Kobayashi Maru A-Level

Jun 6th, 2011 | Filed under Uncategorized

Apparently it’s newsworthy that a couple of exam questions posed to students taking a-levels (or AS equivalent) have, in actual fact, been impossible to answer. There are those who (quite rightly) are arguing that by posing an impossible question, students might have spent too much time on it, and it might have otherwise damaged their chances of performing well on the other questions. I have two words in response to that:

Kobayashi Maru.

Worth pointing out that I’m not a trekkie, but it’s a pretty valid parallel. I think it’s good that these kids were faced with questions to which a correct answer was not actually achievable. That happens in life from time to time – you’re faced with a problem that you simply can’t solve. How you deal with that is what’s important.

In the case of an exam that features a question that cannot be answered, that very fact tests two skills. The first is the ability to prioritise the answering of questions, to allocate a set time to each, and to keep to that. If a question worth 5% of the paper is impossible, and you spend more than 5% of your time on it to the detriment of other questions, you’re doing it wrong.

The second is the ability to recognise a problem that you cannot solve, and to accept that. One might argue that, far from spending no more than 5% of one’s time on the question, the goal should be to understand as quickly as possible that it’s impossible, and to move on with the minimum of delay. The faster you spot it, the more time you can have to spend on the questions that can be answered.

My a-level maths paper (or it could have been GCSE I guess) contained trick questions and everything – I say we should be doing more to baffle students, so as to really understand how their processes work.

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