Computer science students successfully boycott class final

The students in Professor Peter Froehlich’s “Intermediate Programming” and “Introduction to Programming for Scientists and Engineers” (a Python language class) classes, boycotted their finals last December. The former initially organized the boycott and the latter followed suit.

To avoid the stress of taking their exam, the students decided to capitalize on a loophole in Froehlich’s grading system.

“In my courses, all grades are relative to the highest actually achieved score. Thus, if no one showed up and everyone got 0 percent, everyone would be marked as 100 percent,” Froehlich wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Since Froehlich started at Hopkins in 2005, no class had taken that challenge until last semester. Both of Froelich’s classes were awarded with perfect scores on their final exams.

“Peter tends to say this in each of his classes as almost a challenge to the entire class to execute,” James Gliwa, a student in Intermediate Programming, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Froehlich speculated that the Occupy Wall Street movement provided students with a model, as students coined the phrase “Occupy Hackerman” to describe their effort. He also cited the use of the online forum Piazza as facilitating the boycott.

“I gained some respect for the power of online collaboration,” Joanne Selinski, the head of the computer science department, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Students organized their efforts through social networking, having conversations, setting up GoogleDocs and taking polls. There were a few dissidents in the beginning, but they were soon convinced of the scheme.

Thus, on the day of the exam, all the students arrived half an hour early and stood outside the doors to make sure no one went into the exam room. Some had studied just in case, but they still didn’t want anyone to go inside.

“Everyone nervously laughed when Peter arrived, he laughed, and went in,” Andrew Kelly, one of Froelich’s students, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Students took photos and ate the doughnuts that someone had brought. A couple of Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike) brothers guarded the doors. At one point, Froehlich even came out to take a photo with his class in the hallway. After 20 to 30 minutes, one of the Pike brothers poked his head into the room to ask Froehlich if they were good, and Froehlich said yes. Then, everyone left.

“I had decided that I am sticking to my policy, they had decided to boycott the exam, and that was pretty much it,” Froelich wrote. “The students learned that by coming together, they can achieve something that individually they could never have done.”

Dr. Froehlich had heard about the scheme before the day of the final, but decided not to act on rumors.

“I didn’t think they could actually pull it off, but I also wasn’t about to change my grading scheme in the middle of the semester. I think students should be able to expect that the rules they enroll under are also the rules that they will finish the course under,” he wrote.

Selinski knew that the possibility of a boycott existed due to the loophole in Froehlich’s policy, but agreed with his decision of not changing a grading system mid-semester. With the success of the boycott not guaranteed, students still were forced to prepare for the exam.

“The disadvantages of changing the rules mid-semester, particularly the message that would send to students, seemed to outweigh the relatively small effect on course grades that would ensue from a successful boycott. Also, since students didn’t know for sure until exam time if the boycott would be successful, they had to study for it anyway, which is a main benefit of exams,” Selinski wrote.

She allowed Froelich to make the final decision on the policy, and while she remained informed about the situation, she did not intervene. She noted how the teamwork the students exemplified debunks myths of cutthroat academic competition at Hopkins.

“Honestly, I was really surprised and impressed that the students pulled it off, and I respected Dr. Froehlich for sticking to his stated policies. At a school that has traditionally been criticized for being too competitive, it was great to see the students come together that way,” Selinski wrote.

She further attributed the boycott to the prowess of the department.

“If anything, I hope this shows how computer science teaches students to become good critical thinkers and problem solvers, who collaborate to find efficient and creative solutions to all types of problems,” she wrote.

Selinski also explained how the students’ boycott calls into question the role of assigning grades in a course.

“It’s good for faculty to be challenged by students, and perhaps it inspired some reflection on the meaningfulness of grades and our own grading policies. I think many of us would be happy to do away with grades if that were possible so that education is focused on learning, not GPAs,” she wrote.

However, the final was not a major part of the grade in Dr. Froehlich’s class.

“In a programming course, it’s exceedingly difficult to judge one’s knowledge of a subject by a written 50 minute exam. It ends up being a test on nit-picky details and doesn’t accurately determine the good programmers from the great, or the not so great. Peter is fully aware and supportive of this idea, so by not having the tests, students were graded more so on their assignments, which in turn was a more accurate representation of a student’s ability as a programmer,” Gliwa wrote.

For the students, one less final meant one less thing to stress about.

“It was great because I had two tests the day before and two tests the following day, so not having to worry about that test was definitely a blessing,” sophomore Oliver McNeely wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Dr. Froehlich has since changed his grading system so that if everyone has zero points, everyone gets 0 percent. He now reserves the right to give everyone a 0 percent if he thinks that they are cheating the system.

Editors Note: A third class also successfully boycotted their final. It was the “Computer System Fundamentals” class.

15 Responses to "Computer science students successfully boycott class final"

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  2. gwern   February 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    This is an interesting example of a collective action problem, but it’s not as difficult to solve as the snowdrift game or the prisoner’s dilemma game:

    – the upside to taking the test seems limited to indirectly making your GPA look better by lowering the grade of the other students, the effect of this is small (if you get a 95% does everyone else just get something like 90%?),
    – while incurring 2 large costs (taking the test, and forfeiting a perfect score and raising your GPA absolutely if not relatively).

    Looked at from that perspective, one almost wonders what took so long. 3 classes are specified, the professor started in 2005, there are 2 semesters a year, so that makes: 3 * 2 * (2013-2005) = 48 opportunities for such profitale collusion.

    The difficulty of coordinating this exploit is suggestive of how hard it can be to solve real coordination problems out in the world…

    • anonymous   February 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      My interpretation of the marking scheme was whatever the highest mark achieved on the exam was, would be the maximum possible marks, therefore if one person took the test and got, to pick a random number, 63%, they’d recieve 100% while everyone else recieved 0%

      • anon   April 4, 2013 at 7:11 pm

        No, the other students would receive a 37. It wasn’t sliding or percentage scale, it was whoever got the highest score got whatever bonus points it took to get to 100. Then everyone else gets those bonus points as well.

        Source: Hopkins student.

  3. Jim Strathmeyer   February 15, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    So they intimidated their other classmates into not taking the exam? What a good example!

  4. GK   February 16, 2013 at 12:13 am

    Article title is misleading – “boycott” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with (as a person, store, or organization) usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions”, it’s universally used as a negative connotation that the person or thing being boycotted is being done so as a matter of protest, which is not the case here.

  5. steve   February 17, 2013 at 3:40 am

    The good news is that they got an A. The bad news is that it’s from Johns Hopkins. Maybe they should’ve gotten those A’s in HS so they didn’t have to go to Hopkins in the first place

    • anon   April 4, 2013 at 7:12 pm


  6. michael webster   February 18, 2013 at 12:53 am

    At first, I thought that this level of collusion was very hard to achieve.

    Schelling has written about multi party dilemmas and argued that a disciplined group of less than 100% need not unravel in the face of free-riders.

    But, this collusion looked really hard.

    My guess is that the ring leaders approached the 2 or 3 people most likely to score the highest on the exam.

    Once, the top people are convinced, it is somewhat reinforcing. The next skill level need only watch the top people. If you are second level, and the first level stay out, and they are watching you, there is no point in defecting from the agreement to stay out of the exam.

    Very clever to focus only on the top and not worry about “gaining” momentum from the bottom – if this is what was done.

  7. chris   February 18, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Steve, you mad bro?

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  11. Scott   April 5, 2013 at 2:28 am

    I’m not sure what is more embarrassing, that Johns Hopkins professors apparently can’t come up with useful final exams, or that their students are too scared of the test to actually take it.

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