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this is about a phenomenon often seen, but I came across a probably more prominent example recently, so I thought I'd ask for the community's opinion.

Here's the situation: In the past semester's exams there was a question in computer architecture asking for X, and I, and many other students, answered Y, which contains X and is mostly revolving around X, thus successfully answering the question (in our opinion at least). The professor rejected the entire question (20% of the grade) and at any attempt to talk to him he directed us to the sample answer, stating that we "are wrong", we "answered another question, not the one asked", and so on. The question wasn't even given partial credit, and that happens systematically in his tests.

Another similar issue on the same test, was when a very few of us optimized a small bit of code in a way that would, industrially, be significant, and that part was rejected similarly, without any explanations, as "being entirely different". Explanations were also written on the test, so he cannot claim we did it without explaining.

This seems to be a general policy of the professor, as numerical errors are similarly crippling to grades, and in the sequel lesson, of an amphitheater of about or more than 80 people (and of course a lot more don't even attend classes as they are not obligatory, but I don't know if they're better or worse than those who attend), only 11 had succeeded the exam.

I would finally like to note that some of the stuff he rejects, he himself does in class, the most obvious being a computational error, and frustratingly he also did the optimization he rejected in the test.

So finally, the question:

I understand that professors have the right to grade based on their own criteria, but

Is it justifiable to reject an entire answer because more was said, without even partial credit?

Is it justifiable to reject an answer that gives something better than what is required, perfectly equivalent, even if relying on the student's intervention? (in this case, it would be a compiler optimization, thus not an entirely direct interpretation, but an elegant and industrially valuable workaround)

Is it acceptable to direct students to example answers and not allow them to explain why they think their answer is correct?

I'm also itching to see how we could deal with this, but that's not the main question so I leave that to your own discretion and benevolence to answer.

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    From the description, the professor sounds incompetent, but most of this problem appears to be institutional. In particular, this statement: "professors have the right to grade based on their own criteria" is not true. Professors surely have some influence on grading criteria, but there are both institutional and legal limitations. For example, the professor -- no matter what -- can't grade a math course based on nothing but how well he thinks you dress. – wjl Dec 29 '15 at 14:28
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    Imagine a question asking you for the definition of one word covered in the last three lectures. Now imagine writing down all of the definitions for all the new words covered in the last three lectures as an answer. Since you wrote down all the possible answers to the question in your answer, your answer contains the right information, but that answer also shows you actually don't know the correct answer. Obviously, that's an extreme example, but it is meant to illustrate how writing down too much can make it seem like you know too little. – Todd Wilcox Dec 29 '15 at 14:47
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    @ToddWilcox, You are right about that, and everyone else who said so thus far, and I do not defend anyone who writes down a whole book in a desperate attempt to get the grade, but they were two interdependent topics, the one asked for in the question being the largest one, and also being the largest part of the other, somewhat broader one. I understand and accept this comment, of course, but I hope no one here is considering the worst case scenarios to be the ones under debate, though inevitably some people do. – user3079666 Dec 29 '15 at 15:49
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    This is not a question. It's a complaint about getting a bad grade. – Ben Crowell Dec 29 '15 at 17:14
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    @BenCrowell I'm reading it as a broader question about whether the principle that resulted in a bad grade is valid. – Milo P Dec 29 '15 at 17:36
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I know from personal experience that it's very frustrating not to get proper credit for knowledge that you think you demonstrated correctly, so let me start by saying I sympathize with your situation. Now let me address your questions:

Is it justifiable to reject an entire answer because more was said, without even partial credit?

To give a literal, completely general answer: obviously yes. If the correct answer is, say, one sentence long, and your answer quotes the complete works of Shakespeare that happen to contain that sentence, I personally would not give you any points (but I would still be very impressed :-)). Of course, that is an absurd example, but it illustrates the point that what likely matters to your professor (or if not, certainly what should matter to a reasonable professor) is that your answer demonstrates an understanding of the topic the question asks about. It is certainly possible, and happens pretty frequently, that an answer Y contains the correct answer X but by adding more irrelevant things demonstrates a less good level of understanding than just the shorter answer X. The way this typically happens is that a student doesn't understand the material well and upon being asked about a certain topic, regurgitates everything they memorized about the topic, not knowing which part is relevant to the question. Clearly that does not leave a very good impression.

Now of course, the above does not address what happened in your specific situation. It is completely possible that your longer answer Y still demonstrated as good of an understanding of the material as the official answer X, and deserves to get partial or full credit; or not - you haven't given us enough information to say.

Is it justifiable to reject an answer that gives something better than what is required, perfectly equivalent, even if relying on the student's intervention? (in this case, it would be a compiler optimization, thus not an entirely direct interpretation, but an elegant and industrially valuable workaround)

I think this question is too specific for anyone here to be able to answer without knowing more details. As I said above, the points you get for the answer should be correlated with the perceived mastery of the topic being asked about that your answer demonstrates. If including the optimization demonstrates that mastery, you should get the points. But I can imagine a situation where using the optimized method instead of the official method actually demonstrates less mastery, for example if it appears that you used the optimized method to avoid revealing that you don't know the simpler, less sophisticated method the question asked about. In that case, it may make sense for your answer to be rejected.

Is it acceptable to direct students to example answers and not allow them to explain why they think their answer is correct?

I think it may be acceptable in certain cases. For example, if you have already asked many questions of the professor, argued with him in a way that he thought was unreasonable, overly argumentative, or delusional, and if the professor is very busy, for example is also teaching a class of 500 students in addition to the smaller class you're taking with him, at some point he may decide that spending more time discussing your exam with you can limit his ability to perform his other duties effectively, and be a disservice to the other students.


Summary. As you can see from my answers above, whether the professor's behavior is unreasonable depends on many details that you haven't provided. It's certainly possible that it is unreasonable, but it's also possible that it is less unreasonable than you may think. Statistically speaking, I've found that students often overestimate the extent to which they understand the material and the degree of correctness of their exam answers. That doesn't mean it's what happened in your case, but it's a possibility you should keep in mind as you consider your next steps. In any case, good luck! As for what steps you should take to address the situation, this answer is already quite long so I think it makes sense to save that for a follow-up question if you care to post one.

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    Your answer to the first sub-question is especially true in cases where the exam question said something like "Describe briefly how to ...", "Explain in two sentences ...", "Outline the core aspects of ...", where the exam contains general hints such as "Read all questions attentively. Answer exactly what is asked.", or if the relative expected amount of information and level of detail can be deduced from the relative score that can be achieved in each of the questions. – O. R. Mapper Dec 29 '15 at 13:48
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    The answer to the first sub-question is spot-on my reflexive reaction to the question. The only thing that I find immediately very dubious about the things OP mentioned (without more information -- others may or may not be wrong depending on the other side of the story) is severely punishing numerical errors. I usually reduce the score at most nominally for such mistakes (unless they are of the sort they really ought to have noticed, like probability over 1 ;) ). But that may be just the fact that, as a mathematician, I don't really care about calculations. :-) – tomasz Dec 29 '15 at 16:07
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    The idea of the compiler optimization is the key to the question. Obviously a compiler, labored over for years by a team of experts, can do wondrous things. But it is no use if the student (prospective programmer) has no understanding of what is going on with it. If I asked someone what bus to take somewhere, I would not appreciate "a helicopter is much better" as a reply. – user28174 Dec 30 '15 at 14:12
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    @O.R.Mapper - I find it true even when I'm not asking for a brief explanation. Suppose I ask something like: Explain how concept X might be applied in situation Y. A student then writes down every bullet about concept X verbatim from the slides, with some small mention of situation Y. While I admire that student's memory, I'm usually quite unimpressed with their answer – all they've done is parrot back bullets to me, when I was looking for them to be able to sensibly apply those concepts to a given situation. The student either missed what I was after, or else was fishing for partial credit. – J.R. Dec 31 '15 at 7:26
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    I think he should have asked this question citing his specific test question on Computer Science Stack Exchange. What he really wants to know is whether or not his specific case was a valid answer. Fundamentally, it's too broad of a situation to provide an answer for without knowing the question, but the question itself wouldn't be within the scope of the skills expected of answerers here. – Viziionary Dec 31 '15 at 9:08
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Dan Romik's answer is excellent, but I'll add a bit more perspective. Your instructor sounds a bit severe but not entirely unjustified.

Is it justifiable to reject an entire answer because more was said, without even partial credit?

Yes. I do this (perhaps in smaller doses). Here's an example: If I ask the question, "find the margin of error for this estimation", and a student works out an entire confidence-interval estimation -- which includes the margin of error as an included term -- and then boxes the C.I. as the answer, then I think: "This student doesn't know what the margin of error is", and needs to be corrected. In that case I'd take off partial points, and probably receive the exact complaint from the student that you're presenting here; after a short discussion, the student usually sees that their understanding really was lacking and needs some improvement.

Sometimes for shorter explanatory questions, expecting maybe two lines, a student will write a whole half-page regurgitation of all the subject matter of a particular chapter. If it's a 1-point question, and it seems like the student really can't incisively identify the particular item asked, then off comes the (entire) 1 point.

When I see responses like this, I'm being taken back to bad interactions I had in the past with my own teachers or coworkers in school or industry. E.g.: a teacher that when asked a tough question, wouldn't respond on-topic but would give to a random dump of other information so they'd look smart but wouldn't answer your question. Or a coworker who would behave similarly. Either case is a big aggravation, so if I can I'd like to help escort people out of thinking that that's useful/rewarded behavior. It's so much more helpful to have a colleague say, "I don't know", so you can go search elsewhere, rather than do a brain-dump of random information on you, which is just wasting your time.

Is it acceptable to direct students to example answers and not allow them to explain why they think their answer is correct?

Yes. Especially in large courses, such as your "amphitheater" course. Presumably the instructor spent time writing up the example answers and distributing them, specifically to save time from interacting with students one-at-a-time on the issue. (See also: "it's on the syllabus" comic, "it's on the syllabus" T-shirt, etc.)

Remember that at most research universities (likely ones with large amphitheater courses), teaching is not the professor's top professional priority (in terms of evaluation, promotion, etc.). Published research is required to come first, and then teaching is effectively a secondary part of the employment -- so the time spent on the teaching side, especially on large introductory courses, has to be kept very constrained as a necessity. (Personally, I'm a dedicated lecturer, not a research professor, so I'm very happy that I get to spend more time responding to individual questions from students, providing personal feedback on tests with partial credit, etc.)

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    "[T]eaching is not the professor's top professional priority" - I realize this is hardly the professor's fault, but it still annoys me greatly. At least in the US, the students have paid (often quite a lot of) real money for the right to sit in that lecture hall. To be told that their education is not a top priority is... well it seems rather unfair to me. Without those tuition payments, the university's continued existence might well be in jeopardy. – Kevin Dec 30 '15 at 6:06
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    @Kevin: It annoys me, too; I think it may be the single greatest misalignment and misunderstanding about the academic system. Even when I started as a college adjunct instructor I was surprised and confused about it. But: It's still the case that a minority of college funding comes from tuition -- although it's risen in recent years (24% in 1988, 47% in 2013; pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2014/05/…) – Daniel R. Collins Dec 30 '15 at 6:30
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    And that's exactly why I like to inform people about this state of affairs; it' so commonly misunderstood. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 30 '15 at 6:31
  • @Kevin for better or worse, most universities in North America (and most of the rest of the world) provide other services besides educating undergraduates. They also are centers for research, and educate masters and doctoral students. These functions are important and there is a lot of real money involved in them too. You can reasonably argue that these functions should be disentangled, but I am not sure I'd agree: I think there is real value to active researchers teaching undergraduate courses (which is traded off for the amount of time they can spend on their teaching). – Sasho Nikolov Dec 31 '15 at 9:38
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    @Kevin you should not feel annoyed. If you don't feel that you are getting value for your tuition dollars, you can go elsewhere. I feel that there are too many talented people wasting 4 years of their lives (and lots of money) sitting in amphitheaters. – emory Dec 31 '15 at 18:35
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It's hard to say without seeing the specific question and answer.

I can easily imagine scenarios where too much information would be wrong, because it would indicate that you don't know which portion of the answer you gave is relevant.

To take a silly example, if a history test asked, "When was George Washington elected president?", and a student answered, "One of the years 1750, 1751, 1752, 1753, ..." etc, listing every year from 1750 to 1850, to say, "But the correct year is in there somewhere! I am being penalized for giving too much information!" would be true, but clearly the student does not know the correct answer. It is properly marked wrong with no partial credit.

On the other hand, if a student answered, "In 1789, and his vice president was John Adams", I'd say the bit about John Adams is not relevant to the question and I don't know why he mentioned it, but I probably wouldn't take points off.

But in general, any information that is not relevant to the question likely indicates a lack of understanding of the subject. If a test asked, "What loops are available in Java?", and a student wrote, "FOR, WHILE, and IF", that's simply wrong, because "IF" is not a loop. Yes, you could say it's extra information in addition to the right answer, but it's flatly wrong. It indicates that the student either doesn't know what a loop is or doesn't know what an IF does.

The best case I can think of is if a question is potentially ambiguous. Life if a history test asked, "When did Barrack Obama become president?", a careful student might answer, "He won the election in 2008 and took office in 2009", because the question is not entirely clear which it is asking for.

And ultimately, if you give more information than asked for, you are wasting the professor's time asking him to read it. If a test asked, "How much is 2+2?", I'd expect the answer "4". Anything more than that is wasting my time, and at some point I'd start penalizing for it.

Update several years later

I just got an upvote (thanks!) that drew my attention back to this old post, and looking at it again, I came up with a better example than my George Washington one.

Suppose a test asked, "What causes a compass needle to point north?", and a student answered, "The gravitational pull of Jupiter, the magnetic field of the earth, and the Coriolis effect." Yes, the right answer is in there, but the fact that the student gave additional information that is irrelevant shows that he does not know what IS relevant. He doesn't understand the subject that the test is asking about. A teacher might give partial credit, thinking the student has some understanding, but he'd be justified in saying no, you don't get it.

  • This is the best answer. It explains how "more than asked for" is not a single concept. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Sep 16 at 16:42
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    2+2=21431 ;) The right answer is in there, together with "extra information" – Nick S Sep 20 at 18:43
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Here's the situation: In the past semester's exams there was a question in computer architecture asking for X, and I, and many other students, answered Y, which contains X and is mostly revolving around X, thus successfully answering the question (in our opinion at least).

You are saying that, because X is in Y, Y should be a valid answer to the question. However, one could argue that the professor is testing your knowledge of X, so he expects to see X on the exam. Y might show a misunderstanding of X – it could suggest that the student is confusing X and Y, or cannot differentiate between them.

I've had students answer essay questions almost as if they had been coached: "Write down everything you can remember associated with that topic. Chances are, something in your answer will be what the professor is looking for." I've seen that often enough that, before a midterm exam, I now warn my students to throw that strategy out the window. "Your jedi mind tricks do not work on me," I tell them.

I would like to note that some of the stuff he rejects, he himself does in class, the most obvious being a computational error, and frustratingly he also did the optimization he rejected in the test.

This might be a telling clue. I know that sometimes I get frustrated when students parrot back things to me that we covered in class. My exams are not meant to see if my students can regurgitate tidbits covered in class, but to see if they can demonstrate mastery and expertise. Part of my pre-test hints remind them that I'm often more impressed by an original example than a summary of one discussed in class. So it's quite possible that, by including the optimization covered in class, it seemed once again like you were grasping at straws instead of competantly answering the question.

numerical errors are similarly crippling to grades ... of about 80 people, only 11 had succeeded the exam.

I'm not sure what you are referring to here; does that means about 70 people got a failing grade? If so, that is perhaps the most disconcerting part of your question – but I still wonder if I'm getting the whole story. Are these truly exams, that are worth a significant portion of your final grade? Or are these quizzes (which is more of what I would expect if you have one on "a sequel lesson," as you say). If I was grading 80 quizzes on a regular basis, I, too, might be very stringient on what I'd accept as an answer.

This seems to be a general policy of the professor.

To me, this is the crux of your question. Now that you know this is the general policy of the professor, what will you do about it? If I were in that class, I'd be very careful in my future quizzes and exams. If the professor asks for X, then I would give him X, the whole X, and nothing but the X. Evidently, this professor values the student's ability to differentiate X from Y, and not confuse the two. Without having a conversation with the professor, I can't really tell if that's motivated by pragmatic or pedagogical reasons. However, in and of itself, it doesn't seem unfair to me.


As a footnote, I hope that your professor isn't a member of this community, because, if he is, he'll almost assuredly downvote my answer, since I've not addressed your enumerated questions, but focused on your introduction instead.

  • Your reaction to the "rejects what he himself does in class" part did not take into account that the teacher has very specific answers that will be accepted. While the rest of your answer is fine, that part actually goes against the details we've been provided. Though we don't have the whole picture, we have enough that it seems more likely the professor does want a regurgitation of what was done in class, and that professor does not want a demonstration of the students' mastery of the topic. (Sorry to dredge this old post up, but this topic is important) – Aaron Jan 23 at 22:17
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I had a professor like this when I started my CS degree - I hated him, three semesters in a row, as I struggled to keep my GPA afloat because of his grading style... I even got into a verbal argument with him once that left me red in the face.

Then I was grateful.

Your post begs the question:

Are you in it for the degree or the knowledge you obtain from going?

Your professor, although hypocritical and imperfect at times himself, is holding you to a higher standard. He doesn't want a "good" answer, he wants the "best" answer, and as such, he will craft you into more than just a "good" developer.

How you choose to go forward with all this is up to you. I can tell you from experience, you won't win (at least not without going above him), and even if you did, what you achieve may be less desirable of an outcome than you realized. You could always go to another professor, another version of the program at a different college, and earn your slip of paper, but you'll be doing so at the cost of learning what the best answer was to all the versions of these problems you'll face in the future.

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    This answer assumes that the professor actually is looking for the best real-world answer, rather than the professor's (arbitrarily?) preferred answer. We don't have a lot of information on what the specific question was, but it's entirely possible that knowing Y, a superset of X, would be more useful in the real world, and that arbitrarily limiting your knowledge to X would just be good for getting the degree. If the OP is describing the situation accurately, it sounds like the professor is going for the regurgitate-the-textbook answer and not a better-in-principle answer, and won't say why. – Milo P Dec 29 '15 at 19:06
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It depends on whether the original question or parts of it ask for some kind of differentiation. For example, if I ask for the best way to cook brussel sprouts, a general overview of cooking methods won't do. Even if you correctly say that sprouts should be roasted in almond butter, it makes perfect sense to deduct points if you also talk about deep frying, because describing other methods of cooking looks like fishing for partial credits in case your initial guess about almond butter was wrong.

However, deducting points without explanation is wrong. If the class is large, the professor cannot discuss every single answer with every student, but if a personal discussion is impossible, then at least the example solution should contain comments concerning all problems which occurred several times.

0

If the test question is multiple choice, you can't get away saying that the answer is either A or B or C or D or E, even though that would be logically correct, the answer is one of those alternatives. Clearly on a multiple choice question, the answer must be a single and correct choice of one of the alternatives to be considered correct.

Now the issue might be: what if the test question is a paragraph or essay description? Does an answer that contains the correct answer still be correct when there was other information that does not contradict the answer but is irrelevant to the answer?

That's not immediately obvious to me. It seems to me to depend on how much irrelevant information is in the answer.

  • I have in fact had a heated argument with a student in the past on exactly that issue -- 4 cases listed, multiple choice "which is/are true? a; a and b; b and c; or a, b, c, d" -- having picked "a" when the answer was "a and b", demanded half-credit. She came from a religious high school, so I was never sure if it was a cultural issue or if she was trolling me on this and other items (e.g., 100% plagiarism in a report). – Daniel R. Collins Jan 1 '16 at 22:19
  • @DanielR.Collins, i would say that the form of your question was not multiple choice, but was T/F on each of 4 questions. was that clear in the statement of the test question? – robert bristow-johnson Jan 1 '16 at 22:27
  • It was in an online context with a radio-button where exactly one of the specified combinations could be selected (among other explicit directions). – Daniel R. Collins Jan 1 '16 at 22:58
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    @DanielR.Collins, ah! so the "a and b" was one of the answers and your student did not select it. – robert bristow-johnson Jan 1 '16 at 23:52
  • Right, that's it exactly. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 2 '16 at 2:25

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