18 February 2023


Down in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University, computer science professor Peter Fröhlich grades his students on a very specific sort of curve. 

He takes the highest score for a student on his final exam, and sets that number as 100%, and all the other grades are a then assigned a percentage score, and a grade, based on this number.

In a way, it is the epitome of computer science.  It is a simple algorithm, it requires very little though or preparation, and it only tangentially addresses the mess that is reality.

His students boycotted his final exam en masse, securing an "A" for the final grade for all of them.

Just so you know, the professor is accepting his current results, and adjusting the policy:

Since he started teaching at Johns Hopkins University in 2005, Professor Peter Fröhlich has maintained a grading curve in which each class’s highest grade on the final counts as an A, with all other scores adjusted accordingly. So if a midterm is worth 40 points, and the highest actual score is 36 points, "that person gets 100 percent and everybody else gets a percentage relative to it,” said Fröhlich.

This approach, Fröhlich said, is the "most predictable and consistent way" of comparing students' work to their peers', and it worked well.

At least it did until the end of the fall term at Hopkins, that is.

As the semester ended in December, students in Fröhlich’s "Intermediate Programming", "Computer System Fundamentals," and "Introduction to Programming for Scientists and Engineers" classes decided to test the limits of the policy, and collectively planned to boycott the final. Because they all did, a zero was the highest score in each of the three classes, which, by the rules of Fröhlich’s curve, meant every student received an A.


Fröhlich took a surprisingly philosophical view of his students' machinations, crediting their collaborative spirit. "The students learned that by coming together, they can achieve something that individually they could never have done," he said via e-mail. “At a school that is known (perhaps unjustly) for competitiveness I didn't expect that reaching such an agreement was possible.”

Although Fröhlich conceded that he did not include such a “loophole” in the policy “with the goal of students exploiting it,” he decided to honor it after the boycott.

Despite awarding As to all the students who participated in the boycott, the experience has led Fröhlich to alter his long-held grading policy.

I'm not sure why I find this so amusing, but I am profoundly amused.


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