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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Partial Credit

One of my students — let’s call her Artemis — muses in her blog:
Giving partial credit may be helpful to a student’s grade in school but in real life, people don’t want to know how you did something, they just want the result. The how part gets shuffled into a stack of papers that some poor soul will have to look over later. The answer seems to be more important than how you got it.

But of course this is highschool, so partial credit is better for getting into college.
Artemis is more right than wrong here, so I would give her substantial partial credit. (No, wait — this wasn’t something for me to grade! It was merely a post in a student’s blog.) It’s true that if I go to a doctor or a lawyer or a computer programmer, what I want is a correct diagnosis, correct legal advice, or a working program. I will cerainly not be happy if the doctor notices five of my six symptoms and therefore prescribes the wrong meds, or if the lawyer gets most of the law right and offers the wrong advice, or if the programmer sells me a program that contains a fatal bug.

So in that sense Artemis is right. I’m not happy about giving “partial credit” to the adult professional who did most of the work correctly but got the wrong result. But...no adult professional is perfect. Programmers make mistakes — all the time! Lawyers make mistakes and lose cases they should have won. Even doctors make mistakes, and I’m not just referring to malpractice. If we can’t get perfection — and we know we can’t — good work is still better than bad. Otherwise we fall into the well-known trap where the perfect is the enemy of the good. If we refuse to give partial credit — in high school or in real life — we are equating all qualities of work that fall short of perfect.

Anyway, why isn’t high school “real life”? But that’s a question for another day.

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