Incentives and Marks

Incentives can be powerful things especially for the worse.  Here’s one professor’s story on why he’s not a professor anymore.  A particularly interesting excerpt is on the subject of “scaling” marks:

“However there are lots of ways round this little problem. One of them is doctoring the marks.  Except its not called ‘doctoring’ its called ‘scaling’ and its done by computer. You scale the marks until you get the nice binomial distribution of fails and firsts. You can turn a fail into a II(ii) with scaling. Probably you want to be generous because otherwise students might not elect to study your course next year and then your course will be shut down and you’ll be teaching Word for Windows. Scaling was universal and nobody except the external auditors (who were lecturers who did the same thing themselves) got to see anything but the scaled marks.”

One way to look at it is to view the system abstractly as an optimization problem.  If you have 10,000 undergraduate students per year trying to optimize their marks, all of which are funding (at least in part) the pay of the university and the professor in question, which goal is going to be optimized first?  One professor who wishes to maintain the high quality of standard, or the 10,000 (per year) undergraduates all trying to maximize marks while minimizing work?  Gone are the days when I think of university as a place solely for higher learning.  (Though it’s important not to draw broad strokes on the few who still are fighting the good fight.)

Knowing this, it’s almost crazy to think that one person can change such entrenched institutions as universities.  But perhaps that’s exactly what we need more of — crazy people:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Think Different, narrated by Steve Jobs

So go on, get your crazy on today.