The Wow Factor — Grading, Education, Whuffie, And How To Really Learn

Making fair exams can be really, really hard. Evaluation of students is sometimes difficult. In fact, I’ve mentioned in several classes that I think the quality of University education would skyrocket if grading was abandoned. Now, instead of grading, they’ve said, you need something. They’re perhaps right… but maybe not. It doesn’t exactly matter how well a doctor does on her exams throughout school — if she flunks the licensing exam, she flunks; and it doesn’t matter whether a doctor flunks every exam going through school, if he gets 100% on the licensing exam (and then goes home and forgets everything). We do need a way to ensure competence on the part of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and others upon whom we depend daily for our lives and safety.

But I don’t think exams are really the way to do it. What we need is a rational Whuffie system of some kind. Perhaps, compartmentalized Whuffie.

Whuttie? you say. If you don’t know this word, go and buy and read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (or download and read, or listen to this podcast, or this podcast (that link’s part 1, here’s the feed). Or check out the Wikipedia entry, if you’re a lazy uncool bugger:

Whuffie is the ephemeral, reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow’s sci-fi novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. This future history book describes a post-scarcity economy: All the necessities (and most of the luxuries) of life are free for the taking. A person’s current Whuffie is instantly viewable to anyone, as everybody has a brain-implant giving them an interface with the Net.

If you think about the way we grade students now, it’s a really, well… it’s an inefficient, unrepresentative system, no matter what we do. Some students game the system, by cheating or plagiarizing — acts that don’t permanently impact on their academic rating, but instead at worst (even in the West) involve temporary problems like expulsion, and (in my experience) in Korea routinely just results in a slap on the wrist.

Let’s set up a little comparison chart here:



Comparison of Grading versus Education Itself
Grading & Academic ProgramsEducation and Learning
Is a static set of evaluative records.Is a dynamic process.
Involves discrete, arbitarily compartmentalized accumulation of unrelated “knowledges? and skills.Involves a continuous, noncompartmentalized accumulation of a single body of diverse, interrelated knowledge and skills through simultaneous explorations in different areas.
Focused on fulfillment of requirements.Focused on attainment of familiarity, understanding, and finally, mastery.
Demonstrates achievement at specific, routinized, and highly-contrived “set-points? determined as expedient for evaluation of accumulated learning.Is demonstrated by what knowledge and abilities are, generally, available at any given time during the educational process, not simply for exams but for a wide range of tasks or activities.
Is understood to “end? at a certain point when a certain degree of official certification is achieved, which can thereafter be used for demonstration of skill/knowledge attainment.Is optimally understood not to end, but to continue and diversify, and, should it end, to likely ossify and fall out of date or go into “disrepair? if study and engagement with the subject does not continue.
Demonstrates achievement at specific and highly contrived “set-points? determined as expedient for evaluation of accumulated learning.Is demonstrated by what knowledge and abilities are, generally, available at any given time during the educational process, not simply for exams but for a wide range of tasks or activities.

The obvious question, then, is how effective is grading as a form of student evaluation? How could it be made more effective? Imagine an evaluation system that was dynamic, focused on synthesis of information and creative utilization of knowledge and skills, rewarded energetic pursuit of deepened familiarity with the goal of continuously maintained mastery, and was evaluative of a wide range of non-preordained tasks, flexible enough to reward spontaneous creativity or productivity, and in general was focused on learning, not on little letters and numbers on a piece of paper.

The image in my head is of a professor leading a discussion in a class. The University has a running tally of his evaluations, and when students say something downright interesting, put two ideas together and come up with something worthwhile, solve a difficult problem or demonstrate how it’s done, come up with an excellent solution to a coding problem, or demonstrate a deep understanding of some subject or other, the professor can squirt some Whuffie at them electronically. This is registered in their participation log, or their cell phone or chip-enhanced student card or whatever, and registered on the campus wireless network, as well. Students accumulate said Whuffie in their different classes, and maybe it could be differentiated somewhat — Major Whuffie, Elective Whuffie, Social Whuffie, Peer Whuffie, and so on — but it wouldn’t just be grades. The impetus would be on the students to learn, and those with the highest Major Whuffie would be the ones best positioned to go on to advanced study or work in the field. And Peer Whuffie is an important one: if a student does well in class, his or her peers ought to be able to recognize it and squirt him or her encouragement Whuffie, in the hope that their own demonstrations of competence might be similarly rewarded. People would end up paying a lot more attention to what happens on a day-by-day basis in the classroom, instead of just to tests. This, in turn, would result in more mastery of the major subject, more acquisition of language in language classes… more real education.

Would the system be open to manipulation or unfair evaluation? I’d wager the girl who wears a miniskirt everyday would probably get marginally higher Whuffie, yes; I’d wager the student with the bad teeth and ugly hair might have to struggle harder to have the confidence to contribute. But these problems exist in our own present system, without any of the ameliorating benefits of the Whuffie-grading system, and I suspect it might be possible to at least statistically analyze the dynamic grading assigned by professors in an automated way, so they could receive cautions from the automatic system and even, should things be too unbalanced, a routine Whuffie-assignment log review.

(And for the record, if it’s used for grading, the name “Whuffie” would simply have to go, I suspect.)

Thinking of grading that way, it’s enough to make me feel like I’m banging my head on a wall, trying to make “fairer tests”. It’s like thinking up ways to make “less radical amputations”.


The other day, I gave an exam on the lectures I’d given students. I told them that they didn’t have to worry too much: if they’d paid enough attention during lectures, and taken even just basic notes, the exam wouldn’t be too hard. I even gave them the topics (though not the focus) for the single essay question section of the text.

One guy wrote that blackface minstrelsy is getting popular in the world now because it’s cute and funny and makes black people feel good. I don’t know why he chose that essay question. Nobody else bombed the essay section that seriously.

The short answer section is a totally different story. I asked them for things I’d either hammered at in class — basic information, like “Name two of the Beats and an important text each one wrote,” (several people could only answer “Jack”) and “Which Beatle was assassinated?” (a question about the student presentation the very week before; some people thought it was George Harrison!). I swear, the questions I asked were total softball, just of the “Were you paying attention in class?” sort. Students went about memorizing goodness-knows-what, and in the end, they were very disappointed.

One student didn’t even show up for the exam, something I’d warned classes at the beginning of semester would result in an F in the course. “But she didn’t want to write it,” a friend I asked privately about this offered in her defense. “She hadn’t studied enough.” I said she should come and see me, but that I would be firm on the failing grade for the course. You don’t just skip exams because you don’t feel like taking them. That’s flaky, unacceptable behaviour. (I did note that if she could bring in a recent death certificate for a grandparent or a doctor’s note for Ebola infection, I might be swayed.)

(On the bright side, one student said she wants to get a chance to watch the remainder of the film Dil Se.., noting that she was depressed when the film started, and then cheered up immensely when she watched the first thirty minutes. I should let her know the ending is kind of depressing, actually, but anyway, I said I would make time outside of class if others wanted to see the film, too.)

Anyway, I’ve just printed the grading evaluation sheet for the Monologues Midterm in drama class, and I’m grappling with this in a different way, the same one that I had with English conversation classes back in Jeonju.

That problem is that some students just don’t put their back into it. They attend regularly, they even contribute a little sometimes, but when push comes to shove, they clam up, close up, and push away whatever the core of the lesson is. They answer monosyllabically, or ask questions of test partners that invite — or demand — monosyllabic responses. What they do, and what they seem to have been encouraged to do, from all I’ve heard of Korean high school — is to fulfill the basic requirements.

Which, you know, is the kind of performance that warrants a low B or a C grade, in my opinion. In their opinion, this is how one earns an A. In any class. Period. Now, my students here and now aren’t quite so skewed in their understanding, but I still think there’s a major difference between how I think of grades, and how they think of them, and when you have something as slippery as a monologue for a midterm exam, then I’m sorry, but my subjective judgment is going to matter… it’s going to have to matter. And I think the only way to judge the difference between A work and B work is subjectively, to be honest.

So I’ve got a Wow Factor included in the exam. Originally, I had it listed as a “Risk-Taking Bonus”, but this makes it look as if bothering to be outstanding is risky, which isn’t the message I’m after. Rather, I’ve got a Wow factor grade of /2 out of /10. It’s flexible: the sheet notes that anything from outstanding acting to writing one’s own monologue, extra creativity or attention to props can earn someone this Wow Factor memorability.

How much do you want to bet students will complain that this isn’t fair? “You didn’t tell me I should try to do an excellent job, to take initiative and do things that you didn’t specify!” they might even have an argument when you consider that participation grades are 20% of their mark. But on the other hand, this isn’t the same as participation, and anyway, it’s not like writing one’s own script, getting into character, considering props and the like, and similar things weren’t mentioned in class. And it’s not as if I’m penalizing people for not doing one thing that I failed to specify.

The thing I’m asking for is more general, more flexible. In effect, it’s a, “Give a damn in a way that’s externally noticeable” portion of the grade. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

D-grades are for the person who puts his back into it, but cannot master the skills at all, or someone who’s pretty good in class, but flubs their exams royally, but whom you really cannot fail because it’d be so unfair. C-grades are sometimes for those flubbers, but often for the people who aren’t talented, but could try harder and do a little better. B-grades are for the people who put in a little more than a modicum of effort, and express interest and energy, but still shirk it sometimes, or don’t really push when it comes to the crunch, or who work like a dog and just have so little talent to help bolster their prodigious efforts that they’re still only barely above average.

And so A-level grades aren’t candies to be handed out. That’s my thinking. They’re for the students who really stand out, who make you go wow, who pull things off that make you respect them and remember them. Sometimes you get a whole class of students who deserve an A, and can’t give it to them. Sometimes you get a whole class of students among whom there’s not even one potential A-level student. Both are tough situations.

According to what Lime’s told me, my thinking is extremely different from how many Korean professors grade their students. According to her, profs prefer to give as many A-grades as possible. Well, I prefer that too, but I don’t think that I’m “giving” it, I think that students have to “earn” them.

  • Downloading the text for a presentation isn’t a mark of excellence, it’s a mark of mediocrity. It’s the grim pointless kind of exercise that is the opposite of what education should entail, and thereby it poisons education. Do this even just once in my class, and you’ve lost your chance for a B (let alone an A) in that course. (But you can try again next course.)
  • Being reluctant to participate (after the first week) is unacceptable. If you’re shy, you should take a public speaking course, or get therapy, or start playing in a band, or do something. I used to be shy, and in some ways I still am, deep down, but I can guarantee you that shyness never won anyone anything, and it’s NOT going to win you a pity-A in my course. If you are willing to shine, don’t expect me to wear sunglasses.
  • Fulfilling the bare minimum doesn’t inspire my respect. If you just go through the motions, your presentation, or essay, or whatever, is going to be absolutely unmemorable. People who are unmemorable lose out, in real life. Why should education reward such behaviour, therefore? (I remember reading another teacher saying something like this, and thinking, “Yeah, but the real world is stupid”, but now, I think he had a point. The more I think of the disjunct between my experience of high school, and my experience of post-high school life, the more I think education should prepare us for how the world is… realistically, without of course encouraging us to take the crassest, laziest route that is so often rewarded in the real world.)
  • Creativity will get you, well somewhere. Forget this crap we’re told about people not being creative, stopping being creative when they grow up… it’s a load of crap. Adults can be as creative as children, and much more so — they have so many more resources at their disposal. If adults weren’t creative, we’d still be hunting megafauna using rocks and sticks, and grunting at one another. Creativity is surprising, memorable, and worthwhile, and I’ll be damned before I fail to reward it.
  • Sweat is nothing to be ashamed of. If you’re breaking your back trying to do something, mention it. Show me the effort. Demonstrate it, in class. And put your efforts into something that will move your forward — because there is, of course, such a thing as wasted sweat. A ton of effort pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll down again, is wasted sweat, regardless of what Camus wrote. You’re better off hunting for rocks to brace the boulder on the way up, even if it moves you forward more slowly, because it’d real progress.
  • Go out of your way, and either ignore what you take to be the bare minimums, or actually try to raise the bar for the rest of your peers. Take advantage of my office hours. Come and see me. Email me queries. Ask questions in class. Act like you actually want to learn something, and value the experience of learning, and you’ll go a lot farther than you would just turning up in class because it’s required, doing the bare minimum of reading and participating only when I remind you that participation is being graded. If everyone volunteers an answer to a question, answer the question and ask a new one. Raise the bar for everyone around you. Challenge them and yourself.
  • Enjoy yourself. If you’re frowning every time I see you, if participation makes you look distinctly uncomfortable, if it’s obvious that you’re really rather be elsewhere doing something else, I’m going to concur with the wish, and it will affect your grade. And if you hate your major, change majors. Enjoyment and its opposite are both infectious, and to whatever degree your lack of enthusiasm infects the class, you’re annoying me and others, and this will be reflected in your grade, too.

Ah well. Time to go give another test.

2 thoughts on “The Wow Factor — Grading, Education, Whuffie, And How To Really Learn

  1. Wow!! I am glad I am done with studying!! Does your perfectionist attitude make you popular? I dont think that one bothers you anyway. There are the frivolous sorts all around but most youngsters have to fight terrible demons in the name of peer pressure nowadays. The off campus life attributes to a lot of things. An alma mater is meant to mould the heart and tease the brain. Let’s hope our efforts are a balance of both.

  2. Therapist Boulder,

    Well, but you should take into context that these are Korean students I’m working with. The demands placed upon Korean students are generally lower than placed on Western students, ostensibly because the education system here sort of obliterates all semblance of a teenaged life. They study like hell in the last year or so of high school — ie. longer hours of study than most Westerners ever study but unfortunately, as far as I’ve gathered, it’s mostly rote memorization and a great big hoop-jump.

    Which means when they get to college, they expect to relax. As one Korean professor I know put it, “The freshman year of university is a drinking contest.” (And not just for the equivalent of frat boys; it seems the norm to be drunk a frightening number of times in freshman year here.)

    I don’t know if the western concept of “peer pressure” has made it across the Pacific in quite the form familiar to us. After all, in a sense, “peer pressure” is just sort of normal here. I know a number of adults who seem to feel pressures to be “normal” that I haven’t seen among Western adults outside of strongly conservative religious communities.

    (But I must also admit that I am skeptical of it from the outset. I felt pressure by people who were jerks, in school, but those pressures very rarely pushed me into things I didn’t really want to do. The most I can say is that misbehaving peers gave me a license to misbehave too. So I think this whole notion of “peer pressure,” like the idea of “positive role models,” might be part of the patronizing psychobabble that adults use to talk about young people. I certainly never had a role model for my behaviour. I looked up to Miles Davis, for example, but only musically. I didn’t aspire to having a bunch of ex-wives and a drug problem in high school.)

    As for moulding the heart, believe me, I try, but there are two things: one is that these are college kids, and I suspect much of the moulding has been done long before I meet them. The other is that the people who are in a position to hear me out usually don’t need much moulding, while the few who could do with a little more growth in terms of their compassion, ethics, or even just capacity to treat classmates with respect, well… they tend to find it all too easy to dismiss what I’m saying because they perceive me as an outsider. Understandable, I suppose, but as it is, I’m not really the guy to reach them. Knowing that frees me to focus on the intellectual side of teaching.

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