Everybody who has experienced the wonderful (ahem) American educational system has probably noticed this curious phenomenon at one time or another. Either you work pretty hard on an assignment and then get an average grade, or you utterly blow it off and receive a killer one. Not only can this be quite frustrating, but it also serves as an excellent reminder of how arbitrary and virtually meaningless your precious grades really are.

The first assignment in in my senior year high school Composition class was a two page paper that was supposed to be about holidays. I hastily typed one page of poorly thought out sarcasm (dealing with the relative merits of Arbor Day and Columbus Day) during the class immediately preceding Composition. A+ baby, I kid you not. Towards the end of the year the teacher told me it was the best thing I'd written the whole year. Now, the paper that actually deserved that praise for was a fifteen page introduction to the history, present, and future of cryptography, like my own HO-scale version of Cryptonomicon. It got a nice shiny B-.

It's pretty tempting to try and use this effect as an advantage, by putting the least possible effort into everything, and -- if the rule holds -- getting a 4.0. My friends agree that everybody should do this, but so far none of us have had the guts to try :-)

I have had this happen to myself, but I have come to a conclusion or two about why. Basically, the more you know about something, the less time you have to spend rehashing it. The less you know, the more time you have to spend writing about it and it often shows that you are unfamiliar with the material.

"The first assignment in in my senior year high school Composition class was a two page paper that was supposed to be about holidays." and got A+...because it is an incredibly familiar subject and has been preached to us since we were born, really. Thus it was easy to throw together in a hurry.

Now, the paper that actually deserved that praise for was a fifteen page introduction to the history, present, and future of cryptography, like my own HO-scale version of Cryptonomicon. While I'm sure you knew a lot about the subject, writing about it was not as familiar to you and there was more to explain. Also, the longer a paper is, the more room there is for little tiny flaws in writing, organization, or logic to appear.

Point number two: Class size in schools matter, too. If an English teacher has 25 students, there won't be the same amount of attention paid to each paper. If the papers are shorter, then more of it will get read. If everyone is handing in a 15 page paper, then odds are the teacher will just skim it and see what your general gist is. If the teacher doesn't happen to like or understand the part that he/she read, then you are screwed.

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