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Sunday, 7 June 2015

To Play The Game

To Play the Game. It sounds a bit like the title of an episode of Cracker (e.g. "To be a Somebody" or "To Say I Love You") but really we're returning to criticising Dale Carnegie because the man just cannot catch a break. But why? Well, to my knowledge, he hasn't done anything recently but with exams upon me again I'd like to discuss Carnegie's comments on gaming the system.
Carnegie’s submission warns that students tend to “game play” NCEA at school, then run into problems when they realise this is not possible at university.
I covered this view previously when it was more time-relevant, but now I'd like to filter these comments through the experience of three semesters of university. But, firstly, I really need to summarise my previous contention. In all honesty, I guess gaming links to Carnegie's views on resits (one should recall Carnegie appeared to know very little about NCEA), but I am not 100% sure. In the "Blind Faith" post I did wonder if one could game the system by attempting everything, inserting key words and in writing essays memorised by rote. I'm not sure, though, because the first two things are basically recommended. History 106 told us to get reference the primary source readings in our exam essays and Accounting 101's big on telling us to attempt everything, can't give you marks if you write nothing. The last thing never comes up as advice and NZQA does try to take measures against it. In all cases, these are instances of gaming in the sense that they attempt to exploit the system. Whether that is in the way things are marked or by exploiting the existence of exemplars. What I have found, though, is that university is eminently gameable.

Now, I have not done any engineering courses and I have not, in particular, done any engineering courses at university. I have done some maths ones so they'll have to do. With the maths ones, the only reason I passed was through the exploitation of the partial marks phenomenon. That is, if you can recognise what the question wants and can get part of the way to using an appropriate method, you get some marks. That's actually pretty fair and reasonable. After all, knowing what a question is asking you is demonstrating some knowledge. Thus, I passed, barely, Maths 250. I passed Maths 150 through this method but also through scaling. Now, scaling is extremely dubious: the university bumps students up by some amount to a different grade. The problem with this is obvious: one is never certain whether or not a mark that says A+ was an A+ based purely on its own merits or if it started out as something that looked more like, say, a B+. You also have no idea how much scaling was involved. I mean, 84% to 85% is different to 80% to 85% but both are A- to A. There are also some questions over how exactly scaling happens, which means that things are even more ambiguous. And, in this context, ambiguity == less integrity == can't trust this. How do you game with scaling, though? Well, you don't really... except you can alter your behaviour based on the expectation of scaling. So, I guess, scaling's a bit like inflation.

But, university is even more dodgy when it comes to exams. There is an idea known as plussage or, alternatively, exam benefit. Basically, plussage means that if you can do better on the exam than you do in the coursework + exam, your final mark will come from the exam only. I know, for a fact, that this is how I obtained an A- in History 106 and I may have obtained it in a few other courses as well (not all courses have plussage, and I believe that the exam must be worth at least 50% to start with for it to be on the table as it were). It is very easy to see how this leads to gaming the system. Plussage means that you can slack off on coursework and have a reasonably easy ride through the semester and still end up with a decent mark due to some hardcore cramming and decent exam technique. After all, exams are performance. But, wait, it gets worse! In some courses it is possible to use plussage to end up with a mark that reflects one's knowledge of only part of the syllabus because the exam only covers the content from certain parts of the course. There are better forms of plussage used in Stats 10x and 20x. Both of these courses assess most of the course in the exam and the mid-semester test but the way plussage works merely alters the weighting of the exam and test. The assignments, theoretically practical hands-on engagement with course content, are always weighted the same under this system. It's better but still a little dubious. The rationale for plussage is that people often get better as time goes on so it is better to reflect their understanding later on rather than earlier. This is particularly true of Accounting 101 which, in my eyes, deliberately designs its test to trip up first years with no experience of university tests.

I guess, then, that the last thing to really bring up are multiple choice tests. And because I am bored, dear reader, I hope my opinion on them is clear. You can use terms like "test what you know something is not" or "tests who can guess best" in reconstructing my opinion.

But to make a bigger point, ultimately, people on some level recognise that there is a game to be played. I don't think you can do anything about that.

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