The Consistent Underperformer Who Loves to Fail Exams

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As another round of midterms are returned, I’m constantly reminded of how poorly I continue to perform on exams. Welcome back to another semester of the consistent underperformer who has to beg professors for points on exams.

Table of Contents

Second Semester Update

So far, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to chat about my academic life, so I figured I might as well update everyone on how things have been going.

As a reminder, I’m taking four classes: Data Visualization, Computational Audition, Graphics Seminar, and Advanced Operating Systems.

Among those four classes, the most demanding by far has to be Data Visualization. By the end of the course, I’ll have completed 4 major coding/written assignments, a term project, 4 presentations, a midterm, and 5 paper summaries.

As for the rest of the courses, I’ll have completed 2 presentations, 2 programming projects, 4 homework assignments, a term project, a midterm, and a final. In other words, it feels like I’m taking twice as many courses as I actually am.

If I had to sum up this semester in one word, I’d say aweful. And to put that into perspective, let’s just say I spent my entire spring break in front of my computer cranking out term projects and presentations. But wait, it gets worse.

Midterm Exams

As is the focus of this article, I just got back my Advanced Operating Systems exam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t do well on it.

Exam Scores and Statistics

The Advanced Operating Systems course is a part of the core curriculum that I have to take. Naturally, I don’t much care for the material. However, the professor is excellent, so I’m actually enjoying the class quite a bit.

Unfortunately, my love for the course dwindled a bit after I took the first midterm. It was five questions which I managed to complete in roughly half the time allotted. In other words, the exam was really easy.

Of the five questions, however, there was one that I just didn’t know to solve. As a result, I drew a nice diagram and explained my reasoning to the best of my ability. Then, I turned it in.

On the walk home, I felt a bit frustrated because the exam was so easy. In other words, I just knew a lot of students were going to do well on it despite how many of them took the entire 90 minutes to complete the exam. Since I didn’t know how to do one of the problems, I was going to pay dearly for it, and pay dearly I did.

When the exams came back, I scored an embarrassingly low 79 out of 100. I say embarrassingly because 17 of the 40 students in my class scored perfect 100s. When I looked over my exam, the breakdown was almost comical:

  • Problem 1: 20
  • Problem 2: 17
  • Problem 3: 20
  • Problem 4: 2
  • Problem 5: 20

As it turns out, I wasn’t even given so much as partial credit for my response to problem 4. I believe the 2 points were simply given out of pity.

To make matters worse, only 4 other idiots scored as poorly or worse than me, so I was quite literally in the bottom 12.5%. It’s going to be hard to vouch for me with a score that bad.

Begging for Points

In an attempt to remedy the situation, I reached out to the professor over email asking about potentially getting points back and doing some extra credit if not:

Apologies for not coming to you after class today as I wanted to look over the exam on my own. Now that I’ve had the chance to read it over, I had a question about problem 4 (attached for reference).

What exactly does the rubric look like for this question? After looking it over, I realize where my error is: I thought the FIFO issue was with delay in the responses–not the delay of the requests. That said, I do think the score was a bit harsh considering I provided a decent understanding of the problem (proper diagram, understanding of critical section issue, etc.).

Is there any way to get points back on the exam considering I fell into the bottom 25% of the class with a score of 79/100. If not, are there any opportunities for extra credit beyond class participation? I’m worried that my performance on an exam question is going to severely limit my chances of success in the course.

I’m happy to try to make it out to your office hours here at 2 if needed.

Jeremy Grifski, March 19th, 2019

If you know me, you know I’m pretty introverted. I don’t care for conflict, and I don’t like reaching out to people for help. Obviously, this email was hard for me to put together, so I nervously waited for a response.

Of course, just like last semester, the professor wasn’t willing to help me out:

Sorry that you miss most of the points in Question 4! The main reason is that both your diagram and explanation in the text to the question are incorrect. Please feel free to stop by my office if my understanding were wrong.

OS Professor, March 19th, 2019

At that point, I felt gutted. Once again I was rolling into the end of a semester unsure of whether or not I was going to pass. That’s never a good feeling, and it certainly doesn’t help you become a better student. If all you’re doing is worrying about some arbitrary number, that anxiety becomes a barrier to your education.

Test and Rubric Design

After complaining to my wife a bit, she made a pretty solid point: “I feel like missing one question and dropping that much is bad test design.” And, I happen to agree. At this point in my life, I feel like no one really knows what they’re doing when they create exams. Granted, I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t be administering exams at all, but that’s a different topic.

While test design is it’s own problem, I also think rubric design is a separate problem that’s just as valid in this circumstance. If exams are supposed to test my understanding of a concept, why would you punish me so severely for laying out my understanding only to come to the wrong conclusion. It’s not like I had no idea what I was doing. I just misapplied some knowledge to a very specific question.

I’m not advocating for grade inflation for the sake of saving my feelings. I just think that exams should be an opportunity to show off what I’ve learned and not a tool of punishment for not mastering 100% of the material. Partial credit should be made available for people who at least have a basic understanding of the question they’re being asked.

In my case, I would have been more than satisfied with receiving half credit for that question and walking out with an 87. Instead, I’m stuck wondering whether or not I’ll pass the class. I can’t imagine that’s how a teacher would want their students to feel.

Chin Up

Like always, I’m not here to pout. If anything, these sort of setbacks always motivate me to work harder on my personal projects like this site. At least here, I have control over my own destiny.

Journey to a PhD (49 Articles)—Series Navigation

As my current career trajectory shifts away from engineering, I find myself in a peculiar position as a PhD student. As I explore the latest concepts in Computer Science, you can find that journey documented here in my series titled Journey to a PhD.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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