Should we laugh at student howlers?

Is the Times Higher Education ‘exam howlers’ competition a bit of harmless fun, or unfair and offensive? Katie Alcock believes the joke is on teachers as well as their students and no one is any the worse for it, but Alice Bell finds little to smile about

August 11, 2011



Credit: Paul Bateman

Anything to make the endless pile of papers a little easier to bear

Sharing exam howlers keeps us sane. Academics have huge numbers of scripts to mark and we need a little light relief.

Each summer, with a sense of foreboding, we await the email warning us of exam scripts “incoming to the pigeonhole”. Well, some of them are in the pigeonhole. The rest are piled high on the table next to it, because 150 scripts x three exam questions (making 450 answers) do not fit.

They have to be marked and returned within a week. Given that there are only a limited number of ways to answer any given exam question, this means wading through a vast quantity of only slightly varied answers, many written by the proverbial spider dipped in ink. No wonder I need varifocals.

We tend to clutch at anything that breaks the tedium. My personal method is to reward myself for completing half, a quarter or even, in dire circumstances, 10 per cent of my current pile. I meticulously work out how many scripts I have to answer per day and reward myself when they are done. It is assembly-line work for academics.

Chocolate or (at the end of the day) beer work as treats, but we still need our on-the-job humour.

Some colleagues argue that it is disrespectful to share spelling errors when some students can’t help making them. It’s true that we were brought up not to laugh at those who genuinely find something difficult, and especially at those who have a disability - which dyslexia clearly is. Reproducing the spelling errors of those who have dyslexia is not big or clever.

But most of the exam howlers colleagues share with each other are not spelling mistakes. Yes, there’s the occasional mention of fishers (fissures) in the brain and I do like “genital mixing action”, the exam howler that won Times Higher Education’s annual competition last week. However, in my experience, academics are generally careful to avoid sharing egregious spelling errors. If I have a query from a student and I want to send the answer to all of the class, I often correct the student’s spelling. I know students are sensitive about appearing to ask daft questions, so I usually remove their name, too.

Instead, it is usually a complete failure to grasp a simple concept that has us crawling for the exit. The howlers we most enjoy are the ones that indicate some kind of twisted understanding or that a student is trying to get away without knowing anything. The spelling mistakes may be funnier to the general public, but it is the misconceptions that amuse colleagues.

I puzzled over a piece of printed-out coursework this year until I realised that the student had interpreted “double-spaced” as “press the space bar twice between words”. It was eye-straining, but also amusing when I worked out what happened. And students appear not to reread their writing, leading to leaps of logic that could be easily avoided without actual knowledge. “Childcare is a very new phenomenon,” one student wrote in an exam in my subject one year. It seems that we have been allowing our children to be reared by wolves for too long.

My favourite howler of the year is wonderfully generic and covers all possible bases. Insert this into your own paper at will: “This theory illustrates deficits in everything except some other things.”

Yes, we enjoy laughing at the ridiculous notions that students produce, but we know that in reality the laugh is on us. We are the ones who taught them and did not manage to get our point across. As a wise person once said, you have to laugh, or else you’d cry.

Katie Alcock is a lecturer in the department of psychology at Lancaster University.

Mocking mistakes is just smug - no matter how surreal they are

Academic silly season. Time to be overambitious about how much research we’ll get done, enjoy the relative quiet of campus and, of course, swap funny stories about the hilarious things those kids wrote in their exam papers.

Here’s my favourite “howler”. A student had momentarily forgotten the name of the social theorist they’d been studying and simply substituted “Professor Bumlick”. Apparently, it was a great essay: clear and thoughtful, tight on the ideas and historical events. Except it was about Professor Bumlick.

I can see why Times Higher Education tries to make copy out of these. It is a quiet time for news, too. But this competition makes me wince. It’s smug. It’s unfair. It’s offensive.

I also sympathise with academics who share howlers. I know it’s largely born of bitter humour, not triumphalism. You’ve worked all year to explain centuries’ worth of human knowledge to these people. Time and money have been spent. And they didn’t bloody listen. Moreover, as academics we’ve been trained to prize accuracy, so these howlers scream out at us. There can be something quite beautifully surreal about some of them. Plus, it’s a point in the year that can be very stressful. None of this excuses it, though.

I suspect we’re so quick to share mistakes in exams because exams are anonymous. Face to face, we wouldn’t be so cruel. Moreover, exams are a bit of a weird situation, especially today when most students are used to computers. I still think exams are useful, but we have to expect imperfections. University is a space where students can and should make mistakes. That doesn’t mean we should be lenient; just professional about the slips that inevitably turn up.

I also dislike the implication that marking is a chore. I enjoy it. At the very least, I see it as part of my job. It’s true that I prefer the formative assessment of mid-year coursework, and second-marking other peoples’ courses is tough, but I look forward to exam transcripts, too. There is something very final about an exam; a sign of what students have taken from a course. This is partly what makes the mistakes so depressing, but it is also the ultimate feedback for you as a tutor. That stupidity you’re laughing at? Well, it was the job of you and your colleagues this year to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly?

I admit my experience as a dyslexic student means I’m especially sensitive, much as I find my dyslexia a constant source of amusement. The winner of last year’s howler competition was a student writing “anus crimes” throughout their essay, instead of “heinous crimes”. I’m more than capable of that. I wouldn’t spot it for ages, but when I did, I would laugh.

Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality: they are all funny, at least partly, because of the odd mixed-up view of the world their slips throw out. Still, worrying that I might be laughed at for apparent stupidity has a chilling effect that makes me even clumsier in my articulation. I don’t want that passed on to any student.

So, the thing I like most about the Professor Bumlick story is that it’s the student who is taking the piss - drawing attention to their own forgetfulness but also laughing at the slightly odd things they’re asked to do at university (take exams, revere individual sociologists). Maybe exams aren’t the place for undergraduate humour, but at least this was a shared joke - they probably hoped the tutor would giggle too - not point and laugh.

Alice Bell is senior teaching fellow in science communication at Imperial College London.

Twitter ye not

THE’s exam howlers competition provoked a lively online debate. One blogger, Aikin, writes: “Teachers should have the disposition of caring for the intellectual health and growth of students; publicly sharing and taking pleasure in howlers is contrary to that.”

A Hack and a Grunt says: “It’s in bad taste - though I do love ‘in Lehman’s terms’ and the statement that mucus is a vicious substance.”

A third blogger, Colin, argues: “There’s something analogous to a doctor publishing anonymized pictures of patients in undress to make fun of the less-than-attractive physiques. But one might argue that for the howlers to be wrong, there must be some actual harm done by publishing the anonymized answers. I can’t see more than some private embarrassment.”

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