Examining the question and questioning the exam

Brodie Waddell

Tyler Cowen, a well-known blogger and economist at George Mason University, once tried a rather unusual approach to examining.

[He] walked into class the day of the final exam and said, “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he walked out.

The result, according to Cowen?

I would say that the variance of the test scores probably increased! I don’t recall if I ever did that again for a whole exam but most of my exams do that for at least one question.  It’s the question where you learn the most about the student.

With exam season now upon us, I’ve been mulling this over. I suspect the Birkbeck exam scrutiny panel wouldn’t like Cowen’s approach, but I think it could have real value. It would at least be a nice change from the usual drudgery of wading through 10 or 20 or even 50 answers to exactly the same question.

More to the point, it led me to think about some of the more unusual exam questions I’ve encountered over the years. The only one that strikes me as unconventional is one from Cambridge a few years ago for the early modern British social and economic history survey module:

Were any women and men practising witchcraft in early modern England?

Although it might not seem especially strange to a historian of the period, I suspect that laypeople would be alarmed to hear that Cambridge students were being examined on the existence of witches.

Do you have a favourite (or hated) history exam question?

[Update (15/05/13): Kate Beaton, creator of ‘Hark, a vagrant’, offers an Elizabeth I quiz and a 1066 quiz that include such key questions as ‘Whither the Armada?’ and ‘How much Conquering is too much Conquering?’]


10 thoughts on “Examining the question and questioning the exam

  1. I hate every exam question that ends with “Discuss”. A. I’m in an exam and obviously going to be using that time to write for you Lord Examiner. By default, if I am not discussing, I will fail. B. Seeing the word conjures an image of intelligent academics standing around a bullpit, then releasing that bull, and watching how well I manage to avoid its horns.

    • Especially because if all you do is ‘discuss’ the question, you’ll probably do very poorly. We want a strong argument, not a ‘discussion’.

      Question 1: ‘Frequently the more trifling the subject, the more animated and protracted the discussion.’ (Franklin Pierce). Discuss.

  2. Ah yes – the ‘please don’t answer this’ witchcraft question. I groan when I see that everyone has flocked to the ‘To what extent did patriarchal theory determine gender relations’ question. It is not that it is always badly answered, but I must have marked hundreds of very similar responses in my time marking. It is hard to say something original. Is there an inherent advantage for students in going for a less often answered question? It surely garners some good will from the examiner at least….

    • This is a really interesting issue, that I’ve often mulled over! Why is it that you often get a dozen weaker answers on one particular question, and then a couple of great ones on something different? Does it say something about the students, the questions, or your own perceptions and prejudices? Some topics I think are seen as ‘safer’, perhaps because they are more neatly circumscribed (in my view Mary I is the classic example for English reformation papers), but there can still be excellent answers on those topics too. I wonder if searching for interesting patterns is just the brain’s way of dealing with the tedium of exam marking…

  3. There was a story that did the rounds in Cambridge ten years ago about an essay someone wrote in the Historical Argument and Practice exam (one essay in 3 hours, picked from a list of 30 titles or so). One year one of the questions was ‘We will bury you’. (Khruschev). Now this was obviously meant as a way in to discussing capitalism and communism. One undergraduate allegedly wrote an essay about the history of funerals, and got a first from one marker and a third from the other…

  4. From a friend: ‘A favorite question of one of my supervisors was “What was more important, the Reformation, the Renaissance, or the Scientific Revolution?” And the (postgraduate) student had 4 hours and full access to their notes, books, and internet to answer.’

  5. From Steve Hindle:
    Cambridge Historical Tripos, part I, June 1985
    “General Historical Problems” Paper
    Answer one question in 3 hours
    Q54 (of 54 on the paper). ‘Why, in general, have the English not eaten horses?’

  6. Tyler Cowen is not alone. I remember as an UG, Michael Bentley set an exam (on modern historiography) with this in lieu of a Question 8:

    ‘Write your own question and answer it’.

    One of the many reasons we all loved that unit.

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