Classroom policies and pedagogical philosophies

On this page I put down my thoughts on various subjects that may be of concern or relevance to students.

Grade inflation

Grade inflation is a scourge on the modern educational system. As grades get higher and higher, people have come to expect that 'A' is for "acceptable", 'B' is for "borderline", and 'C' is for "crappy". This is a big problem.

First of all, it makes it difficult to have nuanced partial-credit grading. If anything that basically works gets an 'A', then nearly everything that gets handed in---most of which basically works---gets a free 90 points off the bat, and then I have ten points within which to make distinctions. That's stupid.

Perhaps more importantly, it makes it difficult to distinguish between students. If giving someone a 'B' means I disapprove, then I have no way to make a distinction between something that more or less works and is sort of efficient and something that works efficiently elegantly. A problem a lot of grade-inflated teachers have run into is how to encourage their best students to actually do their best (cf. Effort); that's because those students know they can slack off and still get an 'A'. If an 'A' means something, this problem disappears.

So: 'C' is for competent. If you get a 'C' in my class, that means that I'm comfortable enough with your performance in the class to let you take the next class in a sequence, or to tell an employer that you basically get it. 'B' is for "better than average". 'A' is for "awesome". Getting an 'A' in my class means that you have on multiple occasions done work that was more efficient or elegant than I expected, or handled a lot of special cases, or otherwise did very impressive work.

I'm happy to spell this out in a letter to potential employers of my students, or they can be referred to this page. Many of the Longwood Math/CS professors have a similar attitude, and I think an array of many Bs, several As and a few Cs---if they are not inflated---are fairly impressive and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

Effort grades

I'm appalled at the number of teachers these days that give some variety of effort grade as a significant portion of the grade for the class. It may be implicit---"well, he only finished half the project, but he worked so hard at it that I just had to at least give him a B." This is actually a major component in grade inflation, and it makes grades less reliable as a measure of anything. Effort can sometimes be used as the final tiebreaker for someone right on the cusp, but as anything more significant it's just not fair.

The especially insidious place that this turns up is when teachers grade papers according to how well they think that student could have done. "Well, I graded her harder because I knew she could do so much better." They need to do this because they've inflated their grades so much that they have no other way to encourage the students to try hard and improve.

It results in the unfortunate situation where the student who is smart and/or has an intuitive understanding of the material turns in a project that has 90% of the content completed gets a B, and a student who just isn't as good, is struggling in the class, only finishes 75% of the project but "did their best" gets an A. Which do you think is going to look better on a résumé? That's what I thought. Effort grades are stupid and unfair at any point after about third grade, and I don't believe in them.

Early birds

There is little more frustrating than diligently starting early on a project (or exam!) and spending hours on it, only to discover a mistake in the problem's specification. It means hours of your life down the tubes, and the procrastinators are rewarded with less work as a problem correction or clarification is issued. This gives an incentive to put off starting, and let someone else find any bugs in the handout....

To head this problem off at the pass, for most classes I have an early bird policy to reward those who find themselves in this position. If they start early and track down a problem, they can email me or come talk to me, and depending on the severity of my error and how long it took to find (and how early they started), the reward may range anywhere from a few extra credit points to free passes on whole problems. This policy is necessarily somewhat ad hoc, but I strongly desire that there not be a disincentive to starting early. :)


Collaboration on assignments is a sufficiently complex topic that it gets its own page.


My politics are not a secret to anyone, and I'm happy to discuss them with pretty much anyone. I also don't hold any sort of personal dislike for people who disagree with me---some of my best conversations have been with people who I'm politically quite opposed to, and many of my best friends have different political leanings.

However, people don't take my classes to get into political debates, and I don't really have time to give any of these subjects the sort of treatment they deserve anyway. I also wish to avoid the impression that someone's viewpoints might have some influence on their grades---untrue in any case, but easier just to avoid the issue entirely. So I don't talk politics in class, or for that matter any time I'm acting in any official capacity. If a student drops by during office hours, I won't bring up politics. If that student brings up politics, I'm happy to talk about them, though. :)

Also, you could pretty much drop "religion" in for "politics" in the preceding paragraphs, and they'd remain equally true.