Thursday, March 6, 2008

Get the job done, but what is the job?

One of my most memorable conversations with a student happened a few years ago. I was grading a programming project, and something in one of the project documents struck me. At our school, students are required to document help from other students in some detail. One pair described getting help from another student, call him K. Apparently, K was telling them how to do something, but they weren't understanding him fast enough. He got impatient, grabbed the keyboard, and starting typing in the code for them.

I was flabbergasted by this description. How could K have possibly believed that this was appropriate? I knew the class that he was just about to get out of, so I met him there and took him into an empty classroom.

For at least five minutes, we talked completely past each other. He didn't understand why I was upset, and I didn't understand why he seemed to believe he had done a genuinely good thing. Obviously, there were some unspoken assumptions on both sides that were preventing us from communicating.

Eventually, I realized what was going on. He had been taught that the bottom line was getting the job done. That was the most important thing, and he believed that what we teachers wanted from students was for them to get the job done. Helping his buddies get the job done was, in his eyes, no less than the responsible thing to have done, a positive act of virtue.

Aha! With this realization, and with his phrase of “getting the job done”, I finally had the wedge I needed to get through to him.

“What was the job on this project?”, I asked him.

“To complete a working program”, he replied.

“No, it wasn't”, I said. Utter confusion covered his face. “Think about it. I already have a solution to this project. Why would I need a dozen student implementations? I'm pretty sure that mine is going to be less buggy, faster, and better documented than any of yours.”

“But...” The first signs of doubt.

“So, if I don't really care about your implementations, then why did I have you all do this project? What do I care about? What was the job?

K frowned in concentration. It's never an easy thing when somebody tries to dismantle your basic assumptions. To his credit, he didn't just shut down, but actively struggled to understand what I was saying. He started to speak and stopped a few times. He was almost there, but couldn't quite articulate it.

“Learning”, I finally said. “The job was learning. The implementation was only a way to trigger that learning. But the implementation doesn't really matter, it's the learning that I care about.”

He got it. He understood why, from my point of view, typing in code for the other students was not helping them get the job done, but instead was actively hindering the learning that was the real job.

As we wound down, he mentioned a different teacher he had had the previous two semesters. The other teacher had a grading policy where you get credit for an assignment only when it is completely correct. If your assignment has flaws, then you redo it until it's correct, losing points with each resubmission. For somebody like K, who strongly believes in getting the job done, this policy just reinforces the idea that finishing the program is the job. I know this wasn't the other teacher's intent, but I can certainly see how it could be taken that way.


Anthony said...

Chris, it's a valuable lesson, but I think it is incumbent on the professor to actively remind students of this. The only feedback they are guaranteed to get is a grade, which has the unhappy role of being the only quantitative measure we use in education while simultaneously indicating mastery of a subject (rather than just effort, or improvement).

Waqas said...

I'll have to admit that I have been guilty of doing this. But what anthony says does describe why this problem exists.