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2:32pm on Monday, 21st November, 2005:



My best friend when I was an undergraduate was Ulin Smith, who was in the same student accommodation as me (Eddington 10, for those who know the Essex campus; I was in 10/14, he was in 10/15) and was taking Computer Science. Here's a story he told me once, which he's bound to tell me is wrong in practically every line but hey, you're not going to know that.

OK, so Ulin didn't get to university through doing A-levels like the rest of us. He got there from doing a Higher National Certificate (in electronics). HNCs had (and probably still have) a lot of coursework, and at one point Ulin had to write an essay. This was to be marked locally by the lecturer, with the usual safeguards of having to send a few papers off for checking by an external examiner afterwards to make sure there was no cheating.

To make it absolutely clear how marks would be awarded, the lecturer gave the students the complete mark scheme for the essay. This was not perhaps entirely above board, and for good reason. Ulin read it, and realised that it didn't actually award any marks for being on topic. It was all about showing understanding, quality of explanation, technical vocabulary — that kind of thing. Nowhere did it say that you'd get marks for writing about what you were supposed to write about, and nowhere at all did it say you'd lose marks for anything.

Ulin therefore wrote an essay about frogs. It was a really, really good essay about frogs. It hit absolutely every button on the mark scheme — it just wasn't remotely to do with electronics. Ulin had studied frogs a couple of years earlier for some other course and had accumulated an impressive knowledge of them. He put it to use. He showed understanding, his explanations were of the highest quality, his technical vocabulary was exact and impressive — it couldn't be faulted, other than he wasn't supposed to be writing about frogs, he was supposed to be writing about Fourier transforms or somesuch.

The lecturer was livid, but couldn't do anything about it because he'd stupidly given out the mark scheme so all his cards were already on the table. He had to give Ulin the highest marks of any student, and just hope that it wasn't one of the ones selected to be sent to the external examiner. I believe, though, that it did go the external examiner, and was returned with its mark verified and a note to the lecturer asking if he'd perhaps care not to release the mark scheme to students in future.

Ah, the days when independent thinking was actually rewarded by examining bodies...

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).