Assignments that discourage elegance

Have you ever left useless information in a paper? I still do1. Maybe you just wanted the teacher to see that you did this work, even though it was no longer relevant. Maybe you were personally attached to the irrelevant work and didn’t want to write it off as a sunk cost 2. Whether it’s a school paper or an assignment at work, a complicated solution is comforting. It shows you put in the time and effort. Provide an elegant solution and you run the risk of looking like a slacker.

A capstone report

An engineering report, never to be used again

There are plenty of barriers to the elegant responses we need and the thinking that leads to them. Surely we can remove some of the unintentional incentives for useless complexity. If I assign a report that must be at least 25 pages, can I really expect students to remove extraneous paragraphs? Yet, minimum requirements like these are the norm. Your paper should be at least 25 pages. You must show all your work. The cost estimate should have at least 100 line items.

Sorry students, I’m not saying assignments should take less time. Elegance is the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Because shortcuts around the complexity are rare, the long paper and detailed calculations are usually still necessary. Then, even more work and thought is required to go past this complexity, to prioritize what to leave in, what to take out. Pushing past complexity towards elegance is a rare skill, and practicing it can be quite stimulating3. Assignments from people like me shouldn’t cheat you out of this practice. One possibility is to require iterations. A 25-page report as the first draft, and a 10-pager covering the same topic as the final version. Come up with 5 possible project ideas one week and then evaluate them and pick your favorite the next. You get the idea.

Similar approaches could be used for other types of assignments, both in school and in the “real world.” Better assignments would encourage the kind of thinking needed to produce the elegant responses demanded by humankind’s biggest challenges. 

  1. Nothing on this website is useless, of course []
  2. This is a long footnote, but worth it. When I was in high school, my friend Adam and I convinced our fathers to take us golfing, and pay. After 9 holes, Adam and I remembered that we weren’t good at golf and decided we would rather go early to our soccer game and goof around with our friends. My Dad thought that since he had paid for 18 holes, Adam and I should finish the round. My thinking was that by continuing to play golf, we would not only no longer have the money my Dad paid, but I would also lose the greater enjoyment that would come from going early to our soccer game. I remember Adam and I were allowed to leave, and I’m pretty sure I paid my Dad back for the holes I skipped out on. I didn’t know it had a name at the time, but the golf story is now my favorite example of the sunk cost fallacy, where we consider past costs even though they should not be a factor in a current decision. My Dad was right, as usual, to have me pay for the holes I skipped for so many other reasons not related to the psychology of decision making []
  3. Compared to other work and school assignments, maybe not compared to other things you consider stimulating []

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