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Ambiguous test questions

  1. Jul 13, 2012 #1
    Do you guys have any strategies to deal with these? It seems that my professor will put oddly worded questions on the exam as a way of weeding out the B's from the A's, and these throw me off, as well as other questions that are very challenging with the same purpose. When I say challenging, his words are ''with what I presented to you in class, you would not be able to answer this question''.
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 13, 2012 #2
    Ambiguous or just oddly worded?

    If they're blatantly ambiguous I'd complain to someone..
  4. Jul 13, 2012 #3
    Can't really do much, even if you're going to complain you better hope everyone else is complaining or clearly it will look like you haven't studied.

    Professors putting oddly-worded questions in exams shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.
  5. Jul 13, 2012 #4


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    Maybe you could write on the test "I don't know what you mean", but that might not go down well...
  6. Jul 13, 2012 #5
    I've pointed out such things to teachers in the past and almost always been ignored. Even when they have agreed with me they refuse to reword the question. I think the whole point is they insist you think like they do just as some people insist everyone adopt their private definitions for words.
  7. Jul 13, 2012 #6
    My solution is: avoid their other courses. 100% effective (when possible).
  8. Jul 13, 2012 #7
    I think you mean weed out the B's from the A's, but I could be wrong. But do I read the last part right? The professor asks very challenging questions as a way of distinguishing between the A's and the B's. And you find fault with that?
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2012
  9. Jul 13, 2012 #8
    Yeah I also got kind of confused with that, but I think he misspoke himself and that he's simply complaining about "bad" questions. If not, I revoke my previous answer :)
  10. Jul 13, 2012 #9


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    I knew of a math professor who put an obscure, unsolved, problem (relevant to the course) on the final just to see how students would tackle it (and manage time). Mean? Perhaps. But it did select first for strategic problem solvers, and some partial work done on the problem was enlightening for the professor about the capabilities of his best students.
  11. Jul 13, 2012 #10


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    If a question is ambiguous, raise your hand and ask for clarification. If this isn't possible, make a note of the ambiguity on your paper and give it your best try.

    As for difficult questions, I believe they are a good thing. Most of the professors in the math dept. at my university put problems on tests that are intended to be just out of reach for most, if not all, of the students in the course. This allows the particularly talented students to stand-out from everyone else. It is much more satisfying to get an A or a B on a tests like these, in my opinion.
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2012
  12. Jul 13, 2012 #11
    I hate questions like that on tests, because you can know the material perfectly and still get it wrong because of the way the question is worded.

    If I were you and I encountered a question like that, I'd go ask the teacher to explain it. Tell him what you think the question means, and if you're right, you should be able to answer it. If you're wrong, have him elucidate it until you can repeat to him the question in your own words which allow you to get the right answer.
  13. Jul 13, 2012 #12


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    Is the rest of the class having the same problems? What subject is this?
  14. Jul 13, 2012 #13
    Let me give an example, we had a complex that reflected violet. It said to find the energy absorbed by the complex. It absorbs yellow because it is on the opposite side of the color wheel. Yellow is between 560-600nm. However, anyone who didn't use 580nm to find the energy of the crystal field split got the question wrong, even though yellow spans between those 40nm range.

    Second question, there is one asking if it takes less energy to go to a different type of d orbital, for one coordination complex K4[FeCN6] or something and the other one is K3[FeCN6]. So...I interpret this as going from Dxy to Dyz or something (this is crystal field theory question) as opposed to one going from Dyz to Dz^2. The CN is a strong field ligand, so the pairing energy is less than the crystal field split. On one of them, the bottom 3 orbitals were completely filled, and the top were empty. On the other one, the bottom 3 were full except 1 spot. So I said to myself it would take more energy for the electron to jump to the next level than for it to pair up, so I said the complex that paired up would be the right answer since P < Δ. However, his idea of a d-orbital was the 1st bottom 3 being a type of d-orbital, when the top 2 were another type.

    The word of interest here is ''type'' of d orbital, and I tried to argue that every box is a different type of d orbital (Dxy, Dyz, Dxy on the bottom and Dz^2 and Dx^2-y^2 on the top) which I think is fine, but he tried to claim the whole row is a type of d orbital.

    When I say challenging, his words are ''with what I presented to you in class, you would not be able to answer this question''. Nor is it in the book. It was a multiple choice for these parts, so people could have just been lucky with their selection. The above was free response

    I honestly think it's just an issue that my professor is not a native english speaker, so his questions can be worded the way he talks.
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2012
  15. Jul 16, 2012 #14
    It seems to me that ambiguously worded questions and difficult "weeder" questions aren't really the same thing. It's not unreasonable for him to expect you to study outside of class to get all the points on the exam, but it is unreasonable for him to expect you to read his mind, as he appears to be doing with things like the 580nm question. I would ask him if you get to a question like that if he can clarify the question or be more specific as to what situation he is describing.
  16. Jul 16, 2012 #15


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    I don't see why you have a problem with that. If you all agree the range is 560-600, and you want to use one "average" value, what is your justification for NOT using 580?

    No comment on the other question, it's outside of my knowledge range!
  17. Jul 17, 2012 #16
    Though you were right, I don't see how that could affect the answer in your question. All you need to know is the relative energy levels of the different d-orbitals, and then it doesn't matter what "type" they are once you know how the electrons fill them up and what the crystal field splitting energy is.

  18. Jul 18, 2012 #17
    Yes that is the average. What should have been done is to find the energy for yellow as 560nm, and then again as 600nm, and then give the range of energy. I think that would be a more satisfactory answer. But it does not seem like a poorly worded question to me?
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