Home > Higher education in general > Tricky questions – why do we ask them?

Tricky questions – why do we ask them?

Asking tricky questions can be hazardous

XKCD (Randall Munroe)

Once I wrote this title, it reminded me of the brilliant xkcd cartoon (on the right). Although I enjoy talking about those ‘question-answer-truth-tellers-liars’ problems, this post doesn’t have anything to do with it.

I am going to write about exam questions which could be considered tricky. That kind of questions always made me feel uncomfortable – there are two reasons for that, depending on the motives of the person writing it:

1. People who ask those questions on purpose expect the students to find ‘the catch’ in it, and reduce the time needed for answering it, therefore giving the student enough time to solve other problems in the exam. So, ‘shoveling’ your way out of it may help, but it takes precious time.

2. On the other hand – the people who are not aware they are asking tricky questions (I see people asking tricky questions – they don’t even know the questions are tricky!) Those people inspired me to write this post. Imagine an exam, with a question worth 50% (and 50% is the threshold). The question is based on a simple physical law, which can be shown either by physical reasoning in 2 lines, or by pure mathematical reasoning – again, in two lines. But your TA expects a 2-page proof, and you know that he won’t take your perfectly logical solution based on the trick as correct.

Yes, I’ve written the long proof he wanted. But still, where is the sense in that?

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