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I'm curious about the pros/cons of including extra flavor text in quiz/exam questions.

For example, which would be better?

  1. What is the product of this reaction?
  2. The following molecule is found in a marine plant species, and has shown to inhibit cancer cell growth. One possible reason is due to the following reaction of this molecule. Provide the correct products of the reaction.

I've jumped back and forth between the two options. One on hand, I think it is beneficial to have students learn to parse text to determine important pieces of information. On the other hand, am I primarily interested in their passage reading skills or the content of the course (I realize the answer could be both)?

I also want to consider english language learners in this. Does it make things more equitable for students if there is less text to process through to get to the "actual" question?

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    At the students really going to be learning anything during the test? The time for learning is class or at home, not during the test IMO... – user9646 Feb 21 '18 at 19:37
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    @NajibIdrissi Very true observation :) – J M Feb 21 '18 at 19:45
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    I'm not a molecular scientist, but would knowing it's a molecule found in a plant and/or inhibiting cell growth prompt a student to use a different method for finding the product? – Azor Ahai Feb 21 '18 at 20:39
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    @Azor-Ahai It has zero bearing on solving the question, which is why I described it as "flavor text" – J M Feb 21 '18 at 20:49
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    @JM Thanks for clarifying - "flavor text" isn't exactly a standard term. – Azor Ahai Feb 21 '18 at 20:50
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tl;dr- Questions loaded with extra information can be great on homework, but exams should have more concise question statements.


Exams should avoid extra wordiness since it's extra work being put on-top of students who may already be under stress from activities outside of the class. Additionally, more distractible students might get side-trekked by the additional information.

For homework assignments, questions with extra content could be awesome! I'd stress that the extra content should be real; for example, if the question's

The following molecule is found in a marine plant species, and has shown to inhibit cancer cell growth. One possible reason is due to the following reaction of this molecule. Provide the correct products of the reaction.

, then the depicted molecule should be a real one actually found in marine species and shown to inhibit cancer cell growth. Real examples like that can help build students' general knowledge, while fake examples can pollute their knowledge base with misinformation.

The other issue is that wordier question statements can create interpretation issues in which there's more ambiguity over what information the instructor's looking for.

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It is always a good idea to offer authentic questions or tasks for assessment. So, if this additional information is authentic part of the problem, it is good to include it. For example, if you would put it in the Introduction section of your paper on the topic of the quiz, you can include it in the quiz.

However, from the reading point of view it makes it harder to process, particularly for language learners. Any unnecessary bits should be left out.

Ideally, you should find the right balance between these two contradictory factors.

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Other answers have mentioned reasons that this might not be a good idea. One way it could help some students is by triggering linkages in memory! For example, one of your students might think, "Wait a minute, this reaction inhibits cancer? I thought I remember reading about how Exemplar Acid kills cancer cells - maybe Exemplar Acid is one of the products?"

This is especially helpful when you want to test for or encourage students use of the material in real life. In real life, we usually get background information that can help us identify what a solution might look like. If we are building a bridge, we usually get quite a bit of information on performances of past bridges in the area, recommendations from other engineers who bid on the project, knowledge of local weather patterns, etc., rather than just a bare equation that we are expected to solve, transform, or optimize. Similarly, in a medical research context, knowing what the products accomplished may be very useful in hypothesizing what actually happened without having to spend time deriving from first principles.

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