Sunday, November 30, 2008

Poorly Structured Exam Questions

For engineering exams, I absolutely hate poorly structured exam questions, particularly questions that have a heavy weight. It is my opinion that such questions serve little purpose.

Before I proceed to expound upon my views, allow me to more clearly describe the item of my ire. Poorly structured exam questions are exam questions that only contain 1 main question (no sub-items), and yet have a considerably high weight assigned to it. For example, "Describe how XYZ can be ZZZ. [25 marks]" is one such problem. Such questions require the student to perform certain tasks, but do not clarify what exactly is required of the student.

Now, imagine a hapless student attempting to address such a question. Given such an ambiguous problem, what can the student do? He has no choice but to adopt the safest approach, which is to construct an answer that is as foolproof as possible. The result is a voluminous answer, which is comprehensive but also largely irrelevant.

It puzzles me to learn that markers of exam scripts often have reference marking schemes, which detail which points are correct, and of the proper score to assign to those points. If there is already a set of criteria which the examiners are looking for, why should the criteria be kept secret? What harm would it pose to give students an idea of what answers are required?

It would be infinitely easier to properly structure the question into smaller and more detailed parts, or to provide a clear description of which points or areas should be discussed in the answer. Adopting such actions would clearly reduce the amount of irrelevant material in the answers. It would also be easier for the markers to mark the exam scripts. A mutually beneficial scenario, in other words.

It is my opinion that poorly structured exam questions are the mark of a lazy problem setter. However, such laziness does not go unpunished, since the same setters would have to suffer the large volume of inflated answers that is a direct consequence of their laziness.

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