Exam Math

I teach English, not math, but when I was preparing my own students for this week’s semester exam, I explained the grading breakdown like this: “This exam is 20% of your semester grade, with 90 multiple choice questions at one point each and then a ten-point essay at the end. So…how much of your overall semester grade depends just on that essay question?”

Most of them guessed quickly and guessed wrong. Several got the right answer, but only a couple got it right away. (The answer is 2%. Basically, 10% of 20.)

That led me to share a couple of other math-based exam observations I’ve made over the years.

I asked classes what someone should do if they had a combined semester grade of 9% going into the exam. Most of them said to study and work really hard. Many of them were shocked when I said the correct answer would be to sleep in and skip it. “In that situation, you could ace the test twice and still fail the class, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over the test at that point could save you from months of consistently bad choices, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”

Some of the less studious among them seemed offended at the very idea, but most of them were receptive, some even seeming to have a “eureka” moment.

Then I told them that there’s another, more positive side to that coin: “What if the exam were worth 10% of the semester grade and you had earned 103% up until that point. What should you do then?”

After a variety of guesses, I again suggested that the best course of action would be sleeping in and taking the day off. Again, many were shocked, but the most studious among them seemed greatly gratified by the observation. For those who were still stymied by the idea, I gave a similar explanation: “In that situation, you could take a goose egg on the exam and still have a 93% for the semester, which looks the same as 103% on your transcript, which is what matters, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over that test at that point could hurt or improve the bulletproof grade you’d already worked so hard to earn, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”

I told my classes that I’d seen a lot of students over the years work their hearts out on exams for no real gain, some because their grades were too high, and some because their grades were too low.

Finally, I hastened to make clear that neither of those situations applied to any of them! I just wanted to emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic, situational awareness, and math.

 

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Frank Grimes’s Speech From The Simpsons

Perhaps my favorite episode of The Simpsons is the season eight juggernaut of dark humor, “Homer’s Enemy.”  Here, the unreasonably lucky Homer, who somehow happens to succeed in life despite being a lazy moron, meets the new guy at work, Frank Grimes, a realistic person who scrapes by in life by working hard and being responsible.  Needless to say, Homer soon gets on Frank’s nerves. 

The whole point of the episode is to juxtapose the cartoony Homer with a normal, average person.  By the end, Homer and the world that allows him to exist drive Grimes crazy.  A great B-story here reinforces the point about society’s lowered standards, with Bart walking by an auction and getting the deed to an old factory for a dollar, so that his “years of hard work finally pay off.” 

The best part is in the middle, where Homer tries to make friends with Frank by having him over for dinner.  Despite all of his mature dignity thus far, this is where Frank starts breaking down and ranting.  His speech is below; any time I’ve watched this episode with others, I pause it here and say, “This is how the world makes me feel.  Every.  Single.  Day.” 

I’ve had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it?  This briefcase and this haircut.  And what do you have to show for your lifetime of sloth and ignorance?  Everything!  A dream house, two cars, a beautiful wife, a son who owns a factory, fancy clothes, and lobsters for dinner!  And do you deserve any of it?  No! 

I’m saying, you’re what’s wrong with America, Simpson.  You coast through life, you do as little as possible, and you leech off decent, hard working people like me.  If you lived in any other country in the world, you’d have starved to death long ago.  You’re a fraud, a total fraud.  [to the rest of the family] Nice meeting you. 

If the Real World Worked the Way Students and Parents Think School Should Work

Scene 1

IRS- Tax forms must be submitted by April 15.  No exceptions. 

Citizen A- But I didn’t have time!  I had other things to do. 

IRS – What things got in the way of a priority obligation that comes around ever year?

Citizen A – You know, like dances and field trips and clubs and stuff.

IRS – That’s OK.  Just get it in when you have a chance, please.

Citizen B – I didn’t understand it.  Can I just do it later?

IRS – Did you file for an extension with us first?

Citizen B- No.

IRS – Did you contact us for help ahead of time?

Citizen B – No.

IRS – Sure!  Do whatever you want! 

Citizen C – I have some other excuse.  Can I get out of it, too?

IRS – Of course!  Those firm deadlines aren’t for people with excuses for not getting it done. 

Citizen D- This sucks.  I don’t want to do it either.

IRS – Hey, sure, cool.  No pressure.  Do some of it when you can, or not.  Whatever you want. 

Citizen E- I already did my taxes, but I did them way, way wrong.  Can I still turn them in and get credit?

IRS- Fine by me!  It wouldn’t be fair to make you do them over.

 **********

Scene 2

Boss- Smithson, you’ve been late to work more often than not, you no-call/no-showed twice, your last expense report was copied from Wikipedia, and you keep breaking the company’s policy about no personal calls during work hours.  I’m afraid I have to reduce your salary.

Employee- You can’t do that!  You hate me!  That’s not fair! 

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