Students are Gaming Your System

There was an amusing story recently about some clever students who found a way to get an A on the final without doing any work.

The professor’s policy was that all exam scores are re-normed so that the highest score on an exam becomes the new “100%” (I have a serious issue with his statement that this system is the “most predictable and consistent way” of comparing students’ work to their peers, since I think that students should judged on the basis of their knowledge of the material and NOT by comparing them to their peers. But that is a topic for a different post). His students recently got together and decided that none of them would take the final. Thus, the highest grade was 0%, and everyone got an A.

The professor did give everyone an A on the final exam, but later said: “I have changed my grading scheme to include ‘everybody has 0 points means that everybody gets 0 percent, and I also added a clause stating that I reserve the right to give everybody 0 percent if I get the impression that the students are trying to ‘game’ the system again.”

Here is the thing: students are always trying to game the system; this is because they are largely rational people. Moreover, professors mostly want students to game the system.

For example: I know of many professors who count homework as maybe 5-10% of a student’s final grade. The most common reason I hear from giving a low, but non-zero, weight to homework is “I want to make the students do the homework.” Translated: “I want my students to ‘game’ the system by doing the homework, whether they learn from it or not.” This is also true of attendance policies, participation policies, or really anything that has points attached to it.

What we (thoughtful people, at least) are really interested in is “student learning.” This is difficult to measure, so we use a proxy—”points”—to measure it. But then we fall subject to Campbell’s Law, where we confuse the proxy with the real thing.

Thus, the phrase “I reserve the right to give everybody 0 percent if I get the impression that the students are trying to ‘game’ the system again” really means
“I reserve the right to give everybody 0 percent if I get the impression that the students are trying to ‘game’ the system again in a way that I do not approve of.”

Moreover, the professor is not being clear about what are allowable ways of gaming and what aren’t. This conjures the memory of the famous case of cheating in Central Florida. The students found a test bank available online and studied from it. To me, this sounds like a completely reasonable way to study, and—to the best of my knowledge—this was not explicitly prohibited by the instructor.

The Central Florida was asking the students to ‘game’ his system by performing well on the exam. He was not clear about the allowable ways to ‘game’ the system, but he expected them to know what was allowable and what was not. This seems very unreasonable to me (there are some things that I think that we mostly agree on. It is not allowable to ‘game’ the system by writing down exactly what your neighbor wrote down, for instance. But I don’t think the Central Florida example is such a culturally agreed upon situation).

This is one of the many reasons why I switched to Standards-Based Grading: the proxies are at the very least less familiar, and most likely better associated with our ultimate goal of “student learning.” My proxies are not points, but rather “the number of times you demonstrated that you can do a particular type of problem to me.” It is tough to ‘game’ this system in a way that I am not in favor of, since most of the ‘gaming’ involves learning something well enough to convince me that you understand it.

It is still possible to game the system, though. For instance, students can demonstrate understanding through quizzes, and they can game the system by copying down their neighbors’ answers. But most of the examples of gaming SBG that I can think of falls into the “everyone knows that you are not supposed to do that type of gaming” category.

But the main point is: let’s not pretend that we don’t want students to game the system in certain ways. Let’s remember that the system is not what is important, and we must not lose sight of the reason why there is a system in the first place.

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2 Responses to “Students are Gaming Your System”

  1. Joss Ives Says:

    Agreed.

  2. Assessments: The Collateral Damage of SBG | Mathy McMatherson Says:

    […] Students Are Gaming Your System […]

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