Zero is absence of knowledge

International Science Olympiad for high school students from 20 European countries. One particular example in an analytical chemistry part focuses on the iodometric titration with 3 maximum available points. The organizers decided to use “all or nothing” approach. Either you have a correct result with maximum points or you have made (even very small) mistake and there are no points for you. Nothing. Zero. For all teams.

As a member of organizers, I have attended the final discussion between the organizers and mentors from other teams. We have compared and discussed the results each team achieved and tried to find an agreement in number of points.

There was only one big problem – the above example.

The sentence I have used as a title for this post arose from a discussion with the most dissatisfied mentors’ team. How do you want to distinguish between a student with correct way of thinking vs. the guy who knows nothing?

I tried to explain our point of view. If you are going to work in an analytical chemistry lab no one will ask you about the way how you have reached the result. Only the correct answer counts. Incorrect result = no money/no promotion/… .

On the other hand, these guys are (high school) students. Best out of the best, but still students. There should be (some) incentive reward for the guy who knows what he is doing.

So, as you see there are valid arguments on both sides. I am still thinking of it and really can’t decide which approach is better.

Now, as time goes, I am slightly more convinced that there should be partial points for this example.

And what do you think?

2 replies on “Zero is absence of knowledge”

I definitely think that partial credit is appropriate when a student demonstrates the appropriate knowledge for solving the problem. It is unfair to compare students to professionals, as you rightly pointed out. I think you made a mistake though–your work IS checked in an analytical lab, assuming you have a QC/QA team. They will check your approach, your math, etc. Furthermore, you have a supervisor who approved the method, and, presumably, the method is at least qualified or qualifiable. Furthermore, Professionals can use any and all resources to solve a problem, whereas students are limited (I assume this was a closed-book test?).

Bottom-line: it is unfair to compare high school students, however talented, with professionals.

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