Best Wank and Gaza: this year’s top exam howlers

Rebecca Attwood looks at the student bloopers that reduced their tutors to tears

August 27, 2009

William Spooner - he of the spoonerism - would have been proud.

The egregious errors that prompted academics' happiest - and most worrying - moments during weeks of marking have been flooding in for Times Higher Education's "exam howlers" competition.

Alongside classic cases of catachresis, marvellous malapropisms, and terrifying typos, this year's entries include students who confused science with folklore, conflated famous figures who lived centuries apart, and came up with startling new interpretations of great literary works.

The "Google generation" finds it hard to imagine life before the world wide web, it seems. A student of Leo Enticknap, lecturer in cinema at the University of Leeds, explained that a political group "used the internet to publicise their cause, just like the French Resistance did during the Second World War".

On the other side of the pond, when David Null, an emeritus professor at California State Polytechnic University, asked his class to write about the person they most admired, he was impressed to receive an essay on Martin Luther.

It turned out to be a mishmash of facts about a 16th-century Protestant reformer, who miraculously also managed to head up the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, some four centuries later.

Meanwhile, a biology student spent an entire paper telling Kevin Reiling, from the Faculty of Sciences at Staffordshire University, about the science of gnomes.

"It took me a while to realise she was referring to genomes," Dr Reiling remarked.

Be prepared: several of this year's entries are rather lewd.

We all know that Shakespeare can be bawdy, but even Peter Smith, reader in Renaissance studies and an expert on the playwright at Nottingham Trent University, was surprised by this explanation of a passage from King Lear.

The Fool's remark that "thou madest thy daughters thy mothers; for ... thou gavest them the rod and puttest down thine own breeches", means "King Lear pulled down his trousers and gave his daughters the rod", apparently.

In a similar vein, Dr Enticknap was told about a film being made undercover "to draw attention to human rights abuses in the Best Wank and Gaza".

Sometimes mistakes uncannily reflect the feelings of the examiner.

When a finalist's commentary on a medieval French poem said that "all of the sentences end in a coma", Emma Cayley, senior lecturer in French at the University of Exeter, thought: "Yup, that's pretty much how I felt marking it, too."

Finally, Charles Booth, a reader at the University of the West of England's business school, came across a frank admission from a candidate who managed to produce a six-line answer to a two-hour examination consisting of two essay questions.

The final sentence read: "If this exam was a film, it would be called Total Retake."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

More exam howlers

A student at the University of Brunel told Gareth Dale, senior lecturer in politics and international relations, that the United States had the most powerful and advanced military in the world, possessing "highly-developed and powerful marital equipment".

Another misquoted Thomas Hobbes, explaining that the English philosopher believed "people in the state of nature were nasty, brutish and short". Hobbes was in fact referring to "life", rather than "people".

Asked about the British electoral system in an exam, a first-year politics student at Royal Holloway, University of London, told history lecturer Rene Wolf about a system called "first parcel post".

A student who conducted a research project in a local school stressed the role of "pier-support mechanisms" and the importance of carrying out inquiries in a "friendly manor" to Andrew Osbaldestin, the University of Portsmouth's head of maths.

When David Null, an emeritus professor at California State Polytechnic University, showed members of his class a film about a boy found in a forest in 1797, several thought they had watched a documentary about recent events.

"The fact that there are no automobiles or electricity in the film did not shake one student's belief that the film was a recent documentary. He explained that he had never been to France and assumed it was just a very backward place," Professor Null said.

Meanwhile, John Wilson, placements tutor at the University of Central Lancashire, was asked for a reference via the following message: "Will you please be a referee for a job for which I am appalling?" The student in question wants to be a teacher.

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