Using words is OK

By Marcus Wilson 29/10/2009 4


I’m in the thick of marking exam papers. In physics, a lot of what a student does is mathematically based, so a fair bit of any exam is going to contain calculations of things. But don’t think that it is compulsory to make your answer totally incomprehensible.

Many of the exam answers I see from students look like the result of a twisted experiment involving Sudoku and Scrabble. Letters and numbers are strewn around the page in a fairly random manner, occasionally with an equals sign that may or may not be in the right place. Units are always conspicous by their absence. Such a scrawl is really really hard to mark. Your reasoning, in your head, might be perfect, but unless you can get it down onto the paper in a comprehensible manner it might not be getting you much credit.

So please, put in a few well chosen words. For example, you can say ‘taking moments about point O gives…’, or ‘using conservation of energy we have…’ rather than launching straight into the equation. Remember, if the examiner can’t work out what on earth you are doing, your chances of getting credit for it are on a par with those of New Zealand winning the rugby world cup.


4 Responses to “Using words is OK”

  • I have exam questions to mark in a few weeks time. It’s been a while since I last did any marking – your post has poked a distant memory back to life of how horrendous it can be…..I can’t wait!

  • I was thinking the same thoughts, Marcus, while I marked test papers last week. There was a sad tendency to begin an answer with ‘=’, as in ‘= p-1′, for example. But the trouble was, the students doing this never actually identified what was on the left of the = sign… Argh!

  • This reminds me of the advice to computer programmers from older hands (like myself!) that it’s wise to document and comment what your code does. You should guide readers as to the intended meaning of the code. This both highlights bugs (discrepancies between the intended meaning and what the code actually does…) and lets you be able to read your own code months or years later.

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