Something for Nothing


Yesterday Professor Agnew discussed our ECE 628 exam. With over 700 sparsely-worded slides, no textbook and material ranging from abstractly mathematical to downright practical, there was intense interest in just what form the exam would take.

“There’s a lot of material […] You should aim for a good understanding of it”

“Are there ‘I don’t know’ marks?”

He flipped through sample question after sample question, littering his monologue with statements that strike fear into engineering students – “There may be no right or wrong answer”, “You can argue both sides”, “It’s open how to answer this”. As he spoke consternation grew; the buzz around me increased. Finally, someone spoke up.

“Are there ‘I don’t know’ marks?”


The girl two seats down from me turned and asked the obvious – “What are ‘I don’t know’ marks?”. He looked surprised. “What – you don’t have them here? In Toronto, if you knew you didn’t know the answer to a question you could write I don’t know and get 15% of the question’s marks.”

I’ll admit it – I snickered. Professor Agnew looked puzzled, then laughed. Turning to Jon I remarked – “Yup, Waterloo has ‘I don’t know’ marks. If you don’t know – you get a zero.”


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  • Ha ha ha! Brilliant question & answer period.

    I had no idea that University of Toronto gave those type of grades…funny, cause I work there. Hmmm. I’m going to have to do some investigation when I get back to the office.

    Good luck on the exam.

  • Thanks – I simply want the exam over with :)

    I brought the concept of ‘I don’t know’ marks up with my supervisor and was extremely surprised when he responded with “Oh – that’s not unusual – a lot of places do that…”

    He pointed out that it was intensely pragmatic; instead of forcing the marker to wade through BS, it gives students an out. “Consider”, he said, “Consider that your BS is forcing someone to waste time, that it’staking a piece of someone’s life.” I hadn’t thought of marking in quite those terms…

    Giving students the option of ‘I don’t know’ marks also gives instructors the ability to differentiate between those who don’t know the material and those who think they do – but don’t. If an instructor sees 30% of the class write “I don’t know” in answering a concept he thought he’d taught well – then that’s a problem!

    It’s his final point I thought the most interesting. There’s no incentive today for students – people – to be upfront and admit “Sorry, I just don’t know“. It has such a negative association – and forces us all to wade through far more ambiguity and BS than necessary.

    I’d be very interested in hearing what you find out…

  • Priceless… I’ll have to talk to some UofT people about that one. I understand the no BS thing, but really good BS has gotten me 75% of the marks on some questions… even in univ. And sometimes while writing BS, I’ve stumbled across how to do something, and things have turned out well :D

    OH, I’ve been pulling “grad study” hours (as I imagine it) for the past three weeks… 14 hour work days (including weekends), plus 2 hour commutes during the week… enjoy the niceness (as I imagine it) of Grad Studies while you can :)

    Good luck with exams my friend! As usual, I know you will prevail!

  • Initially, after reading this, I snickered a bit too. But Allen, I can totally see your advisor’s point. Especially the last point. Admiting when I don’t know something is sometimes difficult; pride gets in the way and you don’t want to look stupid, especially in a room full of smart people. But it’s an absolutely vital skill both in the workplace and in grad school. Employers (or advisors) quickly lose patience with employees (or grad students) who smile and nod and say ‘yeah, I got it’ when they don’t have a clue. The exam practice often teaches undergrads the exact opposite: that it is better to lie and make something up that sounds good and hope you can sneak it past. Not a good lesson to learn.

    If I remember, I am going to poll my research group about this on our next meeting (Friday). I don’t think UBC has any equivalent practice.

  • It’s a tough call.

    Like Paul G. I’ve made a conscious effort to never leave a question blank; writing down what I know could net a mark or two, but white space gets me nothing. I’ve generally hewed to what I’ve known though.

    But Paul T. is right – my advisor brought up extremely valid points. Saying “I don’t know” or “I made a mistake” when your pride and workplace standing is on the line is daunting. I hope I’m better than most – I’ve had my share of “blood-spattered” seminar presentations :)

    Unfortunately the case for admitting “I don’t know” isn’t clear-cut. I’ve seen people smile and nod to buy time and I’ve seen supervisors who are overly critical of one’s gaps in knowledge. It all depends on the people and environment involved.

    Also, at what point do you discontinue the incentive? Should we admit “I don’t know” only if there’s a compelling reward for doing so? I assume from the way the question was phrased the student would have BSed if these marks weren’t available. How long does this crutch need to be in place?

  • “littering his monologue with statements that strike fear into engineering students – “There may be no right or wrong answer”, ”

    In an electrical engineering exam at UBC I once got full marks on a final exam for writing a clear explanation on why the question was completely underspecified. Not BS, since the question was really terrible. The type of question where the instructor has taught a specific method of solving a problem and that’s all 90% of the class knows how to do and are just expected to regurgitate the method.

    “I don’t know” marks sound stupid to me. If it is a time saver for markers like someone mentioned that is just pure laziness. Typical of the situation in Canada where research oriented professors teach classes they don’t have the time to deal with properly.

    In my last year at UBC (2003) a program was starting where they were hiring teaching-only professors, but I don’t know what the result has been.