I’ve come to understand that most of my problems stem from thinking, at the most inopportune times, that I’m a lot smarter than I actually am.
I took the first of my hell week exams on Wednesday for my statistics class. This class is doing nothing to progress my degrees—I registered for it when I had a different track in mind, one that didn’t accept credit by exam—and I’ve pretty much taken this exact same class before, so every time I make my way into the classroom it’s essentially my walk of shame.
I came into the exam expecting it to be a blow-off and already planning out when to get my flu shot, which I assume is what all college students spend their waking moments thinking about.
Armed with my free financial calculator, courtesy of my program—I really thought I’d gamed the system by not having to buy a $7 scientific calculator—I received the test packet. Opened it. 25 problems total: ten multiple choice, five short answers, one bonus. Nothing unmanageable, not that I could do anything otherwise.
For the first hour, at least, all was well. I knew how to do every problem and was reasonably sure my answers were correct. I wasn’t getting any weird numbers; they all rounded out nicely to two decimal places, as per the instructions.
Then, with fifteen minutes left, I started to check my work. The multiple-choice section was fine. I got to a question that didn’t quite get me the same result when I worked backward, but I got the same answer calculating it forward and chalked it up to rounding variations in the z-tables. Then I got to the bonus, which involved systems of equations (working with two equations to solve for two variables, one by one.) An algebraic concept, systems of equations are easy until you keep getting answers that don’t match and you realize you’re intrinsically worthless.
Through equation 1, x = 1001.23
Through equation 2, x = 980.19
Erase. Repeat. Ten minutes left.
x = 879.83
x = 1157.37
Erase. Repeat. Five minutes left.
X = 968.72
X = The Pope
Frantically reviewing my work, I realized how odd it was that all my answers had been rounding so neatly to two decimal places.
And then I realized. Stomach sinking, I typed in .333333 into my calculator and pressed enter. The screen flashed and showed .33.
My financial calculator had been rounding all my numbers to two decimal places this whole time. All the numbers. As in, if I did 1 divided by 3 and then multiplied by 3, I’d get .99 instead of 1.
The professor called time. I scribbled one of my recent answers into the box and handed my test in. “I realized toward the end that my calculator had been rounding everything to two decimal places,” I said. I don’t know what I was hoping for, telling her this. Maybe humanity.
“Oh, because you used a financial calculator. Next time, get the decimal places to float.”
“Okay,” I said. And walked out.
Later, when a friend asked how my exam went, I recounted this entire tragedy and he asked, indignantly as a good friend should, if that didn’t defeat the purpose of a having a calculator for accurate calculations. Like, in what scenario would you want this feature? (Not rhetorical. If there’s a purpose for it I might feel slightly vindicated, but only slightly.)
I still have no idea how I did on that test, and I can’t even really talk about it because saying my calculator ate my decimal places is tantamount to the “dog ate my homework” excuse. Although come to think of it, if I’m afraid of people thinking my reluctance to talk about an easy exam means I’m dumb, it might be a bit late for that.
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