Mathochism: Partial credit

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Under the compass of Damocles We got our last chapter test back on Monday, which was also the last day before the final.

And sadly, in spite of all my hard work, the brain slugs apparently won again. I got full credit on just one problem, and no credit on another. Most others (there were eight problems total) were given partial credit. Oh well.

But then, we went over the exam. And as the professor got through problem #3, I started getting confused. It was an area problem, and not only had I set up the integral correctly, I had solved it correctly.

The same thing happened two more times. By my count, I should have gotten an additional 15 points. This would have raised my grade to a C. Not great, but it was progress after failing all semester.

What on earth was going on? As usual, students gathered around the professor’s desk at the end of class to protest their scores. I had never protested before, because I usually messed up. But this time I hadn’t.

When it was my turn, the professor acknowledged I had done the integral and calculations correctly on all three problems. The issue was that I hadn’t included a graph.

I was floored. There was nothing in the instructions that required a graph. What’s more, she had spent much of the semester cautioning us not to trust graphs, but to rely instead on solving problems algebraically. Even when we were supposed to draw graphs, it was understood that we were “sketching.”

That is not to say I hadn’t done graphs — I just did them on my scratch paper, where I had room (none of the exams ever had enough room). She usually collects the scratch paper, but of course didn’t this time.

On one problem, I did include a graph — well, just a rough sketch. It wasn’t accurate enough (no room, remember?), so I redid it on my scratch paper. And got the problem right. But because of the rough sketch, the professor took away five points. “Your regions are all wrong!” she exclaimed.

No amount of explanations that the real graph was on the scratch paper, and how she thought I would have “gotten the integral bounds right without that?” got through. Finally, she agreed to give me two measly points. Total.

Ugh. To say I was fucking pissed is an understatement. And sadly, it illustrates how biased this kind of test can be. Of the six courses I took for this project, three had multiple choice Scantron tests and three written, subject to partial credit tests.

I did about the same on each kind — this course excepted — with As and Bs — but I know which I prefer. I prefer the Scantron ones. Yes, there is no partial credit. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But when you’re right, you’re not subject to the professor’s whimsy — particularly a professor who feels it unnecessary to tell you what she actually requires on the exam. Would it have been so hard to write “you must include a graph, or you will not get full credit”?

I left school in a rage that day, in a rage mixed with disappointment. But I had no time to mourn or lick my wounds. The final was less than 24 hours away.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • I can see exactly why you prefer the Scantron tests. There is something wrong with marking a problem incorrect when you got to the right answer – using the problem-solving rubric that the professor intended for you to learn – and the instructions given by the professor didn’t specify that you needed to include the graph!

  • Wow. I would be so furious. Much, much sympathy.

    I don’t know if it’s worth it to you, but I would consider appealing to the department head and/or whatever dispute resolution mechanism (ombuds office?) the school has in place.

  • Yeah, I thought about that. But even this grade wouldn’t have helped me pass in the end. Oh well. It will make for a good chapter in the book!

  • Wow. That’s really unprofessional of her, and terrible pedagogy.

    FYI: from my point of view, the preceding sentence is blistering criticism.

    The point of partial credit is so that students who understand the concepts but screw up the execution don’t get zeros. Or so that students who understand some of the concepts can get credit for that. (I had a Latin teacher who would give half credit on tests if, when asked to conjugate the verb “to suffer,” I wrote in the margin, “I don’t remember the verb for “to suffer”. I will be using “suffero, -are, -avi, -atum” and then conjugated my made-up word correctly.) The point of partial credit is NOT to be able to deduct points from students who get the correct answer using the correct methodology but fail to provide something that wasn’t asked for.

    Ideally, exams are another teaching tool. Sub-ideally, they are a method of determining the extent to which students comprehend the material. It doesn’t sound like this exam did either of those things.

  • I could feel the flames!