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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 | Last updated: 4:51pm

Patient profs win over hard knock mentality



The day after one of my exams, it became apparent that about 40 percent of the class was missing from the seats. Naturally, this was brought up by the professor. Cue the inevitable random student shouting “Can the people who showed up today get extra credit since so many people bailed?” This caused the professor to go off on a tangent; he’s not one of those teachers who takes it easy on his students.

“You think any of your future bosses are gonna give you a raise just because you showed up on time?” he asked.

This went on for quite a while, with him diverging to talk about “effort-based grading,” where the teacher gives students full credit for every assignment turned in, regardless of how well they did. I was a bit frustrated that he went on about his disapproval of this mentality for so much of the lecture, especially because of the polarizing way in which he went about it.

This professor, who I won’t name, takes a very strict approach to the way he teaches the class. There are three exams, no homework assignments, and no lecture notes offered online. If you miss a day, you have to hope someone is willing to let you copy their notes. If you don’t do well enough on the exams, then get ready to take the class again next semester. While the content of the course isn’t mind-numbingly difficult, this approach would be considered pretty intense for other materials where it’s much easier to fall behind.

His attitude comes from the idea that college is supposed to prepare you for the real world, a world where messing up means you have to try again. It’s definitely an understandable perspective on education. I’m sure students who are pampered by teachers are less able to cope with the “real world” once they graduate. Offering all students generous extensions of deadlines, or excessively handing out extra credit could potentially spoil them.

While I definitely agree students shouldn’t be given too much leeway, I also feel many people who advocate for this approach are a little overzealous about it. The subject needs to be handled with more finesse.

Students shouldn’t be encouraged to do the bare minimum, but there’s nothing wrong with a professor tossing out a couple of extra points on a quiz, or giving an extra day to turn in an assignment at the cost of a penalty.

I think the majority of college students are already aware that life isn’t always fair. In fact, I’m certain the concept of “shit happens” isn’t completely alien to anyone who’s already been living on this planet for over 18 years. It’s actually a bit insulting when, as a grown adult, someone gives you the “you don’t always get what you want” speech you’ve heard a billion times before.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of how well we are taught by our professors, we’re going to make plenty of mistakes when we go down our respective career paths. This is inevitable, but it’s also very unlikely that a new employee will be harshly punished for messing up. You’re probably going to meet people who are understanding and want to help you improve yourself.

The approach that some professors take to education leads me to believe they want to condition students for a life of unrelenting stress and hardship. Even if some careers are really like that, shouldn’t students be able to learn how to cope with it, rather than getting beaten down by the “sink-or-swim” method?

A study conducted at Harvard University in 2009 led by David G. Rand, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, revealed that a reward-based approach resulted in better cooperation and desired behavior than a punishment-based system.

I get that students need to graduate prepared, but when it comes to actually teaching them concepts and testing their understanding, I don’t think punching them in the gut for making a mistake is the best method. Failing a student on an assignment for narrowly missing a deadline, or docking ridiculous amounts of points for things like formatting errors doesn’t really promote a better work ethic. Excessive positive reinforcement may not make concepts any clearer, but neither does too much negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement still serves to inform those involved about the consequences of their shortcomings. However, if the reinforcement is too harsh, the receiving party is more likely to struggle or lose motivation.

In the end, it seems that a professor can reach students more effectively by being understanding and offering constructive criticism, rather than just throwing the textbook at them.

— Jesus Luna Tarazon is a senior studying English. Follow him @DailyWildcat


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