Fixing Misdirected Effort: Guiding, with the occasional shove.

Concept image of the six most common questions and answers on a signpost.

My students have a lot of questions and my job is often as much about helping them find the right questions as it is about finding the answers. One of the most frustrating aspects of education is when people fixate on the wrong thing, or invest their effort into the wrong ventures. I talked before how I believed that far more students were procrastinators versus lazy, they invest their effort without thinking about the time that they need or all of the responsibilities that they have.

That’s why it gets frustrating when all of the effort that they can expend goes into the wrong pathway. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We run a forum where students receive e-mail notification and, because the forum is an official dissemination point, students are compulsorily enrolled into certain forums and will receive mail whenever discussion takes place. Every year, there’s at least one student who starts complaining about receiving ‘all this e-mail’. (Generally not more than 10 messages a week, except during busy times when it might rise to 20-30. Per week.) We then reply with the reasons we’re doing it. They argue. Of course, the e-mail load of the forum then does rise, because of the mailed complaints about the e-mail load – not to mention the investment of time. The student who complains that mail is wasting their time generally spends more time in that one exchange than processing the mail for the semester would have cost.

Another example is students trying to work out how much effort they can avoid in writing practical submissions. They’ll wait outside your office for an hour and talk for hours (if you let them) about whether they have to do this bit, or if they can take this shortcut, and what happens if I do that. Sitting down and trying it will take about 5 minutes but, because they’re fearful or haven’t fully understand how they can improve, they spend their time trying to dodge work and, anecdotally, it looks like some of these people invest more time in trying to avoid the work than actually doing the work would have required. This is, of course, ignoring the benefits of doing the work in terms of reinforcement and learning.

Then, of course, we have the curse of the Computer Science academic, that terror to the human eye – the plagiarised, patchwork monstrosity of Frankencode!


Frankencoding, my term for the practice of trying to build software by Googling sections (I’m a classicist, or I’d call it Googlecoding) and jamming them together, is a major time waster here as well. If you design your software and built it up, you understand each piece and can debug it to get it working. If you surf news groups and chuck together bits and pieces that you don’t understand, your monster will rise up and lurch off to the village trailing disaster in its wake. Oh, and for the record, it’s really obvious to a marker when it has happened and even more obvious when we ask you WHY you did something – if you don’t know, you probably didn’t write it and “I got it off the Internet” attracts nothing good in the way of marks.

What I want to do is get effort focused on the right things. I know that my students regard most of their studies as a mild inconvenience, so I don’t want them spending what time they do devote to academia on the wrong things. This means that I have to try and direct discussions into useful pathways, handle the ‘what if I do this’ by saying ‘why don’t you go and try it. It’ll take 5 minutes’ (framed correctly) and by regularly checking for plagiarised code – including tests of understanding that accompany practical coding exercises such as test reports and design documents. Once again, understanding is paramount and wasted effort is not useful to anyone.

I like to think of it a gentle guidance in the right direction. With the occasional friendly, but firmer, shove when someone looks like they’re going seriously off the rails. After all, we have the same goals: none of us want to waste our time!

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