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I came across a multiple choice exam paper where the professor had included a funny fifth option in almost every question. There was also a bonus question at the end, where students can earn 0.5 extra points for writing their own humorous multiple choice question.

It was the final examination of a bachelor-level course, though I have no reason to believe that the professor does not do the same in master-level exam papers as well.

For example, the fifth option for one of the questions was, “I don’t know, but a vanilla latte would be perfect right now.” Another one was, “Come one man, stop it with these lame jokes.” On a question regarding why someone might have a conditioned taste aversion to sushi, the fifth option was, “They certainly did not try sushi from [popular local sushi place].”

The exam papers I saw were those of students who had done well in the exam, and they seemed to appreciate the humor, since they provided their own funny question at the end for the extra 0.5 points. However, I did not get the chance to see the rest of the papers.

Also, the questions did not cause any disruption during the exam itself. No student was visibly laughing or trying to communicate with another student.

On the one hand, I myself find this hilarious and it seems others, including students, find it too. It might help lighten up the mood and ease anxiety during the exam.

However, I am afraid that it might be a distraction, especially since it was not a single joke but a running joke throughout most of the questions in the 33-question exam. Students might lose time reading these responses, or they may feel that the professor is belittling what is otherwise an important and serious exam for them. Is this, perhaps, unprofessional?

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    I think I'd be less worried about the jokes and more worried about what learning outcome, at the final stage of a bachelor's programme, could be validly assessed by a multiple choice test. – Daniel Hatton Mar 4 at 13:13
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    @user2768 Such exams usually have four options, so there is no simplification. – hb20007 Mar 4 at 13:32
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    For what it's worth, sometimes for major tests (50-minute entire meeting-time tests of which 3 to 5 are given per semester course) I gave in classes, tests that I was entirely responsible for writing the questions, after I came up with a reasonable assignment of varying point values for the problems (points assigned according to my perceived difficulty and importance of the problem), I would find the total to be something like 99 points or 98 points, and didn't want to change any of the point values I'd already assigned. (continued) – Dave L Renfro Mar 4 at 18:50
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    Instead of rescaling all the test scores to a 100 point scale when recording the results after grading the tests, I would just put a 1 or 2 point question at the end, something like "24. Write your name in the appropriate blank a the top right of the first page." (2 points) or "24. Circle the correct value for 1 + 1: (A) 0 (B) 1 (C) 2 (D) 3" (1 point) Of course, I told students about it (or put a note at the top of the first page) alerting them to the give-away question, or put a note on the blackboard), because otherwise some might not get to the very end and see the last question. – Dave L Renfro Mar 4 at 18:50
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    the professor had included a funny fifth option in almost every question --- Personally, having this two or three times would be funny (to me), but having this in almost every question would border on being nauseating (to me). – Dave L Renfro Mar 4 at 18:55
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I don't know the complete context, so can't say whether it is unprofessional or not in this instance. But it is dangerous in a multi-cultural situation. If I were sure that everyone taking the class shared the same overall context (cultural base, familiarity with the language....) then I wouldn't be worried about it, otherwise it seems very ill-advised. If you "get" the joke, then fine. But jokes often depend on language and cultural context. Some jokes are also racist or sexist, but I assume that these would be avoided.

My guess about the example you give is that the professor was really trying to reduce the number of viable options. In fact, that is usually recommended: one answer that is very clearly not correct.

But, another possibility is that the "jokes" somehow depend on some deep insight into the subject matter itself in order to work. That would be interesting and might require some research to judge, but I don't think there are many people who could manage to create such exams very often as it requires too much thought.

My suggestion to you is that you avoid such things unless you have a very deep understanding of both the subject and the students taking the course. Most of us have students with many backgrounds and what "works" as a joke in one context can be either confusing or insulting in another. Even if it is merely confusing, it will disadvantage some students. Just. Say. No.

Some students, thinking it were "just fun" might actually pick such an answer "just for fun". What is the instructor's grading strategy for such choices?


For the record, I'm not humorless and enjoy such subtle plays on language and such. But not for exam purposes in my field.

And, I'll also note that some such "jokes" appear on this site from time to time, and we get comments from people not understanding the intent.

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    "Some students, thinking it were 'just fun' might actually pick such an answer 'just for fun'. What is the instructor's grading strategy for such choices?" I don't think that ever happened since students who do not know the answer would probably guess one of the real options (there is no penalty for a wrong answer). If it did happen, then I assume it would be just as good as a nonanswer. – hb20007 Mar 4 at 14:32
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That is hard for us to determine. This could be a legitimate way to help students relax during the exam. The fact that the professor includes this at a fixed spot at the end of each question, that this seems to be an established tradition with students expecting this and being encouraged to participate in it, points in that direction.

On the other hand attempts at humor directed towards a large number of people in a context where you cannot easily defuse misunderstandings is risky.

So based on the information you have given us, it could be either.

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  • You are saying that it could be either. Assuming I am a professor who is interested in trying this out, what factors do you suggest considering in order to determine if it will help students relax or if it will cause misunderstandings? – hb20007 Mar 4 at 13:33
  • That is the wrong way around. The humor used this way is a method to solve a problem. So the starting point would be that I regularly administered an exam where I noticed that a substantial number of students did less well than they could because of anxiety. And I would consider various options, depending on the circumstances of that course. So you start with the problem and the circumstances and not with the method. – Maarten Buis Mar 4 at 13:44
  • I wouldn't say there's a problem per se. Anxiety is commonplace for many students during exams, and the particular course does not cause more anxiety than others. It's just an addition that might make things better for students, even if things don't need fixing at the moment. – hb20007 Mar 4 at 13:58
  • Humor is a very risky strategy, so I would not use this for routine problems. So it has it has to be an exceptionally stressful exam for many and other, less risky, strategies would not be as effective. – Maarten Buis Mar 4 at 14:08
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    At my college, the organic chemistry class was pretty high pressure, particularly for the pre-meds. Each year during the final, a plant would wait about 5-10 minutes into the 2 hour exam, stand up, proclaim’I can’t take this anymore’, and run out of the hall. This produced a wave of laughter and a general release of tension. That this would happen was well known, even to those like me who did not take the course. – Jon Custer Mar 4 at 16:53
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Is this, perhaps, unprofessional?

Yes, to the extent that students:

may feel that the professor is belittling what is otherwise an important and serious exam for them

Presumably this objection can be overcome by simply asking the students what they think!

Cultural issues have been addressed in other answers.

The other big concern is distraction. This depends on whether the situation was clearly explained to the students before the exam (which should be done anyway for the reasons discussed above). It also depends on the exam being consistently laid out, so students can train themselves to read everything that matters and nothing that does not. Consistency seems to be a problem, based on these quotes from the question (emphasis added):

I came across a multiple choice exam paper where the professor had included a funny fifth option in almost every question.

it was not a single joke but a running joke throughout most of the questions in the 33-question exam.

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