The GPA game

In an attempt to quantify educational success, most colleges assign some numeric weight to letter grades. Most are weighted on a 4.0 scale. Now, it has been well documented that this indicator has been on the rise for years… which poses a few interesting questions. Are students getting smarter, is the curriculum getting easier, or are higher grades simply being given out more often for equivalent work? Embedded in those questions are other questions: how has GPA importance changed, how have professors’ attitudes changed, how has education itself changed? Aside from all of those questions one might ultimately ask… is the GPA even a useful quantification?

Now, answering that question – as a college student, with an assigned GPA – I may be slightly biased. The best I can do is try not to be. I claim that the GPA is a practically useless number in almost every regard, and here is why:

Someone looking at only your GPA has no information about grade distribution. Perhaps you were a poor mathematician, but in attempt to be a well-rounded English major you took mathematics class anyway. Doing poorly in that subset of discretionary classes is not immediately obvious by looking at your GPA alone. And how important is it? It is ambiguous (at least to me) if you should be penalized for refusing to study as narrowly as a 4.0 English major. Even the “Major GPA” can be manipulated through lenient instructor selection or lower level courses.

Realizing that a transcript is often supplementary to any GPA, one can still make the case that too much relevant information is unavailable. What type of work the course involved, how assignments were weighted, grading trends of the professor. None of these are available to someone looking at a GPA, with or without a transcript. The roles that so many variables play in a student’s eventual GPA are condensed into a mostly information-less number. What is worse, it that this number is used to benchmark students. (It would likely a better benchmark of instructor or institutional trends.)

This has been a cause for concern for me since well before college. I knew many highly ranked (high GPA) students that were capable only of “regurgitation” – no original thought. They were poor problem solvers, but good test-takers. I am beginning to see that the issue does not vanish at the end of high school. As I look at the data across institutions, years, and majors – it seems painfully obvious to me that the GPA is not useful for comparing students. Yet it lingers, it stresses, it represents information it does not contain.

There needs to be an alternative for comparing student “progress”. I give the GPA a C-.

What to do yesterday.

I apparently had no idea. Well, I had some vague thoughts – I knew I would not set out to study anything I love doing. Computer Science was off limits because I really enjoy learning about technology and programming. It is always exciting to explore and teach myself new things in that field. Start forcing me to study and my enjoyment melts away. It becomes a chore – a burden – another imposed aspect of life. So I vowed to refrain from structured – institutionalized – studying of technology.

I wavered back and forth, indeed enrolling in a few computer science courses over the past few years – and always being sorry I did. As I suspected, the regiment destroyed my internal desire to explore. No more computer science “classes” for me.

I set out to study something that I had no desire to ever pursue. I took advantage of the university’s reputation and picked economics as my major. Something I already disliked – and should I ever be in the very undesirable situation of having to employ my degree, I supposed a degree in economics might provide semi-lucrative.

That thought process – however skewed – had a very nice side-effect. Not only did it leave my love for technology mostly untarnished – it has just recently revealed to me something I likely would have never known otherwise, I am a very poor and obviously uninterested economist.

Consistently, those courses have yielded for me: poor grades, poor attendance, and occasionally even poor spirits. If I were ever to have to employ an economics degree in the future, I can most confidently say – I would starve first.

And so, perhaps the often overlooked, yet undeniably important skill, of folding must come into play. I must fold my plan of pursuing a degree in economics, before I spend another lackluster day working towards a piece of paper with the ability to seal me into a life I would surely not enjoy. I must act while I still have options on my side.

So, I have finally said it. I should have done that yesterday.

Now, to pick some other area of investigation. (because they do the mandate some “cohesive” program of study.)

Math, undeniably powerful and revealing – goes against my natural intuition at every chance it gets. Surely not making it impossible or even uninteresting for me to explore, my exploration is just painfully slow. Having already taken a wide offering of mathematics courses providing me a fairly solid mathematical foundation, I think it better to leave further investigations for independent study. Also, I am in want of a break from numbers for a while.

So, what have I left but humanities and some social sciences at this small university? And what good is a degree in philosophy (a subject I think I would very much enjoy), if I ever need to employ a degree? Would I be content spending a fifth year at this institution under any circumstances? Those are the questions I face tomorrow…

Well now, that was not so bad…

First quarter, third year, gone. Very glad.

I had my schedule for next quarter all planned out, then I ended up getting only one out of my four classes. So, how can you get the classes you want with a computerized system? That was my question, and the answer, at least here, is pretty simple.

Class registrations are updated in real time, so for me to fit into a class I didn’t get, I just need someone to drop. Sniffing passwords over wifi would not be impossible, but the odds that I’d grab a useful password are nearly nothing. There are only about one hundred students that I could log in as to drop the classes I need. There are over 5k undergraduates alone. It just did not pencil out, and besides that – it is illegal.

So, plan B – let them drop of their own accord – just be there the instant they do to take the spot. Easy. Any campus course request system I have ever seen works just like a regular form. POST or GET data. You need to know where and what data is being sent for your course request. Then resubmit it constantly.

In my case, this was easy. JavaScript is used to post data to a single processing page that either works or notifies you of an error. If the class is full, you cannot just click the “add” link. You have to type the JavaScript in the action bar. Luckily, the script is on every page, whether click-able/visible or not, so copying and pasting the script from one page and typing it in on the address bar of the closed course works just fine. IMO this should probably be fixed to make things a little harder.

After you do that, because success and failure share a  common page – you are never forwarded anywhere – you can simple refresh the page to re-post your request. Download a nifty little program to reload your page at set intervals, and you can request all your courses (simultaneously even, at least here) as often as you like.

I now have 3 out of the 4 courses I wanted. With the 4th being requested every thirty seconds. Its a tiny class of ten people, but if one of them decides to move around – I’ll be in.

This is why they invented captchas.