therefore should not be used when evaluating a technical skill.

Sadly, I think you are in a difficult situation: if the instructor thinks it's OK to put those requirements on a technical project, my guess is he is not the type of person you can hope to convince by rational arguments. I would go to someone above him and file a complaint.

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    If that appalls you, you might want to read OP's question about the sleeping lecturerand the answers saying this is okay or even OP's fault;) – user111388 May 5 at 17:35
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    How do you distinguish a technical course and a non-technical course? – Dmitry Savostyanov May 5 at 17:35
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    A school that tolerates subjective grading criteria is just asking for discrimination complaints. At some point the subjective grades will correlate with membership in a protected class (race, sex, religion, etc.) due to random chance alone, creating the pretext (if not justification) for a formal proceeding. – EvilSnack May 5 at 18:57
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    @EvilSnack - that is like saying that a company that tolerates subjective employee ranking criteria is just asking for complaints. Yet, that then implies that there is a unique, objective method for evaluating employee contributions. And, of course, there isn't (and Deming is quite specific about that). – Jon Custer May 7 at 20:15
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    @Sam I still don't understand what you mean by technical course. Is programming technical? Can you always grade code by running it through a set of unit tests? Or perhaps at some level things like clarity of the code, beauty of its structure, helpfulness of comments become equally important? Can you measure these things fully objectively? Do they matter? – Dmitry Savostyanov May 8 at 19:33
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Although I generally agree with the gist of other answers in respect to "learn to be independent, especially from grades" I strongly disagree about the instructor being right here.

As I can read from your other questions and your name, I assume you are German. Since I am from Germany, too, I am a hundred percent sure that everything this lecturer uses as basis for his grades is inherently wrong and frowned upon in academic context. There has to be - and this is not just my opinion - an objective measure to grade the students by. This is usually written in exam regulations for the academic institution.

Since your professor seems to be a rather problematic character you should however not confront him with this, if you want to get a good grade afterwards. Ask him nicely, if he doesn't comply, politely insist. If he still sticks to his "I am the king, make me laugh"-thing, go tell on him.

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    Would you mind saying who one could tell? (The way I experienced the german system, there is no authority (which has real power, not only on paper) to complain over tenured prof's teaching which can do something (except for cases where the prof did something criminal like touching the students inappropriately). – user111388 May 5 at 18:20
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    Well, you're right that this is not easy. I would suggest going to the student council (Fachschaftsrat) if this happens in a university, in my experience they are really not as powerless as one might initially think. In fact, one lecturer at my university was banned from giving lectures to first semester students after an incident with unfair exams to "sort them out early". – harryak May 5 at 18:24
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    I'm wondering how "creativity" is to be graded. How is one to know whether a grade for this is too high or too low? – EvilSnack May 5 at 18:51
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    That's because "creativity" is no objective measure. Objective measures are quantified and the same result must be attainable from independent people. – harryak May 5 at 18:55
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Should I communicate this to the lecturer?

If you are not sure what the lecturer wants you to do, then yes you should communicate that.

I have explicitly asked for fixed deadlines

You should be able to set deadlines for yourself, within the limits provided by the lecturer.

and a statement about the extent of the project and report (as in, how many pages and such). He replied that he would 'probably' write down a few sentences about the task soon.

That is a reasonable thing for him to do.

If yes, how?

If you do not get the information you need, try writing an outline of your report/blog, and ask the lecturer for feedback on it. Do this very early. You might do it twice. But do not do it every week or more.

How can I effectively deal with this unclear task in a way that will not leave me frustrated and overworked?

If the lecturer does not give you guidance when you ask for it, you will be frustrated. There is no avoiding that.

How much work you do is your choice. Unfortunately we don't know the relationship between work and grades.

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  • The deadlines I am referring to are meant for turning everything in. My motivation for this is not me getting work done (usually not an issue) but for him to set a limit on the extent of the work. Thank you for the advice on asking for feedback on an outline, I'll make sure to do so! – Jonas Schwarz May 5 at 18:42
  • I think you actually want a deadline for him to grade the work, not a deadline for you to turn it in. – Anonymous Physicist May 5 at 23:22
  • This is something I would like to have in addition, but I don't think it is going to happen ;) Waiting for a grade is not so much of an issue though as it occurs frequently (for me). – Jonas Schwarz May 6 at 6:01
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The merits of these type of "creative" assignments seems to be up in the air amongst the answers here. However, regardless of how valuable this assignment is towards your education I believe I can give pragmatic advice towards your 3rd question.

While I think free-thinking and creativity are great things, I fully understand the stress associated with open-ended assignments. The requirements are fluid and unclear, yet the potential consequences of failing are glaring. This is how I've always dealt with it.

How can I effectively deal with this unclear task in a way that will not leave me frustrated and overworked?

Do your work early. As early as you possibly can. As Anonymous Physicist said, you should communicate the direction of your project with the instructor early. Ask for their opinions of your outline in writing, so that you can refer back to it later if they changed their mind when grading.

When you're close to being finished ask them to quickly glance over it. Nothing too formal, so as not to waste their time, but make sure the essence of your work is sufficient. Now polish it up and turn it in.

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I don't think you really need to think in the shoes of the lecturer since finding something creative will solely depend on your delivery of work. Try something that appeals to you rather than trying to guess what their likes are because it will only give you stress on realizing maybe this isn't what the lecturer likes.

Plus, you're gonna have a bad time figuring out what should be the best design.
Just choose what is best for you since you're gonna enjoy the times you spend with it

try thinking your lecturer as a close person to you. Maybe this tip will give you a boost

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