There's No Excuse for Trick Questions

by Tina Blue
January 3, 2002

          What possible pedagogical value can there be in trick questions on exams or quizzes?

          Several young people I know, both in high school and in college, have run into teachers who introduce trick questions on tests in a deliberate attempt to stump the student, even when the student knows the material he is supposedly being tested on.

          For example, the Computer Science department here at Kansas University is famous (or infamous) on campus for including so many trick questions on departmental tests for lower-level courses that, according to several undergraduates I queried, easily 50% of a given exam will consist of such questions.

          Other than making the teachers who design the exams feel clever and showing the students how powerless they really are, there is nothing to be gained by such test questions.  The purposes of an exam are (1) to give the student an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of the material and (2) to create a certain amount of pressure so that the student will review a body of material intensively enough to integrate it and understand it at a higher level. 

          It would be nice if it were possible to achieve these ends without the pressure of exams, but of course it isn't, and so tests are--or at least they can be--quite valuable teaching tools.

          But when a student has quite thoroughly mastered the material, there is no justification for trying to ask questions in a way that will make it close to impossible for him to demonstrate that mastery.

          One young woman I know encountered such problems in her chemistry course at a university in Missouri.  She knew the material extremely well--in fact, chemistry is her minor, and she actually tutored several of her classmates in the subject.  But the professor, a young hotshot in his first year out of graduate school, deliberately designed his tests so that over half of his students (all honors science majors, mind you) failed them. 

          The young woman in question sometimes got D's on those exams, although she'd never gotten below an A in chemistry (or any other course) in her entire life.  Through other projects and classwork, she managed to get her course average up to 85%, and she fully expected to get a B in the course, even though she knew the material well enough to deserve an A.

          To her surprise, the final exam was a departmental test, not one written by her teacher, and she got a perfect score on it, plus all the extra credit points (further evidence, of course, that she knew the subject well enough that she should have been getting A's on all of her exams--if those exams had been fair in the first place).  Her better than perfect score on the final actually pulled her course grade up to an A after all.

          My own suspicion is that the rookie professor was young enough that he still suffered from the smartass grad student syndrome, thinking it clever in himself to be able to kick dust in the faces of all those supposedly brilliant science majors.  It was as if he was competing with his students, trying to top them rather than teach them. 

          The young woman, a chemistry minor, changed her schedule for the following semester.  Instead of taking the next course in the chemistry sequence, which was also taught by this troublesome professor, she took physics.  She then completed her chemistry minor by taking chemistry courses during summer sessions here at KU.

          Warned that chemistry courses at KU are famously rigorous, she shrugged, "I'm not worried about hard.  I just want the exams to be fair." 

          From everything  I've heard, the KU chemistry classes are as fair as they are demanding, so I was not surprised to learn that she aced them.  But it's a pity that she didn't dare take those courses at the university where she is normally enrolled. 

          Apparently the young chemistry professor's class for the second semester ended up with an enrollment less than 1/5 of what is normally expected.  It probably didn't take long for his "cleverness" in designing exam questions to cost him his job.  What department would keep a not-yet-tenured professor who is known to be so unreasonable that most students, rather than take his classes, either switch majors or take those courses during summer term at other universities?

          And, remember, those were the required chemistry courses--the ones that figure so heavily in departmental budgets.

          The young chemistry minor and many of her classmates--the ones that would have been doing well if the tests had been fair--visited the chairman of the chemistry department, to make sure that he knew that none of them would ever take another chemistry class at that school. 

          The chairman, of course, was appalled at the "brain drain."  These were many of the most promising science majors among the incoming freshman, and this one first-year smart-aleck professor had pretty much driven every one of them out of the chemistry department. 

          There was a strong rumor going around that this professor's first year would also be his last.*  I hope that rumor turned out to be true, because it would serve him right if his "cleverness" at devising impossible questions finally tripped him up, too.
* Update: It was.