Exam howlers: to share or not to share

Is it fair to laugh at students’ mistakes? Anger at THE’s annual exam howlers competition has generated a wave of self-published mistakes

July 2, 2015
Spelling mistake/typo pinned to corkboard

Since well before the arrival of social media, Times Higher Education readers have sought to lighten the mood during exam marking season by sharing some of the more amusing typos and malapropisms that find their way into students’ work.

Our annual “exam howlers” competition always attracts plenty of entries, with the humorous errors of recent years including Stalin’s creation of a “buffet zone” in Eastern Europe, and cooking instructions that include “genital mixing” as part of the process.

Not everyone finds the competition amusing, however. Is it fair to poke fun at such mistakes, even if the perpetrators are anonymised? We have discussed the issue openly on our pages before – most notably in a 2011 article entitled “Should we laugh at student howlers?”.

In that article, Katie Alcock, then a lecturer in the department of psychology at Lancaster University, writes that “anything to make the endless pile of papers a little easier to bear” should be welcomed. “Sharing exam howlers keeps us sane. Academics have huge numbers of scripts to mark and we need a little light relief,” she says.

She acknowledges that many find it “disrespectful to share spelling errors when some students can’t help making them”, but points out that those who do share howlers “are generally careful to avoid sharing egregious spelling errors”.

“We enjoy laughing at the ridiculous notions that students produce, but we know that in reality the laugh is on us,” she writes. “We are the ones who taught them and did not manage to get our point across.”

However, last week, Twitter users who take exception to the competition made their voices heard. The #myownexamhowlers hashtag was established by University of Glasgow researcher Johanna Green (@Codicologist). In defiance against THE’s decision to publish student howlers submitted by academics, people all over the world began tweeting their own errors, on their own terms.

The Glasgow scholar collated many of the tweets on a Storify blog and there were also multiple tweets calling for THE to cover the hashtag in its pages.

The #myownexamhowlers tweets were many and varied.

Amber Regis (@AmberRegis), a lecturer in 19th-century literature at the University of Sheffield, confessed to writing about “Lord Bryan instead of Lord Byron”, while Jon Dean (@JonDeanSHU), a lecturer in politics and sociology at Sheffield Hallam, “wrote about homeless men entering brothels, because I thought brothel meant soup kitchen, eg giving out broth”.

Melanie Simms (@SimmsMelanie), professor of work and employment at the University of Leicester, recalled writing a “whole essay about the Miner’s Strike. One poor lone miner... A sad image!”, and historian Charlotte Riley (@lottelydia) described how autocorrect had once “‘helpfully’ removed the ‘repeated word’ from every iteration of ‘Mau Mau’”.

Meanwhile, Sara Read (@Floweringbodies), a lecturer in English at Loughborough University, said she made “repeated references to Samuel Pepys’s famous ‘dairy’” in one piece of work – an error that was “only just spotted by a friend in time for thesis submission”.

More of the #myownexamhowlers tweets can be found online.

Chris Parr

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tesglobal.com


Article originally published as: THE Scholarly Web (2 July 2015)

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