Failing With Grace…Juggling College Classes and Grades
my story of computer programing and raising my game
By Bonnie Pan, Brown University
I ran the linux script, cs017_handin hw01, and watched an emotionless black screen process my commands.
Are you sure you want to hand in all of the above files? (y/n)
I entered a ‘y’.
A pause, and some text detailing my directory’s contents.
Hours before it was due, my first computer science assignment in my first computer science class since starting college was finished. I felt pretty good about it—I had double and triple checked each function and I had made sure I had enough test cases to certify it was working correctly. I was confident in how I had approached the problems and I knew everything worked. I went about the next week—the first official week of classes of the semester—unconcerned about the outcome of my first homework. I opened the grade report without worries when it came out, complete with the class average and median.
I looked through each section of the report—one part each for testing, commenting, functionality, and style for each function implemented. I looked through each section twice, out of shock. I did awfully. I had points taken off for the silliest things—I hadn’t tested for base cases (the case that a recursive function condenses down to when the argument is the simplest it can be), I used equality operators when I should have used different keywords, and I had superfluous code. Everything worked, technically, but my graders cared for more than that. I had to think about the elegance of my code, as well as testing extensively and exhaustively.
I scored well below average on that first assignment. It was…embarrassingly enough, devastating. I called my mom and told her about it, sulked about it for longer than was necessary, and I may have cried a little, even more embarrassingly. Why am I so stupid? Should I really be in computer science? I may have thought at one point.
Prior to college, I had almost never had experience with doing poorly on a significant assignment. I took a hard look at myself, and how I compared to the other computer science students in my classes, and I realized I wouldn’t always be doing well in my classes even if I tried my best. I realized there were more requirements and standards than just intelligence or past successes. I realized that if I wanted to do well, I had to read every assignment carefully, every style guide and tip from my professor and teaching assistants. Once I realized how much effort I actually had to put into my classes, how much error-checking and testing I had to complete before submitting an assignment, I started doing better. I aced my midterm and got an A in that computer science class.
I’ve had a lot of these types of moments during my time at Brown. Computer science is a difficult major to juggle with other things, but I’ve also completed my first semester of organic chemistry, which is one of the hardest freshman classes to take because of the ridiculous four-hour lab and the tests. The exams for orgo have perhaps taught me even more about myself than my computer science courses. I’ve learned to, maybe not accept, but to be content with the times I have done worse than I expected in my classes. I’ve learned to recognize that I am by no means the smartest or most deserving of a good grade because there are so many bright and hard-working people at my school.
This year, as I complete tests and problem sets for my second semester of organic chemistry and my first computer systems course, I’ll have to keep these sentiments in mind. I actually just received my first orgo lab quiz back, and I just took my first orgo midterm, both of which I’m pretty sure I did badly or below average on. On the other hand, I’m doing about above average on my computer systems and database courses. You win some and you lose some.
I’ve learned that even if I do poorly on one or two assignments, there’s no good in sulking about it because if I work diligently, I can pick myself back up. There are two more orgo midterms, and a final. I have many more chances to study better and harder. I have many more problem sessions to attend, and many more questions to ask.
I think the biggest way I’ve changed going through these relatively minor ordeals is that I’ve developed a better attitude and outlook on my academic life. I’ve always been somewhat high-strung about grades, but looking at everything as a whole, one assignment has a moderately minor impact on my overall grade, and it doesn’t do any good to cry about something that’s already passed. Now, I try to use my past assignments as indications of how well I’m doing and what I need to work on, rather than as a personal reflection of myself and my self-worth.