Test takers jump to conclusions . . .

Read the Question!   Then Read It Again.

by Conrad Weisert, November 14, 2015
ŠInformation Disciplines, Inc.

NOTE: This document may be circulated or quoted from freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.


I handed back the graded mid-term examinations, posted sample answers on the course web-site, explained the answers in class, and awaited the inquiries. "Could I have an appointment to discuss my mid-term," a student would ask. Of course I make myself available during my regular office hours and, if necessary, at other mutually convenient times. I could count on three or four such conferences per examination out of a class of thirty.

Occasionally, our discussion will show that I had made a mistake. Perhaps I didn't notice part of the answer on the back of the page or (rarely) I didn't expect some unorthodox, but arguably valid, answer. More often, however, the student will either:
  1. try to explain what he or she had really meant, even though the words didn't begin to convey that content, or

  2. point out some presumed ambiguity or unfairness in the question.

After decades of making up examination questions I very rarely pose an ambiguous or unfair examination question, but I listen respectfully and give proper consideration to the student's argument. If I did indeed make a mistake in grading or in exam preparation, I apologize and make the correction on the student's copy and in my course records.

Examination Format

I've gotten occasional advice that I could avoid most of those interpretation issues if I would just prepare multiple choice questions. The examinations could then be scored by machine, and, if the wording wasn't utterly incompetent, would not be subject to such arguments.

There are subjects, of course, where multiple-choice examinations work well, but systems analysis, project management, and advanced programming are not among them.

Usually, however, I just try patiently to explain the expected correct response, pointing out material from the readings or our class discussions. That ends most of those discussions on a friendly note.

A few complainers, however, will persist, pointing out that they urgently need an A in the course. Couldn't I give them some extra assignment to compensate for their low1 examination grade? I then have to remind the dissatisfied student of our fair grading policy which I had carefully explained the first day of the course.


1—Surprisingly, I get more pleas for grade improvement from A- or B+ students than from marginally failing students, even though the latter are obviously in more urgent need of the instructor's help.

Last modified November 14, 2015

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