The perfect exam paper

by Chris Bertram on June 7, 2008

I blogged this long ago and somewhere else, but the annual chore of assessing exam scripts has brought it back to mind. Bill Pollard and Soran Reader at Durham devised this ideal exam :

Philosophy Exam – First Year

Answer two questions

Two hours

1. Patch together some things you have heard in lectures, in no particular order.

2. Has this question vexed philosophers for centuries?

3. Create an impression of original thought by impassioned scribbling (your answer may be ungrammatical, illegible, or both).

4. Does the answer to this question depend on what you believe?

5. How much irrelevant historical background can you give before addressing this question?

6. Describe two opposing views, then say what you personally feel.

7. Rise above the fumbling efforts of others and speculate freely on an issue of your choice.

8. EITHER

(a) Answer this question by announcing that it really means something different (and much easier to answer).

OR

(b) Write out your answer to last year’s question on this topic.

9. Protest your convictions in the teeth of obvious and overwhelming objections.

10. Keep your reader guessing about what you think until the end. Then don’t tell them.

{ 58 comments }

1

matt w. 06.07.08 at 1:33 pm

I’ve gotten subtle variations of 6 and 9 from students:

6*: Describe two opposing (i.e. completely contradictory) positions, then explain why both positions are correct

9*: Openly admit that the obvious and overwhelming objections undermine one’s position, but then protest one’s convictions anyway (Perhaps that’s just what 9 says, but I wasn’t sure about the open admission part)

2

Jacob Christensen 06.07.08 at 3:07 pm

Question #2 needs a bit of adjusting but otherwise it can easily be used in Political Science as well. Thanks for saving me a lot of time in trying to come up with questions for the next term!

:-D

3

fardels bear 06.07.08 at 3:36 pm

Ya know….

I’ve been to philosophy lectures by some respected philosophers and they unpack an incredibly complex argument only to say, “But this would lead us to such-and-such a conclusion, which intuitively seems wrong so that argument must not work.” That seems much like #4 and #6 except it came from a person with tenure.

4

engels 06.07.08 at 3:41 pm

I think you might be able to incorporate some of this into your comments policy…

5

Righteous Bubba 06.07.08 at 3:54 pm

I think you might be able to extract it from some of your commenters.

6

f 06.07.08 at 4:03 pm

I’ve taught and recently been a student, and there’s a good course idea for lecturers as well that none have yet offered:

‘What I wrote in my book, or: all 200 of you should buy my book because I need the money.’

Exams are difficult because it’s more about how to take an exam than the questions asked. It’s a guessing game for students as to what topics will come up, and they don’t generally have the time to acquaint themselves with an area thoroughly to truly form an interesting opinion on it. I think if the assessment was by thesis or even an interview, it would be much better.

7

engels 06.07.08 at 4:29 pm

?

8

Righteous Bubba 06.07.08 at 4:52 pm

Failed joke in 5. Ignore it or Chris can feel free to delete it.

9

engels 06.07.08 at 5:12 pm

Well, #4 wasn’t exactly hilarious either. Maybe we should both take the weekend off…

10

msshaftesbury 06.07.08 at 5:36 pm

there’s always the variation on 8a–
8a’) Answer this question by announcing that it really means something different (and easily copied directly from the internet)

11

abb1 06.07.08 at 6:07 pm

Shouldn’t if be “profess your convictions”?

12

rea 06.07.08 at 6:11 pm

11. Explain why this examination is a plot by liberal academia to violate your First Amendment rights.

13

notsneaky 06.07.08 at 6:38 pm

In assigning and grading papers on economics I’ve found that often times what students (particularly those with a humanities background)really want to do is to tell you the story of how they came to write this particular paper, rather than, you know, actually write this particular paper;

“It was a dark and stormy night when I ran this regression. Lightining struck as I looked at my t-statistics. Suddenly there was a knock on the door…”

There’s been a few cases where the student in question was actually a good enough writer to pull this off (in terms of both form and substance) but most of the time it’s just filler.

14

John Protevi 06.07.08 at 8:04 pm

9. Protest your convictions in the teeth of obvious and overwhelming objections.

Because on Twin Earth, everything is the same as here, except that your side is the obviously correct answer.

15

brad 06.07.08 at 10:00 pm

Sometimes, I hope I never finish this PhD.
The prospect of having to grade stacks of such things and being lucky to have a gig which ‘allows’ me to do so….. is not enticing.
I think I’ll just do postdocs till I’m 50.

16

not even an mba 06.08.08 at 2:04 am

Well if a student answers 8. (b) wouldn’t that be acceptable since the vast majority of this year’s exams are last years exams with the date changed?

17

Nabakov 06.08.08 at 3:18 am

“Do not write on both sides of the paper at once”

18

Jane 06.08.08 at 5:56 am

haha

19

Tangurena 06.08.08 at 6:11 am

This reminds me of those joke tests, in the event that others haven’t read them:

2) Medicine: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have 15 minutes

15) General Knowledge: Describe in detail. Be objective and specific.

Extra Credit: Define the universe; give three examples

The first googled source I found: http://www.zuckhome.com/jokes/jokes_school.html
But I got more laughs from yours. Thanks.

20

Michael D 06.08.08 at 7:18 am

I had an actual exam with only one question and perhaps captures all of the above:

“What is philosophy? “

(was the title of the subject as well…)

21

Paul Gowder 06.08.08 at 7:26 am

You sure know how to make a guy not want to do his grading for the quarter…

22

Zarquon 06.08.08 at 7:28 am

Could you rephrase this exam in terms of multiple-choice questions?

kthxbai.

23

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 9:45 am

While d) All of the Above are understanable frustrations felt by many professors, and even more likely, many TA graders, I feel like I gotta stick up for the students here.

So you asked an ambigous question. You got an ambigous answer.

You asked a half assed question with many potential correct answers and you expect your students to read your mind. You got a half assed response.

You assumed that the students would understand your brilliance and the only reason they cannot answer the question correctly is because they are intellectually unfit to read your brilliant mind. You got frustration.

Seriously, while there’s a many a dumb and a stupid student outhere there’s a plenty a lazy and outta touch professor there too. And ones with a sense of privilege and entitelment. This whole website is the lousiest bunch of whiners I’ve ever seen:
http://rateyourstudents.blogspot.com/
who’s main problem seems to be that work actually sweems to entail work. Like you know, preparing for classes, and thinking about the material from the point of view of a novice who’s unfamiliar.

And yes, this is worse at research schools than at liberal arts colleges. And yes, this is to a large extent a bunch of over educated but not-quite-genius (being charitable here) folks sneering at those who have not have had the good fortune to come from a similar economic/academic background as themselves and who, holy shit, are much younger and less experienced then them and feeling smug about it.

Also. Grad student TAs tend to be the worst about it. They’re like the security guards at the corner grocery store who think they’re real cops or secret service agents. Little bit of power corrupts little people a whole lot. Junior faculty can be bad too but there it depends more on the institution (does this school treat its students like shit? If yes, then you got no choice but to play along!) and personal insecurity.
Older, established people actually tend to be more understanding and have a better perspective on things, even in cases where they’re horrible lecturers and completely anti social.

You know, teachin’ ‘s actually a lot of fun.

24

Dave 06.08.08 at 11:37 am

F*ck dat, blame the students, it’s more fun.

25

Anonymous 06.08.08 at 2:00 pm

I have a student this term who comes to class only sporadically, hasn’t turned in any of the three required papers due this far, and who failed the midterm by answering two of the three questions with answers of the “provide irrelevant historical background” sort. She recently e-mailed me to say that she was concerned about her midterm grade, and wondered if it was possible for her to pass the course.

Clearly this student’s troubles are due the ambiguous and half-assed questions I asked (which the rest of the students in class, against all odds, managed to interpret correctly and answer insightfully). I am merely lazy and out of touch, and her current grade is only a reflection of my frustration at being overeducated and not quite a genius. Well, perhaps not only–I also enjoy the head-rush that comes with the exercise of absolute power when I assign an F.

To sum up: bite me, notsneaky.

26

harry b 06.08.08 at 2:03 pm

The critics of the exam are almost all american — and almost all their criticisms apply correctly to american courses in which the prof is judge, jury, and executioner (and gives the same exam over and again). Not applicable to the quite different UK system (in which, eg, one cannot assign one’s own book, does not set the exam, and does not know, much of the time, whether the examinees are the students one taught).

27

engels 06.08.08 at 2:27 pm

You assumed that the students would understand your brilliance and the only reason they cannot answer the question correctly is because they are intellectually unfit to read your brilliant mind. You got frustration.

What??? Talk about mind reading…

28

Alan 06.08.08 at 2:51 pm

Well, having just taken my final year exams in philosophy at Durham I feel I would have passed that paper with flying colours. As for the real ones…we’ll just wait and see.
I can’t help feeling that philosophy exams are exercises in form over content. Of course a good piece of philosophy is well structured, organised and develops as it proceeds. However, the structure has to encompass something of worth and, in the time allowed (1 hour per question in Durham) restricts effective discussion. I find extended essays to be far more conducive to good philosophy than 3 hour, 3 question exams- at least when it comes to third years. First year exams are probably fair enough.

29

Dave 06.08.08 at 3:51 pm

Alas, having identified six cases of casual plagiarism [i.e. copying passages from a referenced text, often right next to a correctly-quoted extract, proving they do understand the difference...] in the last 25 coursework essays I marked – from second and third-year students – my patience with extended coursework, of which I am normally a tireless advocate, is wearing thin.

30

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 6:49 pm

“understandable frustrations felt by many professors”

“To sum up: bite me, notsneaky.”

Why you taking this personally? If it doesn’t apply, then it doesn’t apply.

31

Anonymous 06.08.08 at 7:09 pm

Of course there are understandable frustrations felt by many students, but I feel I must stick up for the professors.

You are a boorish idiot who has neither the maturity nor the intelligence required for college work… Etc., etc.

But why take it personally, notsneaky? If it doesn’t apply, it doesn’t apply.

The problem is that your comment is completely general, and is really quite sneering about those “understandable frustrations” and the expressions of frustration they give rise to.

32

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 7:25 pm

anon,

“You are a boorish idiot who has neither the maturity nor the intelligence required for college work… Etc., etc.

But why take it personally, notsneaky? If it doesn’t apply, it doesn’t apply.”

The obvious difference is that you used the pronoun “you”, whereas I didn’t. This makes your comment personal. But mine’s not. Allow me to succumb to your rhetorical style (we can settle who’s more boorish later on) and ask whether YOU actually understand the difference here and, since it appears you don’t, shouldn’t you? Being a university instructor and all.

I’m just pointing out that just like there are horrible students out there, there are also horrible instructors. And yes, instructors who very quickly generalize from the existence of some horrible students (“some students are horrible”) to the general student population (“hence all students are horrible”) have the makings of being horrible themselves.

33

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 7:29 pm

And you know what I mean about the “you” thing.

34

engels 06.08.08 at 7:35 pm

Actually, no, we don’t. What are you on about?

35

Anonymous 06.08.08 at 7:43 pm

No, I don’t know what you mean about the you thing.

“So you asked an ambigous question. You got an ambigous answer.”

That’s a direct quote from your comment. I, of course, was simply parodying to make a point. (See how easy it is to think that by “you” I meant *you* or *most students*, rather than some isolated student, somewhere or other?)

Of course there are crappy professors. Who said there weren’t? I’ve had a bunch myself. What gets me is that quite often, when somebody complains about particular students (as the posts at ratemystudents do), or pokes gentle fun at some common student foibles (as this post does), it occasions a rant about lazy professors who have an inflated sense of their own brilliance.

36

engels 06.08.08 at 7:44 pm

(You asked a half assed question … You assumed that the students would understand your brilliance … You got frustration. notsneaky #24

The obvious difference is that you used the pronoun “you”, whereas I didn’t. notsneaky #33)

37

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 8:06 pm

Anon, engels,

Since I gotta spell out the obvious – my “you” was not addressed to either of … you. It was an abstract “you”. I could have used pretty much any pronoun there I wanted. But anon’s “you” was pretty clearly directed at a specific person. And that makes all the difference.

Get it now?

38

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 8:09 pm

“it occasions a rant about lazy professors who have an inflated sense of their own brilliance.”

You, yes you, must hang out in different places than I do (both on the internets and in the real world) cuz I don’t see these rants at all. On the other hand, you put 2 instructors in the same room, or on the same blog and half the time they’ll start comparing notes about how “horrible” their students are.

39

Anonymous 06.08.08 at 8:21 pm

No, quite clearly, mine was an abstract “you,” as well, since I was parodying your comment. I don’t know you personally; how could I possibly know whether or not you are a boor or an idiot?

That abstract “you” that you (and I) used doesn’t quite have the rhetorical effect that perhaps you intended. It certainly comes off as if you intend to be saying something about the entire class of college instructors, rather than just those few that are lazy and self-important. That you’re talking about a feature of instructors in general is reinforced when go on to say “Grad student TAs tend to be the worst about it.”

40

engels 06.08.08 at 8:22 pm

Get it now?

Not really, but experience suggests if I give up at this point I’m not going to miss much.

41

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 8:37 pm

“That you’re talking about a feature of instructors in general is reinforced when go on to say “Grad student TAs tend to be the worst about it.””

No, that just means that this phenomenon is higher among TAs (and come on, we all know lots of TAs and straight-outta grad school folks have a chip on their shoulder vis a vis the undergrads) than more senior instructors. It doesn’t mean that all, or even most TAs are horrible instructors. You know, like 25 out of a 100 compared to say, 15 out of a hundred. The fact that you insist on taking this personally and making it applicable to “ALL instructors” is strange.

42

notsneaky 06.08.08 at 8:57 pm

“when somebody complains about particular students (as the posts at ratemystudents do), or pokes gentle fun at some common student foibles (as this post does)”

It’s true that this post merely pokes “gentle” fun at some common student foibles, which is why I played along in 13. That’s fine. But on the ratemystudents page there’s this detectable streak of petty meanness running through a lot of the posts. Here’s an example:

“This is in response to the recent postings I have seen begging us to be “understanding” and to “be human.” I don’t know if these are new teachers fresh off the turnip truck, but the only response I can think of “shut the hell up!”

or this
http://rateyourstudents.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2005-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-07%3A00&updated-max=2006-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=46

Although looking back at some of the post it does seem like the site got better with time and I give’em kudos for posting some of the criticisms of the original posters.

43

dave (not the one above) 06.08.08 at 10:16 pm

Oh would you shut the hell up; the original post was a joke.

44

F 06.08.08 at 10:52 pm

11. Make a gross generalization that is insulting to most of your audience, and then rely on differential definitions of common words to argue that they had no right to be insulted.

45

sara 06.08.08 at 11:40 pm

This reminds me of exams I graded in a history class I was TA’ing. One hapless individual stands out. He not only used purple ink, and engaged in the frantic scribbling mentioned above, he forgot to turn the pages of his blue book.

I do not lie. He presumably reached the end of one section and went on to the next while being so stoned, or in such a desperate funk, that he didn’t realize that you should turn the page when you run out of white space.

The resulting scribble was densely purple and could not be deciphered.

46

david 06.09.08 at 1:15 am

“Yes, but will you denounce RateYourStudents.com? Will you denounce it, sir??”

47

abb1 06.09.08 at 7:22 am

Give them hell, Radek. I’m sure in most cases they reap what they sow indeed; after all they are teachers.

48

engels 06.09.08 at 12:22 pm

Thanks, abb1: that’s a model answer for Q9…

49

pj 06.09.08 at 12:27 pm

“Not applicable to the quite different UK system (in which, eg, one cannot assign one’s own book, does not set the exam, and does not know, much of the time, whether the examinees are the students one taught).”

Are you familiar with the University of Oxford?

50

J Lee 06.09.08 at 7:33 pm

The perfect exam! Something even the teachers couldn’t answer because it is total nonsense. The fun, the seriousness, and the importance of philosophy is that it requires one to think precisely, define terms in a meaningful way, and draw conclusions and connections with life and reality. This sort of exam is demeaning to students and reflects a teacher who misunderstands the fundamentals of his subject and has no apparent love or respect for it.
JLee DPhil (Oxon)

51

Righteous Bubba 06.09.08 at 7:52 pm

This sort of exam is demeaning to students and reflects a teacher who misunderstands the fundamentals of his subject and has no apparent love or respect for it.

Let me get this straight: this exam should not be given?

52

Alan 06.09.08 at 9:30 pm

I’m sorry…there are a number of people in this thread taking it waaaaaaaaaay too seriously. It started out as a nice piece of fun about how incredibly prone to panic most philosophy students are in exams (myself included, see #28) but now it has just got silly. (Cue Monty Python Theme).
One of my rather well known philosophy professors likes to compare exams to car crashes. Thank goodness the MA is coursework-based.

53

not even an mba 06.10.08 at 1:32 pm

Perfect Exam Answer:
I entend too show that [last phrase from question] by dicussing the [phrase prof used most often during course] and [random item pulled from syllabus].

[phrase most often used by prof, slightly paraphrased]. [paraphrase of entire question as statement].

Clearly, [slight paraphrase of notes about random syllabus item - memorized last night over beer and coffee].
[slightly different paraphrase of entire question as statement].

And in conclusion [last phrase of question] is demonstrated by [syllabus item] and more emportantly [prof pet phrase].

[Note: the spele-ing airroars are important. This is an exam not an assignment, you want to look ready but not overly so.]

54

lemuel pitkin 06.10.08 at 3:19 pm

What a wonderfully bitchy thread.

Must be the heat…

55

notsneaky 06.10.08 at 3:55 pm

“Must be the heat…”

Finals.

56

bigcitylib 06.10.08 at 4:45 pm

The one about impassioned scribbling served me well all through university.

57

Alex 06.10.08 at 11:20 pm

Oh god. My coursework essays were on questions 9 and 10, my essays on the transcendental deduction was a model answer to 1 and I answered 8a several times. I apologise deeply to whoever has to mark my scripts.

In seriousnses though, it’s not a whole barrel of laughs to be writing the essays either. To prepare (what you thought was) thoroughly for a topic only to be thrown an unusual question on the day that you can’t think how to answer during the few minutes you have to actually consider and plan your answer is pretty horrendous. It feels a lot better to write four pages of semi-relevance than to scrap for a couple of sides of a properly directed answer, even if the mark gained as a result is no different.

58

socialrepublican 06.12.08 at 5:03 am

I was blessed by the following essay question –

‘What light does Daniel Goldhagen shed on the origins of the Final Holocaust’

3000 words backing up ‘none whatsoever’, got a 76. I am look forward to doing review articles, I have the knack, methinks

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