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The Worst Test Question I’ve Ever Seen

December 2, 2009

Maybe I’m promising too much with this title because I’ve seen a lot of poorly written test questions, but it’s quiet week where I work and I see students everywhere studying for finals. This week is no longer called dead week at my university. I’m not sure exactly why the change was made and I agree that quiet is a pleasanter word than dead, but I do admire traditions and for me, dead week always invoked the spirits of the thousands of students before me who survived their finals and went on to pass their classes. Of course, were I not the incurable optimist that I am, I could have imagined that it represented all those who failed and were thus left for dead in the intellectual depths of the university sea. Anyway, back to that dreadful test question.

As part of my work as a teacher educator, I sometimes observe student teachers in the field. Most of the teachers-in-training I work with are planning to be middle school or high school teachers, so that means I watch them while they are teaching in public schools, providing them with feedback about what they’re doing well and what still needs work. The day I saw the question in question, the teacher-in-training was handing back a test he’d written and given to his high school students at the end of a unit. As soon as students got their tests back, hands began to fly up. As I listened to their complaints, it became apparent that most of the students were talking about one particular item, a fill-in-the-blank question that read: ______________ and _______________ are possible causes of _______________________ . The student teacher got visibly angry as students read their responses and asked why they were wrong.

I don’t remember most of their answers, although I do know there were several color-related responses: Red and blue are possible causes of purple. Yellow and blue are possible causes of green. White and red are possible causes of pink. My favorite response was “mom and dad are possible causes of me.“ How can a teacher argue with that? Finally the student teacher realized that this was not a battle he could win and agreed not to count the question. Later, when we met to discuss the day’s lesson, I asked to see a copy of the test. There was no explanatory statement accompanying the problematic question and I had to agree with his students. He had not made his intentions clear, and telling the students that they should have known what he was talking about was not a good way to handle what was his test-writing error. Students are not mind readers.

Here’s why this matters to you. If you’ll be taking a test during finals week, you too may encounter a question that is the equivalent of the worst test question I’ve ever seen. If you do, I hope you’ll ask for clarification, doing so respectfully and not argumentatively, or that you’ll write an explanation to attach to your test or to hand in separately, being sure to include your name and an explanation of why you’re submitting the extra information. Don’t wait and do this until after you’ve left the room where the test is being held because then it will just look like you went and looked up information. Proactive clarification and understanding the questions are possible causes of passing the test.

What can you do this week to maximize your success during finals week?

Herminone: Look at you, playing with your cards. Pathetic! We’ve got final exams coming up soon.

Ron: I’m ready! Ask me any questions.

Hermione: All right. What’re the three most crucial ingredients in a Forgetfulness Potion?

Ron: I forgot.

• from the movie, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

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