Idiosyncratic exam questions – should they be allowed?

By Michael Edmonds 08/12/2010 6


When I get time, I like to visit other science orientated blogs, including Pharyngula, written by PZ Myers. Professor Myers has a rather direct and irreverent style and discusses a wide range of issues from a humanistic, atheistic and pro science perspective.

In a recent post, Professor Myers described how he goes about writing and grading exams.

‘I just finished off one big chunk of grading, and on this exam, as is my custom, I give students a few bonus points with an easy question at the end. It is also my custom every year to have one of those easy questions be, “Name a scientist, any scientist, who also happens to be a woman,” just to see if they’ve been paying attention.’

I found this approach to be quite surprising. When I write exams I go to great efforts to make sure the questions test the course material in as clear and educationally valid way as is possible. Furthermore, all of our exams are moderated by two other staff members to remove errors and check them for clarity. Indeed, I had assumed the idiosyncratic approach to exams described above no longer existed in an environment of supposed transparency and accountability. Am I wrong? Does it still occur in New Zealand universities and further afield?


6 Responses to “Idiosyncratic exam questions – should they be allowed?”

  • In my experience, yes, it does – if by that you mean extremely easy ‘patsy’ questions that don’t really test any strong learning outcomes. Like you I put a lot of trouble into writing mine, not least because I want to send the right signals about what’s important & what’s not (the exam papers are available to students in subsequent years). So it’s quite concerning to come across ‘explain’ questions that can be answered by 1-few words & questions that test ability to recall material that’s easily available in a book, rather than looking at the students’ ability to interpret the significance of whatever fact(oid) is the question’s focus. By no means common but yes, people still do this. (OK, some ‘rote’ questions are necessary as there are some things we’d like them to remember & also because for some students that’s probably about it & they need to be able to do some of the things in a paper 🙂 )
    The underlying problem, of course, is that most lecturers probably assess their students the way they themselves were assessed…

  • I often include material related trivia questions, but you only get trivia points if you get it right. 100 trivia points makes you a coveted garbage mind. Consider it intellectually playful fun.

  • It’s a good game to play, and shows the student’s read a little beyond what they need just to pass the exam.

    Name a scientist who’s also Irish: George Boole
    Name a scientist who’s also a climate change denialist: David Bellamy
    Name a scientist who died by suicide: Ludwig Boltzmann
    Name a scientist who spoke/speaks Esperanto: JJ Thompson
    Name a scientist who is/was also a socialist: JBS Haldane.
    Name a scientist apart from Alan Turing who is/was gay: Um…Turing’s biographer, can’t remember his name.

    • I don’t see a problem with this sort of thing if it is for fun. But if I was sitting a test that contributed to my final mark and there was a question in it not related to the course content I would be complaining. I go to a lot of effort making sure students I teach know what course content is examinable and I give them a copy of a previous exam to get them familiar with the way I structure my questions (this reduces the chances that when they can’t answer a question it isn’t because they don’t understand the question, rather than because they don’t know the content).
      I remember sitting a first year physics course that asked which part of the sky is the most blue and why. I could answer the why but couldn’t for the life of me remember which part was more blue, the horizon or directly overhead. Thus I lost marks through lack of observation not lack of knowledge about light diffraction 🙁

  • To be honest I was astonished at the sheer volume of rote-learning in the 2nd and 3rd year science (ecology/zoology) papers I did last year.
    I guess some is useful, but most of it seemed to be to see how quickly we could rote learn.

    As far as I am concerned, we proved that we could do that when we learned the alphabet.
    Give me an explain/discuss/argue/opinion question any day!

  • During my university experience (2005-2008) I had a couple of Professors who were “old school” and known “characters”. Both of the two who leap to mind were known for including random questions in their exams. One of them made no secret of his dislike of exams (he’d rather have you do an essay, a presentation, and thoroughly interrogate you) and so included questions relating to what his cat’s names were etc.