The Dire Consequences of Teaching Ambiguity

"test" of dubious veracityRecently I came across this image on the Book of Faces (the book that makes you learn surprising and frightening things about people you thought you knew and now might not want to know. But I digress.) and number of people who seem to miss core issues that this image brings to a head surprises me. While for many this image shows a funny creative student who probably didn’t study and tried to get away with it; for me this test is an example of one of the reasons that many students struggle on admissions tests (and other standardized tests). It is also indicative of how enforced conformation to societal “norms” stymies our most creative thinkers. Yup, for me, this test is an indictment of not the student but the educational system that doesn’t properly train teachers or students. It’s an indictment of the refusal of many of those in power to look inward and acknowledge their own errors and flaws.

And for many students, especially our most vulnerable, this is indicative of the type of interaction that hurts their educational progress, stymies their growth, and ill-prepares them for future tests and future work. But don’t take my word for it, let’s breakdown what’s going on in this image.

Bad Testing Teaching Bad Habits

One core issue with this test is that it’s a horrible test. It’s full of ambiguity, assumptions, and imprecise language. (It’s full of random capitalization also, but I won’t bother with that now.) While there is a logic to expecting students in a class (I’m assuming this was “given” in a high school classroom) to make the assumption that each test comes with unnecessary and implicit instructions. Why would a teacher not simply ensure clarity by including instructions? A simple statement like “Please answer all of the following questions according to the previous week’s discussions and work in this class” , would add little or no time to the 12 minutes it took for this test to be developed. As it stands it seems that this smart and observant student answered the questions based on his own life experience rather than on classroom discussion and are entirely correct based on the (lack of) instructions provided. The kind of assumptions the author of this test makes create the further problem of training students to make assumptions instead of following explicitly given instructions. Once we’ve trained students to ignore specificity and answer questions based on assumed context it makes taking standardized test like the SAT, GMAT and LSAT exceedingly difficult because those tests value and explicitly tests specificity in use of language. After years of learning to ignore specificity, after years of being called a “smart ass” for calling attention to vague language used by adults, after years of being told you should “know what I mean”, how is a student to suddenly turn off all this to realize that now is the appropriate time to be persnickety?


The Blindness of Hubris

What does it mean that the grader, ostensibly an educator, rather than acknowledge that the student, at a minimum, has valid arguable points on almost all her answers? What does it say that the teacher has chosen to define as “creativity” the attention to detail displayed by the student? Does this use of creativity convey that creativity is something non-academic? Does this send this student the message that using words as God, Shakespeare and Webster intended is somehow wrong if some “authority” has chosen to use words informally (in formal settings).


If this is reflective of the practice and pedagogy of this teacher (and others?), how will students ever learn to distinguish their own faulty understanding from flaws in the question asked by teachers or errors in the worksheets (which are rampant and frustrating). What does this say about the arrogance of the teacher? Does this mean that this teacher refuses to be corrected and will be one of those who react negatively to any perceived challenge to their authority? Will this teacher be among those who punish, shame, and suspend children of color far more frequently than white children? If my child had submitted this test and gotten this grade, I’d have been forced to go to school to talk to the teacher. I’d fully expect the teacher to either modify the grade or give a valid explanation as to why he is right and my child is wrong (I could accept, “Akil, your child asked during the test and I told him to assume that every question said based on the chapter we’ve read”). My fear is that neither the reasonable explanation nor the acknowledgement of the tests flaws is common practice, but instead the common practice is that “you know what I meant” explanation, which leads students away from true learning and toward acceptance of the dictates of “authority.”


Fixing the problem

The fixes for this test are so simple it seems even a caveman could have done it, and it makes me question the reading comprehension skills of the author of this test (it also makes me hope that this is just another made up internet thing with limited basis in reality). A slight (?) rewrite of the test would yield a much better tool which would prevent Mr. Smarty Pants from being able to submit answers that he probably knows are technically correct while being socially suspect. Here’s my version of the test, with the questions I can understand rewritten.


revised bad Pre Test


And here is a bunch of other fun images where poorly designed test questions have allowed the smart asses to win.



3 thoughts on “The Dire Consequences of Teaching Ambiguity”

  1. I’m not sure if your response is meant to be satire. If it is, forgive me. (But it seems earnest.)

    This test is so obviously a fake. And yet you craft this rather serious critique of it and even go so far as to rewrite it to be a better test? C’mon.

    I generally agree with the points your making with respect to authentic assessment and pedagogy. But when levied against a hoax like this… it discredits you.

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