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Begging for hints on tests

  1. Sep 10, 2008 #1


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    Staff: Mentor

    When I started teaching physics about 25 years ago, students rarely (if ever) asked me for hints or help on doing problems on my tests and exams. They understood that they could ask for clarification if I hadn't written something clearly, but that was as far as they tried to go.

    But then during the 1990s I started to get more and more questions like this, and now it's a routine occurrence, even though I state a "no hints" policy on the first page of all my tests! Is this a local thing (caused maybe by one of my colleagues being overly generous), or is it a general phenomenon? Has this become a common practice in high schools, and it's filtered upward?

    I'm at the college / university level in the USA. Maybe this varies in different parts of the country, or in other countries.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 10, 2008 #2
    When I was an undergrad we had two professors that were otherwise excellent, but would very regularly solve the entire problem for you regardless of the level of clarification you asked for. The reputation didn't really carry to other professors, but the idea that you could wrangle the solutions without knowing the material definitely stuck with some students. I don't really have any other specific knowledge that maybe the instinct came from high school or was geographically related; just my little anecdote.
  4. Sep 10, 2008 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    My perception is that Institutions increasingly view students (and/or their tuition-paying parents) as 'clients', with all the foul-smelling connotations that go along with that. Students and parents have picked up that scent, and buy into it- the act of attending school has become increasingly connected with essentially 'buying the degree' and increasingly disconnected from the transfer of knowledge.

    Students demand more and more non-scholarly support from institutions, and institutions have been too happy to provide whatever is asked, often under pretense for increasing the ranking of the school.

    I suspect what you are experiencing is a symptom of this underlying problem.
  5. Sep 10, 2008 #4


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    I do think part of it is a carry-over from other instructors (high school teachers, first year professors, etc) being too lenient, and students getting used to it. However, I think some professors also bring it upon themselves by caving into it rather than setting clear boundaries.

    I say this because in BOTH of the courses I'm teaching this term, the other instructors warned me that students will whine, complain, and otherwise try to weasel out answers from the instructors during the exams. We just gave our first exams, and for much of the exam period, I was alone in the room with the students (these were two-part exams, half practical and half written, so the other instructors were busy with the other part of the exams). Both course coordinators were shocked that there really weren't any questions. But, I had been already bracing the students for this during the classes leading up to the exams, anticipating this problem. I gave them clear examples of what kinds of questions I could answer for them, and what I couldn't. For example, I told them that on the practical part of the exam, they could ask for clarification of what the tags were on by asking things like, "Is the tag pointing to this or this?" and they could point to what they meant. On the written part, I told them they could ask if there was a potential error in the question, such as a spelling error or two correct answers. I told them they could not ask questions like, "Can you define this term?" or "Are you asking us to identify the vein or artery?" because answering those questions would give away answers on the test. When test time came around, a couple students tried fishing for answers, and I simply held firm, answering repeatedly with, "That's what we're testing your knowledge of, so I can't answer that question for you," or some variant of that. If they asked for a definition, I would answer, "It's the definition used by your textbook."

    On the other hand, I also have an advantage many instructors don't have. I teach students in professional programs, so they all have board or licensing exams to take eventually. I can explain that there won't be any leniency on board exams, or that my toughest questions are much more like the board exam they need to prepare for than my easy questions.

    So, yes, students will take every advantage they can get if they can get it. The best defense is consistency. They are much more worried about a classmate getting an unfair advantage than that you're refusing to give any of them answers to questions.
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