Contemporary Pedagogy · Coursework

Ignorance is bliss?

I don’t know anything about Thermodynamics.

It’s true. I got an A- in Thermodynamics, but I don’t know anything about Thermodynamics.

In that class, I had a very personal experience with Alfie Kohn’s assertion:

“Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task”

When I took Thermo, 5% of the course grade was homework. After two weeks of class, I found that I was spending 3-5 hours to do each homework, and they were due 3 times a week. I was getting bogged down in those assignments and I made a choice. I decided that I wasn’t going to do homework for that class. It turned out that I was missing something that would’ve made the homework a lot easier, but I had a preference for the easiest possible task. And I chose to take a 5 point hit on my final grade to spend my time better elsewhere.

I was doing very poorly in the class, but I can test like a pro. I crammed so hard for the final and actually got a 99. The professor curved the class like crazy and now I don’t know anything about Thermo but my undergrad GPA is okay.

And I was so proud of this at the time. Nowadays, I value homework so highly. It is the place where you have to try to wrestle with the material from class and actually learn things. Homework is where you put into practice all of the crazy things your professor talks about during the lecture.

I missed out on learning something because I was thinking about grades. Have you ever done that?


9 thoughts on “Ignorance is bliss?

  1. Yes, I certainly have. Same class, in fact. I very seriously hated thermodynamics as an undergrad (there’s a reason I’m an industrial engineer, not mechanical now). I didn’t stop doing homework (it was worth a lot more than 5%, sadly), but about three weeks into the class I deliberately chose not to try to understand the material. I had four other very demanding classes, I didn’t like the subject, and the exams and homework didn’t test our understanding of the material, just the ability to parrot back what the professor said in class. I can memorize with the best of them, so that’s what I did. And, like you, I got through with a good grade (a B+, I think) and no real knowledge of thermodynamics.


  2. Oh yes I can definitely relate to that! As I worked my way through grad school, I definitely started to learn more and worry less about grades. I had a course during my Bachelors which I found the solution book to and started making a rubric to all the different types of problems in that book! Of course I aced the test! But I did not learn much! I should also confess than whenever a course is stressing me out and I know that I can’t do well on the tests without categorizing the problems, I go back to my undergraduate routine!


  3. I never had to take thermodynamics. Call it the benefit of being an actor… I never had to take organic chemistry either. What I did have to take was a wealth of theatre history, music history, harmony, theory, scene study, and a slew of other courses that were almost impossible to asses via non-subjective means. It continuously amazes me how definitive the areas of knowledge creation are within the STEM fields. Rigorous assessment, grading rubrics, only one right way to reach one right answer. I thrive in ambiguity. I can play in the world of intrinsic subjectivity like a pro, as you put it. Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget these fuzzy lines don’t always exist in other disciplines… like thermodynamics.


    1. The funny thing about engineering is that often, these “hard science” classes without subjectivity are the backbone of an engineering curriculum, but in the workforce, most engineers have to encounter open ended design. We need to teach our engineers and scientists how to live in the world of intrinsic subjectivity.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. In response to your question, I completely missed out on macroeconomics my freshman year of college. However, unlike your thermodynamics class, it was the lack of assignments that hindered my learning experience. I feel that macroeconomics is a subject in which everyone should have a baseline understanding. However, few people are motivated enough to go above and beyond what is required in this class (it’s not the most exciting subject, at least for me). Thus, requiring students to do homework assignments would have encouraged me to actually learn the concepts, rather than just memorizing them for the test. In addition, when the test questions are word-for-word from the notes, very little critical thinking is required. The class was essentially “too easy” too get the “A” for me to retain the information.


  5. That’s totally what I did for most of my undergraduate courses… I was so happy getting out of high school and decided to enjoy life instead of learning! I crammed for every test and got actually pretty good grades. But this all revenged me in my graduate school, when I realized that I had learnt nothing in undergraduate and had to learn a lot of things from scratch to do my research. I guess the same thing could happen to me even if I decided to go to work directly after undergraduate. So we’ll get our punishment. It’s just when…


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