Monday, August 8, 2011

Exam Howlers

If you have ever taught and given any type of essay test, then you will recognize what I am talking about in this post.  Students sometimes come up with the most inadvertently funny answers on exams.  My all time favorite is in an essay discussing the Industrial Revolution, a student wrote, "The only thing to do before the Industrial Revolution were hand jobs."  Although the student meant manual labor, that is not what they said. Times Higher Education each year posts the THE's "exam howlers" competition. These are the "best" inadvertently funny answers that were given in the yearly exams in Britain.

Vicious substances and Nobel savages abound in this year's exam howlers

The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year's Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.

That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favourite mistakes and misunderstandings.

In a paper marked by Karen Devlin of the University of Hull, a student translated the phrase "pash of tallow" - meaning "head of wax" - in Seamus Heaney's poem Strange Fruit as "having a crush on a fatty substance".

Helen Steele, tutorial assistant at Swansea University, entered several howlers from a "Europe of Extremes" history module. According to one student, "the Sixth Army became trapped in a huge pocket during their attempts to take the city". Whether a tiny army or a rather large item of clothing was envisaged is not clear.  (I have to explain that a pocket is actually a military term, and the student quite possibly knew exactly what they were talking about on this one.--Joe)

Another, perhaps suffering the after-effects of one too many BBC costume dramas, confidently stated: "The third estate caused tension to arouse between the bourgeoisie and the nobles."

This was not the only example of inadvertent sexual innuendo.

Ann Wood, of the department of biochemistry at King's College London, had a student on a food science and technology course who advised using a "genital mixing action".

"I think the student meant 'gentle'," Dr Wood writes. "But it was wrong anyway."

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, was warned by one student that "premature ejaculation could be a touchy subject" in an essay on John Rochester's poem The Imperfect Enjoyment.

Two howlers gave life to traditionally strictly theoretical subjects.

Eileen Reid, widening outreach officer at the Glasgow School of Art, recalls marking an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau that referred to "Professor Nobel Savage".

And the student who simplified a subject by writing about it "in Lehman's terms" baffled Iain Woodhouse, senior lecturer in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, until he read the phrase aloud ("layman's terms" was intended).

Pity, too, the poor interviewing techniques of a man of the cloth cited in an exam paper marked by Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University, which said that "the priest killed her so he could get information from her".

David O'Connor, professor of microbiology in the Centre for Biological Sciences, University of Southampton, was party to the startling claim that a runny nose may be more to worry about than it seems, as "mucus is a vicious, thick substance".

While students have provided much merriment, it is to be expected that some academics take such errors as an affront to their skills as lecturers.

But after reading the statement that "American power is based on superheroes", Jason Dittmer, lecturer in human geography at University College London, lamented: "I clearly need to teach this material better."


fan of casey said...

Joe: As you know I love puns since they provide low brow humor but these howlers are unintentionally funny. I think part of it is laziness on students who rely too much on electronic spell checkers. One still must manually proofread writing. And some simply don't care because most times, a reader can figure out what the writer really wants to say by the context of the topic.

Jay M. said...

I used to help a friend grade her papers, and you'd be amazed at what 5 classes of Earth Science students could come up with! Honestly, it was pathetic.

Peace <3

Uncutplus said...

Though those howlers came from Britain, they can come from anywhere including the Deep South, USA.

A lady comes out from the gynecologist's exam room, and her friend asks her what the doctor said. "I'se got fireballs of the useless." It probably felt like fireballs coming from something useless, but what the doctor really said was -- "fibroids of the uterus."

JoeBlow said...

FOC: Proofreading is a lost art. No one wants to do it anymore. I know that even I miss things sometimes. I can't always be perfect, LOL.

Jay: Some of these answers are pathetic. Some just don't know and others simply don't care.

Uncutplus, you are so right. My mom used to have people come in her clinic saying that they had "very close veins" of course what they meant was "varicose veins." For many years my grandmother thought that Wal-Mart was Walmarks, that was before we had a Wal-Mart in our town. (You also have to realize that my grandmother only had an 8th grade (formal) education.

Jay M. said...

I need to start a professional proofreading service. I just sent a friend sometime like 25 mistakes on one technical web page...this is after finding FIVE HUGE typos in an email our Director of Technology sent to the ENTIRE staff today - unbelievable for someone who makes twice what I make - and three people in the office had to have them pointed out to them! ARGH!!!

Peace <3

JoeBlow said...

Jay, I know the feeling. I had to sit through a professional development seminar today on the importance of email etiquette and proofreading your emails. We were all bored out of our skulls.

Ace said...

I was doing some grading for a prof one time and I found some howlers of my own. I don't remember any of them off the top of my head, but they always cracked me up.

My roommate did grading for physics classes, and he found a lot of strange and hilarious math mistakes, like someone not being able to do basic subtraction right.

And in the English department I became known as the guy that would constantly insert sexual humor into his papers. I did it mostly to make writing them more fun for me and my profs. There was another guy who did the same thing with scat humor.


richard said...

This isn't quite fair, since there is a language barrier involved, but my favorite howler comes from an opera history class I taught to a room full of Korean singers. One of them began a plot summary for Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment with the stunning sentence "All the peasants of the Tyrol want to beat off the soldiers of France." She had no idea of the idiom she had used...

brotherdoc said...

I had a student write on a Western Civ essay exam question about the Wars of Religion in the 16th century that the dykes had saved Holland. Seeing in the mind's eye mobs of tough Dutch peasant women in wooden shoes storming into battle against the Spanish still makes me grin.
Hope you have a great school year, Joe!

JoeBlow said...

Ace, I always found that there are two things that can almost guarantee a good grade in an English class, incorporate sex and religion in a paper. One or the other will usually get you a B at least, but both are a guaranteed A, LOL.

Richard, it may not be fair, but it is hysterical. Besides, I have seen Frenchmen in uniforms, and I wouldn't mind "beating them off" either, LOL.

LOL, brotherdoc. Yeah, those dykes can be tough, LOL.

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