I’m tempted to cut’n’paste my entry for 28 May 2011, written after marking a disastrous Literature quiz based on studying our handbook Introduction to English Literature. Yet, re-reading it, I notice that things are even worse this time around as, instead of 50 titles, the quiz covered only 20 –presumably those any self-respecting student of English should be able to identify by author and period. A colleague tells me that I should not write this entry as students might feel offended that I reproduce their mistakes here. Sorry, but in that case I must be cruel: these are not mistakes, they are something else that must be addressed urgently. Judge for yourself:

David Copperfield, by Charles Darwin (see also Sense and Sensibility)
Heart of Darkness, by John Connor (the hero of the Terminator series?)
Lord of the Rings, by, Lord Byron/ JK Tolkien (JRR Rowling?)
Middlemarch, by (literal): Brontë, the first one not Charlotte
Robinson Crusoe, by Oscar Twain from the Jacobean period
Sense and Sensibility, by Charles Darwin/ by Pope Alexander / by John Austen
The Time Machine, by Julio Verne (again??)
To the Lighthouse, by George Tenis
Wuthering Heights, by (literal) The Roberts: Charlotte, Anne, etc./ by Chatterine Brotën/ by Charlotte Wrontë / by The Brontës (in collaboration??)

For some strange reason, Thomas Hardy was named in possibly 70% of the exams as the author of A Passage to India. Some glorious misspellings include: Sheckespeare (no first name…) and Launance Stready… And what’s worse, much too often authors were named correctly but placed in VERY wrong periods. I could have dinner today, if I wanted to, with Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens.

Most students passed the quiz thanks to the second part, a multiple choice exam in which, I’m sure, luck had a share, big or small (as it is always the case with these exercises). In one extreme case a student passed with a 5 by scoring only 2/40 for the quiz and 48/60 from the multiple choice. Perhaps we need to correct that.

What worries me TERRIBLY is that the students’ imaginative quiz answers –and the many blank ones– reveal a WORRYING inability to study in a systematic way. The quiz is not what interests us but the process of preparing for it: we expected our students to draw their own charts, with periods and main authors. I know from the comments one of them made that they have problems discriminating between major and minor writers yet this one of the skills (or competences) they should be learning. As I wrote a year ago, the other worrying, not to say, SCARY factor is how the quiz results show that those approaching us lack the basic cultural capital a student of English should possess (and indeed acquire in the first year). Many of the quiz answers seemed to be shouting at us: ‘I don’t care, and you won’t make me care!!’ Or maybe, simply, I can’t make sense of so much raw data.
Food for thought…


  1. Sara, this reminds me of those sadly famous power points that circulate in the net, about terrific mistakes found in exams (of various disciplines). Are these answers from university students??

    I think I will comment your post in the literary meetings I participate in. Yes, food for thought indeed.

  2. Maybe the hard truth is, there are simply too many people trying to get a degree in English who should be doing something else. Alas, there’s strength in numbers, and our authorities and our atmosphere presuppose that most of these must indeed get their degree.

  3. When someone goes to the university, he or she goes to study, to learn something and what they need is a good professional that respects them and does well his or her job. The involvement of a teacher to transmit some knowledge is very important for a student. If you don’t have that implication, the results are what they are.

  4. per començar, et diré que em sembla una falta de respecte impresionant cap als teus alumnes publicar coses així al teu blog, fent mofa i reflexions d’aire altiu sobre les respostes que van posar a l’examen. està molt bé que els professors s’escandalitzin amb segons quines coses, perquè és cert que tant el nivell cultural com els coneixements dels alumnes d’avui en dia està caient en picat, però crec que més que fer una reflexió sobre aquestes respostes, fent burla i deixant als alumnes en ridícul, potser hauries de fer la reflexió mirant una mica el treball que fas tu i els teus companys perquè, no oblidis, que aquí els que ensenyeu i doneu l’assignatura sou vosaltres, els professors, i a vegades passa, que qui té la responsabilitat d’algunes coses és el docent. així que jo de tu, més que perdre el temps en fer entrades d’aquest tipus al teu blog, invertiria una miqueta més el temps en pensar què és el que esteu fent malament per a que passin aquestes coses i li posaria remei.

  5. Obviously, I’m NOT mocking my students, I’m calling their attention to how poorly they’re doing, despite the help and encouragement they’re receiving. They were given advice they did not follow and here are the results. I’ve tried all strategies, let’s see if appealling to their pride works. And tell me: what am I resonsible for? The good results of some or the bad results of some? I happen to be THE SAME TEACHER for all.
    By the way, I’m publishing this as a courtesy to those who may have felt offended but I don’t welcome anonymous messages.

  6. Dear Sara,
    I actually think that you should consider some different points when correcting our exams and judging our results:
    1. Most of us have other important subjects, as Usos Basics, Literatura Comparada, and so on, in which we basically win or lose the whole subject in 1 exam.
    2. That week, when you decided to do the exam, we had 4 more exams,which counted like..hmm…a 50%? a 100% of our final marks.
    3. We didn’t really use that book in class, except for the 2 last lessons, when we had to rush studying and find out what was going to happen in the exam. Even though you told us to study during the semester, it is absolutely obvious that if this exam was so important for you, then you should have worked with it during the whole semester.
    4. I, personally, thought: Okay, I’ve got 4 exams more, which are 40 times more important than this one, as the Quiz is only the 10% of the final mark. I’ve obtained really good results in the essays and exams, so, why would I waste my time studying for this, if I’m struggling with the other subjects? I would rather get a 40/100 in this one, passing the subject than getting a 4/10 as the final mark of another subject.

    From my point of view, if you really wanted your students to learn about all those authors and their work, you should have worked with that during the lessons instead of showing us how to write an essay, as we already know how to do so (not all of us, but then again, that is none of my business). I, personally, found some of the lessons a little bit useless as we kept reading novels, something we could’ve done at home.

    Anyway, I hope you understood my point of view, I never meant to be disrespectful or offensive.
    Thank you very much,
    Kind regards,

  7. Thank you for the feedback.
    The quiz per se is not important for us, what is important is making sure that students increase their general background knowledge about Literature and culture – that’s its function. If students lack the skills to accumulate this information, we’ll try to provide them. It’s important to realise, though, that not all you should learn must be part of the classroom activities, and that we’re not responsible for a good part of your education. I have often said that what goes on in the classroom is 10% of what a student should do and I stand by that. Studying for the quiz is part of your independent work and, believe it or not, the exams how that much more close reading is needed.
    I’ll certainly bear you point of view in mind and I’m satisfied that although it was not the best strategy my posting has brought a response I would not have got otherwise.

  8. An interesting exchange, which proves that anonymous messages, even if they are annoying to those of us who sign with our own names, may have some value too, especially when they are polite and well-reasoned. But still, long live people who dare speak out without masks on their faces.

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