What do you do when the student is more correct than you are? | If everyone else is cheating, is it wrong?

There is a famous video on the internet of a professor accusing most of his class of cheating on an exam. I’ve watched the video and thought “If those students weren’t such “#%^&%$$%^&%$$ jerks” this would have never happened!

Then it happened to me, today. The following email was what I sent to the student who helped me figure it out.

<<Student’s Name>>

Thanks for emailing. Although I haven’t calculated grades, since not all of the assignments are due yet, I have graded all of your assignments (except the extra credit) and I can tell you that you will get <<students grade>> in the class.

Your emails did prompt me to re-evaluate the syllabus, and the grading policies on all of the quizzes though. The syllabus clearly states that, the only reason that you are to use a second attempt on any assignment is if you inadvertently submitted the assignment when you meant to save it. In my experience this happens to at least two students on every assignment. The reason for the second attempt is so that those people don’t have to wait for someone to notice they asked for an new attempt and then reset the quiz for them.

Since I believed that everyone understood this rule, ( I’ve discussed it several times in lecture, and the first homework asked you if you had read the syllabus (everyone answered yes,)) I thought it was amazing that you would admit to cheating when asking for special consideration of your grade

So I did a statistical analysis of the entire class.

I found that 75% of the class used a 2nd attempt at least once, and that the average student used a 2nd attempt on over 50% of the quizzes!

When most of the class does something wrong I have to believe it is my fault , not theirs.

This evening, I’ve had in depth conversations with some of my colleagues and mentors, and come to the conclusion that the initial policy was flawed in several ways:

  • It is almost impossible to enforce.
  • It is possible to start a 2nd attempt when you thought you were just going back to look at the 1st (I have watched a student do it when they were asking me a question…)
  • It assumes that quizzes and tests are not learning experiences.
  • It does not allow people who want to improve to learn from their mistakes immediatly.
  • And finally, it is almost impossible to enforce. (To enforce the rule, I have to assume that I know what you were thinking at the moment you clicked a button on your mouse… If I could do that I would be an internet billionaire!)

I am amending the syllabus for this class, so that no one can be penalized for using a 2nd attempt, and will update the quizzes to retain the highest grade from the two. For future classes I plan to allow more than two attempts and to use large question banks so that no two attempts are exactly the same…

Thank you very much for your feedback (even if it was inadvertent,) and I hope that I will see you in another class some day.


professor Torbjorn Bergstrom — torbjorn@wpi.edu
Operations Manager–WPI Manufacturing Laboratories
Phone: 508 208 3024
Schedule a Meeting or a Phone Call


It will take longer than you expect to get your parts from that cranky old machinist

 Instant gratification

We are living in a society that provides us with instant gratification in so many ways that we have come to expect in in almost all of our interactions.  On top of that, if you, as the customer, know anything about machining processes, you might guess that the cut time for your part will only be 10 or 20 minutes, or even 1 or 2 minutes. Knowing that, it can be frustrating to hear that it will take a week or three to get your parts back.

Sure most machine shops could turn that part around in a few hours if they had the tooling and stock material on hand (which they probably do.) They could do it if all they were doing that day was sitting around waiting for you to walk in. 

Why does it take 3 weeks?

How long it takes to make your parts depends on number of factors that you probably haven’t considered to this point. Below is just a short list of things that might impact the time it takes to make your part(s):

  • the quality of your design,
  • the number of parts in the queue ahead of yours,
  • the number of parts  you need,
  •  whether or not the stock material on hand,
  • the quality of your design,
  • the complexity of your part(s) and the fixturing required to hold it (them,)
  • whether or not the tooling for your project is on hand, and, also,
  • the quality of your design.

The quality of your design

The quality of your design may be the most important factor in getting the parts you need when you need them.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished making a part for someone and then they tell me they need to change the design and I try hard to ask good questions to make sure I’m making the part they need rather than the part they asked for.

A quality design doesn’t need to have solid models whe FEA analysis, it doesn’t even need to have dimensioned and toleranced drawings that conform to ANSI or ISO standards, it simply needs to have enough information to convey the design intent to the manufacturer with no ambiguity.  If you do this any cranky old machinist can make you exactly what you ask for.

Depending on the complexity of what you are asking for with your design a sketch on the back of a bar napkin may be all that is needed, but I’ve found in most cases that I would like you to give me a dimensioned drawing with tolerances specified for all 2 dimensional parts and a drawing and a solid model for all 3 plus D parts.

This speeds up the process for creating the manufacturing plan for making your parts.  It speeds up the process for designing and creating any specialized fixtures your part(s) might need and it absolutely makes it easier to create any CNC programs required.

First in First Out (FIFO)

Most machine shops process orders on a first come first served basis, and they need to have a week or two of work scheduled in advance (to avoid going out of business…) This means when you show up at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon they might not be able to start working on your parts for 2 weeks!

How many do you need?

Do you need 1, 10, or 10,000 parts? It makes a difference. Do you need them all at once or on some schedule.  You need to give the machine shop as much information about this as you can at the beginning it will impact how they plan the production and the design of fixtures.


Young engineers in industry are commonly referred to as “Kids With CAD.” Because you can truly make that CAD software sing. With blends, fillets, flat bottomed holes, under cuts, deep grooves, flat bottomed tapped holes with threads to the bottom…  the list goes on and on , and hey, sometimes you need those features to meet your design requirements. The thing is some of the more complex the features on your part are, the more features on your part, the more sides of your part with features, the more complex the set up will be and the longer it will take to make the part.

Tooling and Materials

If the machine shop you go to doesn’t have the tools or materials on hand to make you parts then they will need to be ordered. That process can take as little as a day and as long as two or three weeks depending on what is needed.

But I need the parts right now!

<< Watch this space>>

When you need your parts definitely has an impact on how long it takes to make them but only if the decision makers want to do you a favor. Your job at this point is to make them want to help if they can.  Remember, if you need your parts As Soon As Possible, it is likely to be your fault, not the machinist’s. Remember that when you talk to them. It’s also good for you to know that ASAP can have any meaning between – all other work stops or is put on hold until your project is complete – and – we will work on your project as soon as we get to it.

My next post in this series will give you some tips and tricks for getting your parts quicker, when you really do need them ASAP.



What’s the cost of changing a lightbulb

I went to school with a lot of people that were good at math. Walking home to my apartment one afternoon of my senior year I noticed a for sale sign in front of a house. It was a three family house like almost all of the others in the neighborhood. Very similar, in fact, to the one I was renting an apartment in at that time. When I got home I called the number on the sign just to see how much a house like that cost.

Being good at math myself it was easy to understand that rent from one of the apartments was probably enough to pay the mortgage, leaving one to live in and another to live off. I didn’t buy that house but it wasn’t long before I was on the path to becoming a slum lord in a college neighborhood. Early in my real estate career I didn’t have a lot of disposable income and spent a lot of time shopping in discount stores following the save a buck style of accounting popular with slumlords and accounting departments at companies around the world. A box of six light bulbs for a buck, you bet that was in my cart.

After 15 years and at least 100 tenants I’ve divested myself of all of my residential rental properties and would never consider buying a cheap light bulb again. Why you ask. What’s the cost of changing that cheap light bulb? I can tell you from experience it’s a lot more that the $0.17 I paid for it at the discount store.

The cost of changing a light bulb is the cost of the interruption of dinner with friends and family when you get a phone call from an angry tenant who cannot see to put their key in the lock. They are especially angry because the light has been out for weeks and you haven’t done anything about it. There is no point reminding them that you don’t go visit them every evening and if they don’t tell you they light is out you don’t know.

This interruption that ruins your mental peace is not the only cost though. There is additional cost. There is the cost of the trip to your barn to get a ladder and put it in your truck. There is the cost of the cost of going to the home improvement store to get light bulbs because you can never find the ones you got at the discount store. There is the cost of leaning the ladder against the railing of the stairs to reach the offending non-functioning bulb. And of course, there is the cost of sweeping up the glass from the bulb you dropped from the top of the unstable ladder. Not to mention the cost of putting the ladder away and figuring out where you put the original discount bulbs so you can put away the ones that are left over from this job.

At the peak of my rental management business it was really a sideline business for me as I was spending most of my time traveling and consulting for companies like General Motors and Goodyear not to mention the federal court system. For the type of work I was doing I could bill upwards of $2000 per day. Even if you divide the day into 24 hours that’s still almost $85 per hour ($250 per hour if you manage to work only 8 hours.)

Depending on how you do the math it cost me between $170 and $500 to change a lightbulb during those years. The only comparison shopping I do when looking at light bulbs is to find the ones that last the longest.

Can we make learning videos instead of teaching videos?

I can’t say I’m part of the ME Generation, and with that said, or rather not said, I can say that when I want to know something, unless I’m standing next to someone I’m pretty sure knows the answer, the first thing I do is Google it.  Then I look for a video (preferred) or a web page that explains it to me.  I’m forty three years old, or as I like to call it thirty-thirteen years old.  My generation literally grew up with computers.  I remember the first PCs.  I remember the launch of Macintosh.  I was there when our rich college friends first got PCs with color monitors and the rest of us reminded them that green is a color too.

Now as an engineering professor at a world renowned university my colleges and I regularly lament the fact that our students don’t do the reading and unless we somehow make it required they are likely to skip class in droves. I can tell you emphatically that that it is not their fault!  If we as faculty cannot engage them we deserve to be talking to an empty room and we are doing them and extremely expensive disservice.

So how do we engage them?  I’ve tried things like:

  • in class quizzes,
  • pre-lecture quizzes based on the reading,
  • post-lecture where the answers were only covered in lecture, not in the reading…
None of those things have really seemed to work for and I think it’s for the same reason that although I read almost continuously in high school, on the bus to school, on the bus back from school sitting in bed at night, sitting in the back of the class room,  I don’t think I ever finished one of the books assigned by my English teachers.

What does seem to work is to interact with them, to have a conversation, to ask questions and pull the answers out of them, to give them ownership of he class and its direction and to act as a guide on a journey of learning.  This can be hard to do as you might imagine with a lecture hall full of introverted engineering students.  I’ve been known to resort to throwing candy to (at) students who participate in my ongoing conversation and I’ve made it a habit of showing at least one YouTube video or clip in each class.  It’s these videos that I think are both part of the solution to the problem of engagement and part of the problem itself.

I’ve been using video as a teaching tool for as long as I’ve been teaching, and when I tell my class that they have to watch “my teaching video” —  of me talking about something — if they want to know — what I want them to learn — about that something; it doesn’t matter if the video is any good, I have a captive audience.  This has lead me to “produce” a few good videos and a lot of less good, even bad, videos.

A bad video is much much worse than a bad lecture.  I know from experience that some students will be embarrassed to fall asleep or even zone out in class but will think nothing of falling asleep in front of YouTube or more likely the’ll click on a more interesting video.
A good video can be much better than a good lecture the students can refer back to it they can share it with others they can help spread that knowledge.  A good video is a learning video not a teaching video.

Look for our new learning videos in May