Teaching your students not to need a teacher

Yesterday, after coming across my teaching statement, a reader named Arber Borici sent me the following questions:

In your opinion and based on your experience at various institutions, what would you recommend to me (a young, inexperienced scholar) regarding on how to best remove students’ attention from the mediocrity of grading to the eagerness for knowledge or, at least, high culture? … I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with one or two guidelines in approaching students to appreciate what they are being taught and to teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves.

It seemed like good fodder for a blog entry, so with Arber’s kind permission, I’ve decided to post my response to him here (with only light editing).


Dear Arber,Thanks for your thoughtful email!  I’m always delighted to hear from people who share my views about the inherent problems in combining teaching with evaluation.

Alas, your question of how to get students to focus on intellectual exploration rather than on their midterm grade is an incredibly difficult one, since it depends not only on you but also on your academic context (for example, you’ll probably be required to give grades by department policy).  I’ve been struggling with that question myself for the past three years, and still haven’t answered it to my satisfaction, but here are a few small tips I can offer.

(1) Some students didn’t come to college to learn, but for any number of other reasons: to party, get a high-paying job, satisfy their parents, etc.  Or they’re only taking your course because it’s required for the major, while their real interests lie elsewhere.  Treat these students fairly and with respect, but don’t kill yourself trying to awaken an intellectual curiosity that isn’t present.  Instead, identify the students who are in your class to learn, memorize their names and faces, and make special efforts to reach out to them—for example, by sticking around after class to chat with them about the lecture and answer their questions.  (In my experience, many intellectually curious students prefer sticking around after class to coming to office hours.  In many cases, students who come to office hours are there because they want you to do their homework for them!)

(2) Grade generously.  I usually give at least a B- to anyone who makes a serious effort in the course.  (In practice, that policy turns out to be compatible with giving a fair number of Cs, Ds, and even Fs.)

(3) Most importantly, if you don’t want the students to focus only on low-level boring stuff, don’t lecture only about low-level boring stuff!  Tell stories about Alan Turing and his codebreaking work.  Talk about the philosophy behind the Church-Turing Thesis, or the arguments for and against identifying “feasible” with “polynomial time,” or the implications for AI if it turned out that P=NP.  If a student asks a really good question, don’t be afraid to take a 10-minute digression to answer the question.  You’ll constantly feel pressure in the opposite direction—there’s so much “real material” that needs to be “covered”!  But think about what your students will remember from your course twenty years from now, long after the details of implementing red/black trees have been forgotten, and the right course of action will become clear to you.

I should point out that there’s a paradox at the heart of teaching, which your second question (which is actually a variation on your first question) makes clear:

I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with one or two guidelines in approaching students to appreciate what they are being taught and to teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves.

To see the difficulty with what you ask, picture a classroom full of glazed-eyed students, dutifully taking notes on “how to seek knowledge for themselves,” so they can repeat back your tips on intellectual initiative for the test!

In my experience, probably the best (only?) way to teach people how to seek knowledge for themselves is to illustrate by example.  Let your students watch you in action doing all of the following:

  1. happily admitting when you don’t know something.
  2. looking something up and getting back to the asker during the next class meeting, rather than simply letting the matter drop.
  3. thinking a difficult/novel question through on your feet.
  4. eliciting help from the students in a “Socratic” manner.

Seeing a positive example will embolden the students who have a spark of any of these tendencies in themselves.

Anyway, I hope that helps!

Best of luck,
Scott

51 Responses to “Teaching your students not to need a teacher”

  1. Peter Says:

    One thing that I’d add is doing your best to make every student question (or suggestion) sound like a great one. Jon Kleinberg was the best I’ve had at doing this. One would ask something like “but can’t you just solve the traveling salesman problem by looking at it?” and he respond by saying “So you’re saying … People actually have tried [something somewhat related to the suggestion, even if tangentially]” and the person, often me, instead of feeling humiliated, would grow even more interested in the subject.

  2. G Says:

    As a former student, I feel that sticking around after class is very important! Often, the intellectually curious student will feel he has asked too many questions in class (or rather that his fellow students might find to be too many). Or he might feel that an important question might take up too much of the class’ time. He will want to follow up immediately after a lecture with a fresh mind. The context of the just-finished lecture is important to properly form newly-learned ideas. Waiting for the next office hours could cause the student to ask a question off his notes, rather than off his mind.

    I am grateful for all the instructors that stuck around after class!

  3. Ajay Says:

    One really neat idea that my CS professor from last semester did was to pass out a blank piece of paper to each student in the class at the beginning of each lecture. By the end of the lecture, we were supposed to write a few (around 3) big ideas we learned during the lecture as well as any questions we had. The questions were optional but the concepts were required.

    He would collect them at the end of lecture and then later send out an email addressing the questions (there were often overlaps) and well as clarifying any misconceptions in the ideas that people wrote. It was a really neat way to see what other people were thinking of, to have a written record of all questions and answers, get instant and anonymous clarification on concepts, and to take attendance of who was present at the lecture. It was an elegant solution that worked well.

  4. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Excellent point, Peter!

    Furthermore, it is a lot more fun (for me, and hopefully the students) to let student questions and discussion direct the course of a class. You have to provide some steering to cover the essentials. I find this is easy to do for courses for which you know the material really well, and have taught a couple times before.

    Last year I got a great programming question: (Background note: in C++ you can overload operators; e.g., you can write a + operator that works for matrices, etc.) I was trying to motivate the idea of a recursive function call. I had written out an iterative version of the poster child example, the factorial function. Then I wrote the recursive definition on the board: 0! = 1, (n+1)! = (n+1)*n!, and said “Does this suggest another way to code the factorial function?” A student replied: “Can we overload the not operator?” (not operator is ! in most languages). I answered “That is a great question, and I don’t know”, and embarked on a discussion of potential issues, such as going from prefix to postfix usage.
    I will try it out any day now.

  5. Rob Renaud Says:

    Wow, I wish I could take one of your classes.

  6. Jim Says:

    Cultivating a passion for learning, and reducing students’ focus on grades, is admirable. However, there is a certain irony buried within this goal that an instructor/professor who pursues it must acknowledge: If it weren’t for his/her own ability to get good grades, he/she wouldn’t be where he/she is now. How many professors do you know who have reached their current positions by getting poor grades? There are certainly exceptions, but I think most people with PhDs who do research/teaching got (very) good grades in undergrad and grad school. It is also unlikely that they achieved these grades by simply concerning themselves with “high culture”.

    I’m not suggesting that good grades are a sufficient condition for success in academia, but they are, for the most part, necessary. Of course, not everyone wants to be a professor. There are many other goals that students pursue that require good grades.

    With this in mind, I don’t think we should be so dismissive of students who are concerned about grades. I think the right approach is to provide clear, consistent, and fair guidelines as to what is expected and how marking will be done. This is extremely hard to do well, and most professors don’t even make an effort at it, appealing instead to platitudes like how students should be more concerned about “love of learning”. I recently was a TA in a course where I had to help mark the final exam, and upon showing up to the marking meeting, the professor let us know that he hadn’t even thought of the marking scheme and that we should just make it up as we go along. This, unfortunately, is far too common.

    Having said all that, I do think the suggestions that Scott made above are excellent. Just keep in mind that good teaching involves a combination of factors, and that the grades that we give students do impact their lives.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Excellent Post!

    In my opinion, the most important thing is being enthusiastic about what you teach, if you don’t think what you are talking about is important you can not expect students to think it is important, so talk about topics and aspects that you feel are important from time to time, specially when you feel yourself that the material you need to cover is boring.

  8. Scott Says:

    Jim: Indeed, while I don’t love giving grades, since I have to do it I try to be as fair as possible.

    As for your point about professors themselves having been stellar students: certainly some were, but that’s probably less true than you think! To take just one example, I got my fair share of B’s in college, and even a C in high-school chemistry (which was probably one cause of my being rejected by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and MIT).

    Today, when I read grad-school applications, I’m much less interested in grades than in the recommendation letters, personal statement, and research record (if any). Even GRE scores, and performance on things like the Putnam and the IMO, matter least as much for me as grades do. And when I see (for example) a transcript that consists of A+’s in math and theoretical computer science but D’s in a few other subjects, I’m just as happy with that as with a straight-A+ transcript—since in such a case, I interpret the D’s as saying more about the professors who gave them than about the student.

  9. Vladimir Levin Says:

    I hope it’s not too off-topic, but there are a few things related to education I’d like to get off my chest, and I figure I’ll use this as an opportunity to do it:

    1) The vast majority of students forget almost everything they learned in school. In my opinion, one reason for this is that schools tend to deluge their students with all sorts of intricate detail while mostly forgoing the big picture. If this is the case – that most people don’t use what they learn in school – then why do we continue to shove so much stuff down people’s throats instead of just emphasizing a smaller number of big-picture concepts? It’s rather sad that so many people learn more about how to take exams during their education that about whatever it is they’re supposed to be studying. Why not leave the detail for those who are genuinely eager to learn it?

    2) In my (admittedly limited) experience with teaching some college-level computer courses for gifted teens, I’ve found that the brightest students, the ones I consider to be the most creative and capable, are not really the ones who get the best grades. The reason is (see above) that they get interested in their own projects or have some strong opinions that may go against what is being taught. I’m not saying grades don’t matter at all, but but it’s interesting to me that I have regularly found myself giving the best grades to kids who are definitely bright, but not necessarily the ones I feel have the most potential.

    3) It is my hope that the enormous access that the Internet affords, both to passive information and to contacting actual people in various fields through blogs for example, will serve to engender a new model for education where bright kids will get into programmes on the basis of real creativity, passion, and initiative rather than just how much stuff they can cram into their brains and then flush as soon as exams are over.

  10. Job Says:

    Having a related, personal project can really enhance a course. e.g. attending a physics course while programming a computer game at home, or taking digital logic or computer architecture courses while building circuits. It’s _very_ exciting.

    I remember being really excited about my multi-variable calculus course when i was playing around with drawing shapes and functions, it felt like i was tapping into secret knowledge.

  11. Job Says:

    In contrast, i was pretty disappointed with the Anthropology, English and Biology courses, all topics that i like, but which were really lacking in problem solving or discussion of open questions and exceeding in memorization and terminology.

  12. Ben Says:

    Thanks for the excellent advice. I’ll be thinking of this in my high school English classroom this Monday.

  13. Doug Says:

    I just taught my first course this summer, first semester mechanics. (nasty business, summer sessions – 5 1/2 weeks is ridic, anyone who passed should get a metal)

    My solution to grading was to make sure I was actually evaluating for the things I valued. I was pretty transparent about the things I valued. Before the exam I’m invariably asked, “What’s on the test?” I can turn it around, “What do you think I want you to show me? What fabulous knowledge do you want to show off?” and they can pretty well predict the five questions that are gonna determine their score for a class.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Now you’re getting to the real meat of Alice, Bob and Scott methinks ;) It’s not all mathematics, you have to take care of the chemistry and biology matters too :D

    The view is that Alice and Bob and Scott do not exist to serve Mathematics, Mathematics exists to serve A&B&S…

  15. Anonymous Says:

    “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

  16. Anonymous Says:

    Above comment was for post 461, sorry.

  17. Suresh Says:

    Thank you for such a nice post. Four nice suggestions you gave towards the end of the post are awesome. I do them to some extent not in a conscious manner though so far. Some times I end up wondering if I messed up the class by thinking on the feet, as the notion that a class has to go smoothly from one idea to another idea seems to be ingrained in me some where. But your post makes me feel that it is okay.

  18. AK Says:

    One of my professors for a few theoretical CS courses had a great way of giving out homework questions. On his assignment he would have a standard question and then a more difficult alternative question and potentially an extra ‘bonus’ question. You would get no extra marks for doing an alternative or bonus question, in fact you would be graded harsher. If you did both the normal question and the alternative you would get the lower mark of the two. Thus the only reason to do alternative questions was because you were interested in the more advanced material.

    This process really gave you a feeling that what mattered was what you learnt and how you approached questions and now what marks you received. It also allowed the more interested student to work harder without making the less-interested by still seeking high marks students feel at a disadvantage.

    It was great!

  19. Anonymous Says:

    http://www.theonion.com/video/in-the-know-are-tests-biased-against-students-who,17966/

  20. Troy Says:

    The best thing for me was doing an assignment that the teacher did not know the answer to.

    Thank you Professor Neff!

  21. aram Says:

    Here’s the blog of a high-school math teacher who has done a lot of thinking on this question.

    I heard of him because of his excellent TED talk.

    His job is at once easier and harder than that of university professors. On the one hand, his students are less motivated, come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have worse study habits, etc. On the other hand, he has more class time.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Try Greg Baker’s blog. It’s known to be pretty, pretty good!

  23. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Suresh,

    There is a dynamic interaction between thinking on your feet while teaching, and following a plan to ensure smooth coverage of the material. There are a lot of dimensions, and of course no easy answers.

    A few remarks:

    1. Although administrators want you to make and follow course outcome statements, etc., in reality these are fairly arbitrary. It is not clear what really needs to be covered, and it is probably changing. So “the essential topics” is kind of like “the true religion”; it depends on who you ask.

    2. In addition to coverage of material, trying to convey the excitement of learning and discovery is important; certainly for the better students. This is usually easier to do if class discussion follows student questions. Sometimes the answer is “Don’t know. Good question though.”, and maybe discuss a few aspects.
    A student who gets excited about the subject will usually do plenty of work on her/his own, and will soon know more than you do about some topics. On the other hand, you have to put up with some “will this be on the test?” questions. Things were a lot worse in the .com boom era, when business majors were taking CS classes, thinking they could get rich that way.

    3. I have several degrees, and have taken plenty of classes, and still sit in on a couple a year. If the presentation is interesting, I never miss a day. Back in the 60′s and 70′s, I thought there was nothing more boring than a prof who followed the book exactly. I own the book, plus perhaps some other ones, and could be laying on the couch, sipping coffee while reading it, rather than being in class. But, thanks to modern technology, now there IS something more boring: Profs who project slides, PowerPoints, etc., and read them to you. I can read a lot faster than anyone can talk.

    4. Slides, etc., are very good for listing key talking points, code or formulas that you need to put back up there a few times, and other things. For general discussion, nothing beats a (clean) whiteboard with several colors of (full, dark, and bold) marker pens. I have had people argue that old fashion chalk and a blackboard is better. That situation is like if you have an elderly relative who is a racist or bigot of some sort; there is not much point in arguing with them.

    5. The complication is switching modes, between slides and whiteboard. Lighting is the main complication.

    6. A downside of prepared things like slides, is that you naturally want to use them again. This is OK if you do some major review and revision each time, but there is a big danger of getting out of date, having a stale presentation, forgetting what some notation means, etc.

    7. Effective teaching has a lot in common with entertainment; pay attention to performers who dominate the stage; pick up some tips. For example, I once saw Chuck Berry playing in a small movie theater. Everyone there thought he was singing directly to her/him. It seemed this largely was achieved by making ultra brief eye contact with everyone, plus having a lot of energy. This works great in the classroom.

  24. Duke Says:

    1. Is a huge pet peeve of mine. So many teachers (or speakers in general) seem afraid of not knowing that they’ll either make something up or dodge the question. People have to realize that nobody knows everything (not even the Oracle® at Google®) and a specific case of ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll sometimes clarify a question, but if my answer is in any way a dodge it’ll be prefaced as such.

    Students that expect a professor to be an oracle are unlikely to ever be in the position where they won’t need one.

  25. Vladimir Levin Says:

    Aram, very cool video! It immediately got me thinking about the problems he brought up! For example, you have a container you need to fill up with water. How long will it take? That’s one question. What do you need to know to solve it? But let’s say you want to know how high the water will be at any given time. Aha! Not quite the same question! His techniques are very cool and interesting.

  26. Sev Says:

    In my opinion, there is a way to interest (to at least some extent) even those students who are taking your course for reasons other than interest: relate the topics in class to real life scenarios.

    This often results in:
    1) Increased appreciation for the topic
    2) Increased understanding
    3) A big picture that won’t be forgotten as easily, no matter what field you go into

    Examples:
    1) I had a pure math prof (L.W. Marcoux) who explained the concept of a compact set by comparing it to outsmarting a carpet salesman who’s trying to rip you off by selling you an infinite number of carpets (ie open covers) to try and cover a stain (your set).

    2) I once taught (Karp/many-one) reductions by pointing out that, whether we know it or not, we do reductions in our every day lives. As an example, consider reducing the problem ISDIAPERSOILED to SMELLSLIKEPOOP (ie mom/dad checks if a diaper is soiled by reducing it to the problem of checking if an object smells like poop).

  27. Anonymous Says:

    #Sev
    I found the following quote on http://www.math.uwaterloo.ca/~lwmarcou/

    I tell them if they will occupy themselves with the study of mathematics they will find in it the best remedy against the lusts of the flesh.
    –Thomas Mann

    So some cultures use threats of religion to keep you from the “flesh”, while others insidiously use mathematics! Same difference! Hmm! Mathematicians are quite gullible people for all their purported smartness…

  28. Prof. Primbottom Says:

    :D ROFL

  29. Case Solved and Filed Says:

    http://blog.computationalcomplexity.org/2010/08/comments.html?showComment=1283098834016#c6959884731315934137

    Comment. 41

  30. tim Says:

    fyi, the quote about flesh vs. mathematics is from the book “magic mountain”

  31. S Says:

    >fyi, the quote about flesh vs. mathematics is from the book >“magic mountain

    Whose book that is?

  32. John Sidles Says:

    S Says: Whose book is that?

    Hmmmm … perhaps a reasonably good place to *start* reading about flesh-versus-mathematics is Mr. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Volume 12, The Penultimate Peril, page 64, beginning with the phrase “dedicated to mathematics and science” and continuing to the phrase “and what’s the worst thing that can happen in a library?”

    Mr. Snicket’s account is IMHO both clearer and more practical than Mr. Mann’s … perhaps this is why Mr. Snicket’s reader reviews and sales rank on Amazon.com are so markedly the better of these two authors? :)

  33. Ashley Lopez Says:

    Scott,

    Regarding “Even GRE scores, and performance on things like the Putnam and the IMO, matter least as much for me as grades do”; could you perhaps comment on how the talents that help in competitions like IMO would correlate with the skills needed in actual research in math or CS? There ARE brilliant mathematicians who were performers (even gold medalists) in these competitions.

    (My primary sentiment behind the question is that when I was a teenager I wanted to be a theoretical physicist or mathematician, but there was this guy in class who would finish solving difficult problems in math and physics before I was even half way through, and then I changed my decision! I still try to think how wise that decision was. I am curious about an actual real successful scientist’s thoughts on it.)

  34. Vladimir Levin Says:

    @Ashely 33 That’s too bad, e.g. see http://bit.ly/AgVIV

    @S 31 The book referenced is “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann.

  35. Scott Says:

    Hi Ashley! Like Vladimir, I’m sorry to hear about how you were discouraged. Out of curiosity, what are you doing now?

    In my experience, things like IMO scores aren’t anything like perfect predictors of later research success: I’ve personally known people who did amazingly well in math competitions but then floundered later when they had to tackle open-ended research problems requiring months of effort, as well as vice versa. (I should also point out that my own math-competition career fell far short of eternal glory… ;-) ) Math competitions versus real research essentially boils down to a sprint versus a marathon—and just like with actual sprints and marathons, I think the most one can say is that performance in the one is somewhat correlated with performance in the other.

    What I meant before was just that, relatively speaking, IMO, Putnam, and GRE scores seem to me like better predictors of future research success than grades are, since the latter depend too strongly on the whims of whoever’s giving them, and are almost impossible to compare from one professor to another (let alone one university or country to another!). However, test and competition scores still suck compared to the single best predictor of future research success: namely, past research success! :-)

  36. Ashley Lopez Says:

    Vladimir, Scott, thank you.

    I am currently working as a manager in the software development department of my company. I think I used to be decently good at programming, so they promoted me to a manager!

    But maybe I could still have a serious hobby though. (I guess I shall fix the P != NP issue, to get started with ;-) ).

  37. rrtucci Says:

    A good follow up post would be how to get jobs for your students (Almost as hard as proving P!=NP). Or how to get them jobs in quantum computing (a halting-like problem)

  38. rrtucci Says:

    (i meant real jobs, not pseudo-jobs like post-docs)

  39. Quantum Tennis Racket Says:

    “Quantum mechanics is famously weird, and one of the consequences of quantum weirdness is that even a small quantum computer, consisting of a few thousand atoms, would be able to break all existing public-key cryptosystems.”

    – Seth Lloyd

    Scott,

    Isn’t this false?

  40. Quantum Tennis Racket Says:

    @rrtucci:

    What makes a postdoc not be a real job? You work hard, you get paid. What’s unreal about that?

    Another ignorant senseless classification of “real” versus “fictional.”

    Yuck.

  41. Scott Says:

    QTR #39: Yes, it’s false, but it becomes true if you replace “all” by “almost all.”

  42. rrtucci Says:

    QTR #39: You are absolutely right. It’s a conscious lie calculated to bring more funding to Seth Lloyd and quantum computing.

  43. Claire Mathieu Says:

    Agree with Jim. I would like to(1) instill my students with a passion to learn. However, after they have taken my course, I also want them to (2) have learnt a certain set of skills. In addition, when it’s close to home (say, for my own children), I also want then to (3) get good grades, as a testimony that they did learn something, and as a way to preserve their unknown possible future paths.

    Similarly, as a researcher, ideally I love (1) pure thinking about research problems, but I also want to (2) get somewhere (prove something), and in addition, I also care about (3) getting papers published.

  44. Scott Says:

    rrtucci #42: Actually, the statement seems to me to be pretty close to a fact! Almost all public-key cryptosystems are based on abelian group problems, and are therefore known to be breakable by a QC (the exceptions I know about are McEliece, lattice-based PKC, and braid group PKC, none of which have been deployed on a large scale). Deployed PKCs also tend to involve relatively-small key sizes, say at most 2048 bits, and it’s known that factoring an n-bit integer can be done by a quantum circuit with ~4n qubits and ~O(n2) gates.

    So calling Lloyd’s statement a “conscious lie” seems completely over-the-top. Would you care to, y’know, explain what exactly you disagree with?

  45. John Sidles Says:

    Folks … Scott works mighty hard on his articles & lectures & weblog … which overwhelmingly succeed at being instructive, funny, *and* good-natured. There are mighty few scientists and mathematicians who are good at this.

    And so in our posts, if we are tempted to be funny—or even merely ironic—then we can at least *try* to succeed at being good-natured too. Otherwise we’re disrespecting a colleague to whom we owe a lot!

    Scott, our UW QSE Group thanks you for putting the slides for your Barriers II/Banff talks, The Computational Complexity of Linear Optics on-line on your web page.

    For us engineers, this pair of talks answers important questions, and raises important questions … both of which are (we think) marks of outstanding research. Also, the slides mention the recent related research by Bremner, Jozsa, and Shepherd … but only at tantalizingly short length. Aaargghh … `cuz we engineers really struggle when it comes time to grasp the practical implications and mysteries of post-selection and classes like BPP^(NP)!

    As we all appreciate, it would be a lot of work to do a Shtetl Optimized post on this (subtle and important) topic. So was hoping that Bill GASARCH might cover it, but no such luck.

    So might I suggest, how about encouraging Alex Arkhipov to do a Shtetl Optimized guest post?

    Like Capt. James T. Kirk says in one-or-the-other of the Star Trek movies, a guest post might be “good for Alex, good for you, good for everyone!”

  46. Raoul Ohio Says:

    John,

    as we used to say back in the hippie days, “thanks for turning me on to” Mr. Snicket. Interesting stuff.

  47. Snack Time Says:

    As a grad student looking back at all the classes I’ve taken (grad/undergrad/etc), I wish my professors would have given more assignments that required us to make something unique.

    It’s easy to get enthusiastic about a topic when you know that you can make it shine in your own way (and show it off to everyone else!). I always felt a gratifying competitive rush when I worked on projects like these. Doing them always felt better than just churning out homework assignments based off textbook problems. And of course office hour interactions can be more exciting with student projects, since the students know that you can’t just tell them the “answer” (since the STUDENT made the project and the professor doesn’t have the solution tucked away somewhere).

  48. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Snack Time,

    1. The day may come when you are teaching a class, and you will have to juggle the tasks of getting most of the students through the class, and assigning something unique to students like Snack Time, who are capable of, and willing to, pick up the ball and run.

    2. If you stop in your prof’s office, she/he will probably be more than happy to give you a substitute assignment that is (1) more fun, (2) perhaps that prof does not know how to do, or even, (3) no one has yet figured out how to do, and it might be impossible.

    For example, I am not as good at software development as a lot of other things. When I teach software development, I have one major term project. There are always several students whose version of the project is better than mine, especially the GUI aspects. I say, good work, you get an A, and show me how you figured out how to do that.

  49. #2 Beck Fan Says:

    Scott, thanks for being so candid about your own bumpy experiences as a student. I always thought I sucked because I got spotty grades consistently from high school onto grad school (after a brief stint of precocity in grade school). I also got rejected by a ton of schools too. But, if they also rejected Scott Aaronson, perhaps the academic filtering system isn’t quite as good a predictor of a person’s intelligence or value as many make it out to be. Thanks for this post; it really means more to me than you might imagine.

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  51. Steve E Says:

    http://xkcd.com/803/