The Philosophy of Answering Exam Questions

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My semester exam’s last day roughly a month ago concluded my eleventh grade (I live in Indonesia, so grades may differ from your country). I had lots of thoughts during the week, but studying kept me away from my journal, so I’ll start writing right now.

It’s interesting that as I worked through the exams, I gained some life lessons and joy especially when dealing with tricky and thought-provoking questions. So I decided to express that in a sort of list, hence the title, ‘The Philosophy of Answering Exam Questions’.

Keep in mind that these are completely my own experience and rather subjective thoughts, affected by my own educational environment, which might differ from yours. Still, you might find something interesting or relatable to you, especially if you’re a fellow student.

1. Trap Answers

One multiple choice calculus question showed me a quadratic function and stated, “The graph of the function (which is a parabola) never goes down within these intervals.” Out of five options, the first one stated the interval when it only goes up, and the second stated the interval when it goes up including the peak.

Most of my classmates who rushed to answer it picked the first option. They assumed that “never goes down” exactly means “goes up”. While it’s true, however, you’d want to be cautious and remember that the (tangent of) peak of the graph neither goes down nor up. That means the answer was the second option, which most had overlooked.

Takeaway: never solve your problems in a rush. What seems correct in common sense might not satisfy logical sense.

2. Lecture-referenced Questions. Really?

When my teacher handed out the calculus scores, I got one answer counted wrong. It was odd since I was a hundred percent sure of it. I went to contact my teacher to clarify the thing. Surprisingly, it was the trap answer where I got it wrong.

It turned out that she intentionally set the trap answer (although I could no longer call it a trap) to count as correct, since she knew most students wouldn’t be aware of it. Why? Simply because she haven’t completed the lecture in our class! I managed to study it ahead on my own, so that was an exception. But really, if I were her, I’d rather use the word “goes up” and not “never goes down” to avoid this when describing the question’s premise I talked before.

Takeaway: nevertheless, standardization in school system often sucks. But it is what it is, and so is life. We live in a standardized society and often are expected to execute things the way the majority does. While you try to survive in it, don’t forget that you don’t always have to walk the same path as others. Believe in yourself.

3. It’s Completely Fine to be Bothered by Your Mistakes

It might confuse some of you as to why imperfect scores bug the so-called “ambitious students” (perhaps including myself), even if it was like my one-missed-answer (although it wasn’t really a miss) calculus exam. Isn’t it enough? Why so ungrateful?

Well, it’s not about the grades. It’s for the fact that we assume we have not fully understood the topic that it hinders us to get the answer correct. Why? Because we believe even the simplest mistake could be fatal in many areas of life. We project our exam questions as if it was real life encounters, even crucial ones that our lives are at stake. And I don’t think it’s the worst mindset, anyway.

Takeaway: nobody is perfect. But we’re undoubtedly trying to learn and face our lives the best. It’s completely fine, even needed, to feel bugged, upset, or mad at our mistakes. But surely not too long so we can move on and do better tomorrow.

4. Do We Really Need to Choose One?

As we talked about answering exams as projection of real life decisions, sometimes it’s just nearly impossible to be sure about our answers. Why? Because there are simply more than one correct answer, but we can only choose one. Therefore I find multiple choice questions efficient (oh, at least it saves a whole lot amount of time for teachers) yet ineffective since it lacks students’ creativity and narrows their minds.

It was a biology test. A question got me stuck since two of the five options stated pretty much equally true facts. I recalled my text book emphasized the first statement, so I picked that one. When the score was handed out, it revealed a mistake or two on my answers, so I went to my teacher to discuss it. She argued the answer key (to the problem I was stuck in) was the second statement.

It turned out, however, that both statements were correct. It was just my teacher seemed to be using different references from me (I find different text books or resources sometimes cover things differently, either due to the perspective or emphasis, especially in fact-based subjects such as biology, so that was not unusual).

Takeaway: different biology textbooks talk differently, and so are we. We have different perspectives, and none is more right or more wrong than the other.

5. Erroneous Questions and How to Handle It

It was multiple choice math exam on my previous semester. My answer wasn’t among the options, though I had no doubt at all. I reported the issue to the supervising teacher, but didn’t get any further confirmation.

A senior who sat next to me seemed to notice my problem. She took a peek at my question sheet, did some quick scratches, and got the same answer as mine. She suggested that the question was most likely mistyped. “Think what the question maker most likely had intended to type, and see which one matches any of the options,” she whispered. I didn’t recall if I managed to figure it out, but it was at least a pretty good advice.

Takeaway: it’s pointless to answer erroneous question just for the sake of grades. But it reminded me that as my question maker’s intention didn’t turn out to be typed correctly, sometimes people’s good intention don’t deliver well too. So let’s not poorly judge anyone.

6. Perfectionism and the Deadline

We were given an hour to wrote an essay for English exam. I jotted down my thesis, hit the web to gather resources, wrote and organized my paragraphs, picked appropriate vocabs, perfected everything, and it was only a minute left until the time’s up. I finished the text, only to realize there was one more assignment left (there were two parts of it)! I ended up submitting it 19 minutes past the deadline (we were working online from our homes, so no one stopped me when I was running out of time). Thank God it was not rejected.

Takeaway: deadline is an actual death line for perfectionists. To all fellow perfectionists out there, remember: strive for completion, not perfection.

7. Keeping Your Mind Open

An arts exam questioned us, “… which of the following regions resemble the centers of culture development in West Java Province?” followed by list of towns and cities, some of which are the answer(s).

I recalled my history text book said that the second town was the place the Netherlands first landed on to invade our nation. So I argued somehow both nations’ culture mixed, thus developing the overall culture!

Such chaotic way of thinking it was, and I know I suck at arts and history. It even turned out that the town I chose was not even part of the province in question. But it was fun to think about, and that — keeping your mind open and creative — is exactly the basics of learning.

Takeaway: it was a poor experience, but it implies that one of the most fundamental in studying is to connect facts, concepts, and ideas that you’ve learned, even between subjects. It makes studying fun, too.

8. Why Do We Answer (Exam) Questions?

Now here’s the ultimate question: ever asked why exam questions are asked that way? How are you supposed to answer the questions? Why are you being asked by these questions?

Physicists would’ve never made this far developing our knowledge of the universe if it weren’t for their mere curiosity. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we here for? We always seek for answers. Curiosity lies beneath every human’s soul. Curiosity gives us reason to live. Curiosity shapes us, humans.

Sadly, as knowledge and technology become more and more advanced and practical, we are often times caught up with much trivial things. Students study relentlessly to ace their grades among the ranks, and adults work day and night to accomplish their given tasks.

Certainly, nothing is wrong with that. But viewing the world as these chunks of daily busyness, while it helps us progress further in life, can sometimes makes us forget the true purpose of our lives as a whole. We no longer care to ask questions or to seek answers, and we prefer to just do what we’re being told to. Our innate curiosity eventually vanishes. Our humanity and curious minds shift towards static world of automated beings.

Exams don’t just serve as a way to assess what students have learned. Exams, I believe, in its true form, is a way to fill us back up with questions and thoughts as we answer them. It is a way to bring back our curiosity. A way to bring us back, into true nature of humans.



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