Yesterday, I wrote about the Johns Hopkins computer science students who figured out a loophole in their professors’ grading system — if they all refused to take the final exam, they’d all get As. Which is exactly what they did. I was surprised by the harsh response of our commenters:  “I’d have flunked the whole bunch of them,” one writes. “What happened here was blackmail,” writes another. While I understand people — especially teachers! — not wanting to condone a policy that seemingly rewards laziness with good grades, I don’t think that’s what happened here.

I spoke over email with Andrew Kelly, a Hopkins senior majoring in mechanical engineering who was one of the boycott’s organizers, who rejected the intimation that his classmates were looking for an easy way out. “We had 10 assignments, if I remember correctly, plus a pretty challenging midterm,” he recalls. The point of the class was to teach students a new programming language (Python), something that the assignments (presumably) were successful in assessing. The students learned what they came to learn. (Not to mention the fact that no one was sure the boycott would work, so they all came to the final well-prepared; if anyone had broken rank, they would’ve all taken the test.)

But what I really bristle at is the suggestion that these students are somehow lazy, sneaky, or blackmailers (!). As Andrew explains it, Professor Frohlich had included the boycott option as “a little trick he put in place” to see if the students would take advantage. Once again, let’s remember that these are computer science students studying programming. They were given a system, and instead of following the normal order of operations, they found an elegant and efficient solution that produced optimal results. Or, as Andrew puts it, “we were merely successful in the challenge given to us.” Frochlich’s seemingly-pleased attitude about the whole thing emphasizes this point: “The students learned that by coming together, they can achieve something that individually they could never have done,” he said.

Furthermore, putting together the boycott required a substantial amount of work to organize the large class and make sure that everyone was on board. “Instead of us ‘gaming the system’ or being the lazy, scheming students the world of internet commenters have made us out to be,” Andrew says, “we really were just given an opportunity to take one less exam during an otherwise insane and stressful exam period.”

Too often, school is set up as a hyper-competitive, winner-take-all system.  (When I taught at Johns Hopkins, I heard rumors of students sabotaging their roommates’ alarm clocks so they’d sleep through finals, or checking books out of the library so no one else could access them for a research paper.) Top students hunker down and do the work without thinking critically about how or why they’re asked to perform the way they are. I’m impressed that these students had the creativity to imagine another way, the persistence to follow through on a crazy idea, the desire to work together instead of succeeding on an individual basis, and the smarts to make it all the way to the end of a challenging programming class at one of the nation’s top universities. I bet they’ll make great programmers.

3 replies on “In Defense of Johns Hopkins’ Exam Boycotters”

  1. Thanks for the update. This story has been so misunderstood! It is as if people just read the headline and not the article. None of the critics would have succeed in Frochlich’s class. Not because they didn’t read the article, but because they jumped to an easy conclusion and failed to imagine a different scenario, obstacles that the students overcame with the help of an imaginative teacher.

    1. It’s still not worth it to give them *all* As since there must have been weak students among them — unless Hopkins students always get As, which would make all this moot — who also got As and finals tend to be weighted at about 30% of the overall grade or more.

  2. I must concur.
    Not only would it have been counter-productive to “flunk ’em all”, but I bet that sort of pass-rate would draw attention from the Dean! From the point of view both of pedagogy and scientific development, the Prof did the right thing. I have had to make adjustments to assignments over the years as students (either innocently or deviously) have worked out responses other than I intended. But we both learn something when that happens.

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