1 Course Goals and Grading
- The primary, fundamental, and overarching goal of the course is
to improve your thinking and reasoning skills. This includes
“critical thinking” and “scientific thinking”. Part and parcel
of this is learning to enjoy thinking and learning.
- The secondary goals include learning facts and figures about the
- As always, grades should not be taken too seriously. There are
many things that are important in life. It is provably impossible for
a single number, such as a grade, to measure everything that is
- In this course, your grade is intended to reflect the degree to
which you have achieved the course goals and requirements.
One of the requirements is compliance with the rules. See
section 3 and section 4. Non-compliance (especially
cheating or safety violations) will significantly affect your grade.
- Interpreted literally, the term “extra credit” is either a
misnomer or an impossibility. There is no such thing as “extra”
credit. This is not a matter of policy, but simply an arithmetical
fact: credit is credit. One credit-point is the same as another.
Interpreted more broadly, the term “extra credit” often
refers to a grading policy where part of the grade is based on
quantity with little regard to quality, i.e. where rewards are
given for effort and for busywork rather than for achievement. As a
matter of policy, busywork is not rewarded in this course. As
mentioned previously, your grade is intended to reflect the degree to
which you have achieved the course goals and requirements.
To say the same thing another way, in this course the grading policy
is results-oriented. If you can achieve the course goals with no
effort at all, you can take pride in achieving the result efficiently.
If you require tremendous effort to achieve the course goals, you can
take pride in overcoming adversity. Each of those is commendable in
its own way, but in neither case will the degree of effort be
reflected in the grade.
We are quite aware that various other courses have various other
grading policies. Each policy has its advantages and disadvantages.
However, the policy stated here is the policy for this course, and it
is not likely to change anytime soon.
- Everybody will be graded on the same basis. Nobody will
receive credit or credit-earning opportunities other than those
announced in class.
- All the exams are “cumulative” in the sense that they cover
all material assigned to date, not just recently-assigned material.
The final is cumulative because it is an exam, and exams are
cumulative. The homework is also cumulative. Life is cumulative.
When answering the questions, you are allowed to, expected to, and
typically required to use things you have learned weeks ago or even
years ago. That’s the rule in real life, and that’s the rule in this
- With rare exceptions, unexpected or even eccentric methods of
solution are acceptable. In the rare cases where a particular method
of solution is required, the requirement will be explicitly stated.
Solving the problem in a cleverer-than-expected way is encouraged, but
you don’t get extra points for it. Virtue is its own reward. Solving
the problem in a clumsier-than-expected way is discouraged, but you
don’t lose points for it. Vice is its own punishment.
2 Goals versus Subgoals
Obviously doing something well is better than doing it poorly, and
doing it well the first time is better than needing to re-do it N
times. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole story.
For starters, we need to keep in mind that students are students, not
masters. If you could do everything well the first time, you wouldn’t
be a student.
Class work should mirror real life to the extent possible. In real
life even the masters don’t get everything right the first time.
Real-life engineers build multi-million dollar pilot plants, so they
can debug them before building the multi-billion dollar production
plants. They systematically give themselves a "do-over".
This is not so much part of the grading system but rather as part of
the design of the course. Students need to learn the process:
Do your best, always.
- Problem-solving often requires trying one thing and then
another. It’s like searching a maze. If the first branch of the
maze doesn’t contain the goal, backtrack and try another branch.
This doesn’t even count as a “mistake”, it’s just one phase of
the overall search.
- Also allow for the possibility of outright mistakes.
- Learn from trials and learn from mistakes.
- Small mistakes are preferable to big mistakes. Small risks
are preferable to large risks, other things being equal. Establish
firewalls so that small mistakes can’t spread.
- Keep your eyes on the prize. The idea is to succeed at the
main, overall goal. A negative result on a small sub-project
(searching one branch of the maze) is not at all the same as failure
of the overall project (searching the whole maze).
There are few things more important than this.
3 General Rules
- Safety first. Behavior that puts anyone at risk will not
be tolerated. See also section 4.
- A modest amount of good-natured joking is acceptable and even
encouraged, provided it does not compromise safety and does not
significantly interfere with other students’ opportunity to learn.
- Do not cheat.
- Do not tolerate cheating. If you have reason to suspect
cheating or attempted cheating – past, present, or future – you are
required to report it to the instructor.
- Sabotage or interference with other students’ work is a form of
cheating, and will not be tolerated.
- Plagiarism is a form of cheating. (Note that if you properly
cite the source, it’s automatically not plagiarism.)
4 Lab Rules
- Do not eat, drink, or chew gum in the laboratory. Do not bring
food or beverages into the laboratory. Do not eat or drink anything
in or from the laboratory, even if it looks like food. Never use
laboratory glassware as a container for food or beverages.
- Follow instructions carefully. If you are not sure you
understand the instructions, ask for clarification.
- Do not attempt unapproved experiments or unauthorized laboratory
activities. If you want to try something new, write up a proposal and
get it approved.
- No horseplay in the lab. No pranks or practical jokes. Do not
distract or startle other students when lab work is in progress.
- Wear eye protection at all times in the lab.
- Wear sensible closed shoes at all times in the lab. No bare
feet, no sandals, no shoes made of porous fabric or mesh. (Otherwise
there are problems if you spill something on your feet.)
- Do not wear loose or baggy clothing, including neckties. Do not
wear dangling jewelry, including necklaces. (If you like to wear such
items, take them off before class and put them back on afterward.)
- Keep long hair tied back.
- Do not wear contact lenses in the laboratory. (They tend
to absorb and retain chemicals.)
- Take care to maintain the purity of the stock in the stock
bottles. This includes never putting “extra” stock back into the
- Remove from the stock bottle only what you need, since any extra
will go to waste.
- Dispose of chemical wastes properly. This is not always easy to
do. Dumping things down the sink is usually not acceptable.
Before using or producing any chemical, be sure you know a suitable
method of disposal.
- Do not remove chemicals or lab equipment from the lab without
specific approval. Such approvals are very hard to obtain.
- Know the location and proper operation of emergency equipment
including fire extinguishers, fire blankets, emergency showers, eye
wash stations, alarms, phones, exits (including emergency exits), and
- Students are not allowed in the lab unsupervised. Students are
not allowed in the lab after hours.
- If you see any situation or any behavior that seems unsafe, or
has the potential to become unsafe, bring it to the attention of the
Subject to some important limitations, it is our policy to make
reasonable accommodations for students who have disabilities.
It is not our policy to accommodate every imaginable disability, nor
to make every imaginable accommodation. There are limits.
Parents who believe that their child is in need of special education
and related services should express their concerns in writing to the
supervisory or administrative officials or the child’s teacher.