How To Fail This Professor Bradley Peterson (Department of Astronomy, The Ohio State University)

Based on years of experience teaching 100-level courses, it has become clear to me that there are some people out there who are determined to fail this course. Failing a 100-level course, even a physical sciences course, isn't an easy thing to do. Oh, sure, anyone can fail a course by flagrant neglect, but this always carries the danger that the grade could be reversed (an administrative or retroactive drop, for example). And any fool can stumble through his or her college career in an alcoholic or drug-induced stupor and mistakenly believe that they are opening up new frontiers of hedonism, and I'm not even gonna bother with that. Here I've assembled various tips for students who, for whatever reasons, are hell-bent on failing. These tips may not guarantee that you fail, but they'll certainly make it easier. And with a little bit of similar attention to your other classes, your transcript will get what the World War II G.I.s used to call a "million-dollar wound" - it's your ticket outta here, you get to go home!

There have always been people who've tried this, with various intentions and various results. Sometimes this just results in burnout, and usually just makes you unbearable to be around. But this is one that seems to be gaining in popularity, driven in some cases by economic concerns.

First, remember that the University defines a "full-time student" as someone taking 12 credit-hours or more. In reality, a "full load" that will put you on track for graduation in 12 quarters is 15-17 credit hours, depending on your major, your college, etc. A rule of thumb that is generally not passed along clearly enough is that a good college course should require two hours of work for every hour in class (if it doesn't, you're settling for less that you could be getting); in other words, 17 credit-hours of courses gives you a 51-hour work week, which is pretty busy by most people's standards, but hardly impossible. And even if you're taking a full load, the reality of the situation is you usually have at least one course that requires less work than this (hint: this ain't it). But most of us need to work some to pay the bills, and usually a college student can handle a 15-20 hour work week, as long as he or she recognizes that time management is a skill that must be learned and cultivated.

Anything above these numbers you should think of as "over-commitment". But it has probably crossed your mind that you could save a lot of dough by taking extra classes since you don't have pay extra once you're taking 12 hours, and you'll graduate sooner. And if you work 30 or 40 hours a week now, you can live a little better, and maybe support an otherwise homeless car. Over-commitment is an easy thing to get started.

Over-commitment is a simple strategy for failing, though it can actually be physically exhausting. In other words, you can get nothing for a lot of effort. The worst possible outcome is that you don't fail, and manage to muck through four years at the University scraping by with a 2.00 GPA in an unchallenging major; the only job offer you'll get after graduating will be for the same job you have now ("you want fries with that?").

This is a strategy that seems to be gaining in popularity; my unofficial estimate is that there are about 50% more people doing this than were doing it 15 years ago. People who admit to it (at least to the professor, who is pretty clueless) usually claim it as part of the "over-commitment" strategy (see above); they're scheduled to do too many things, they have to prioritize, and their GEC courses are the balls that hit the floor in their juggling act.

Now you'd think that this wouldn't be a good strategy for failure, especially since the professor is naive enough to believe that students will still come to class after he's posted his lecture outlines and lecture notes on a website. But the good news is that students who don't attend class do markedly worse than those who don't. Recall that I occasionally take attendance for extra credit. I also know which students don't pick up their exam results the first day they're back, so I've got a pretty good idea of who attends regularly and who doesn't. I've examined the final grades of these two groups, and I've found that the distributions look similar, except that the grade distribution for those who don't come to class is centered one full grade lower than the center of the grade distribution for those who do come to class. I have to admit, though, I can't tell cause and effect here: do good students go to class, or do students who go to class get better grades?

So while this isn't a sure-fire strategy for failing, you can be pretty sure it'll cost you one full letter grade. If you're already having trouble in other classes or you're on academic probation, maybe that'll be enough.

This one's not obvious at all, but it turns out that it seems to work pretty well. If you look at the grade predictor section of the "Grading Scale" page, you'll see a table that shows final grade as a function of the score on the first exam. The bottom row tells the story: no one who missed the first exam completed the course with an "A" - in fact, the most common result was that people who missed the first exam failed the course.

Why is this such a strong indicator of eventual failure? I can't be sure, my suspicion is that students who miss the first exam fall into one of the following categories:

  1. People who are already overwhelmed by the quarter after only two weeks, (see "over-commitment", above). These people figure that things will get better after a couple more weeks, and they'll be ready for the second test. That usually doesn't happen.
  2. People who just decided to blow off the first exam, since you can drop one after all, and heck, this way you don't have to do ANYTHING until the fourth week! This is just a somewhat milder version of "flagrant neglect", the childish way of failing.
The "missing-the-first-exam" strategy may actually be just a more effective version of the more general "miss-an-exam" strategy. Missing the first exam seems to be particularly effective, I think because students who miss the first exam don't have any idea of how to study for the second exam. They don't get any feedback on how they're studying and how well they're learning the material until the fifth week (when they get back their disastrous results from the second exam). Students who took the first exam and did poorly have had the opportunity to reassess how they're studying for this course after getting the results of the first exam, and that two-week jump makes a lot of difference in a ten-week quarter.

The more general "miss-an-exam" strategy is not an especially effective one for failing (because we do throw out one exam, after all), but missing two exams is a spectacularly good way to fail. In the Table below, I show the distribution of final grades as a function of number of exams missed. The mean GPA for students who took all the exams is about 2.50; for those who missed one exam, about 1.86. But for those who missed two or more exams, the mean GPA was a phenomenal 0.54!

Grade Distributions as a Function of Number of Exams Missed
Spring Quarter 1997
Number Exams Missed
0 1 2 or more
A 29 3 0
B 43 13 1
C 41 9 1
D 20 11 1
E 6 7 8

While one of the oldest strategies in the world, it remains one of my personal favorites, and a favorite of many others: professors like to share examples of this strategy with one another over beers. You can screw up in a big-time fashion by believing that there are "rules" that in fact really don't exist. Some real-life examples:

Making your own rules is a good strategy for failure because it leaves your conscience pretty clear ("everyone else is wrong, and if there isn't a rule that helps me, there ought to be"). The downside is that if you get too deeply into this kind of thinking, you could wind up living in a one-room cabin in Idaho writing manifestos. This could raise havoc with your social life.

We'll add other good strategies for failure here as they come to our attention. And keep in mind what a service you are rendering to your fellow students: every student who flunks out of the University has contributed his or her tuition dollars to affordable education for others without taking much for themselves. On behalf of all of us who attended public universities, Thanks!

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Copyright © 1998 Bradley M. Peterson, All Rights Reserved
Updated 11 March 1998