Failing: a taxonomy of techniques

Not having posted anything for a while, it must be time for another excursion into the minds of the next generation of professionals and experts. Having spent the last month marking assignments, tests and exams, I present to you the following valuable categorisation of failure:

The Rainman: The student furnishes you with one or more curious diversions — simple facts or short calculations — that, in spite of being essentially correct, are hopelessly and obviously beside the point.

The Salad: A mashed-together assortment of words and phrases used in the lectures, often completely backwards and demonstrating a level of understanding lower than that of someone who hasn’t taken the course at all.

The List-o-Matic: A more readable (but no less fanciful) variant of the Salad, in which the random assortment of words and phrases are at least arranged in a convenient bullet-point list. This is sometimes (but not necessarily) employed in the dying seconds of a test or exam when any last hope of coherent thought has long vanished.

The Auto Prompter: In an open-book test or exam (whether restricted or not), an answer copied verbatim from the lecture notes. This tends to stand out when employed by more than one student for the same question.

The Zombie: A non-textual answer (e.g. a calculation, diagram or code listing) based on a superficial, mechanical understanding of some procedure (or perceived procedure), motivated by complete incomprehension of the question and in fact much of the course, and facilitated by the mindless appropriation of whatever random disconnected pieces of information happen to be lying around.

The Motherhood: An overenthusiastic attempt to heap blind praise upon the concepts raised in the question with a slew of sickly, vacuous adjectives.

The Speech: A generally well-written essay constructed based on keywords found in the question, incorporating many of the essential points outlined in the lecture notes, but in which the student has not apparently noticed either (a) what the question actually was, or (b) that it was worth 5 marks out of 100.

The Demonstration: A non-textual version on the Speech (e.g. a calculation or diagram). The student demonstrates great proficiency in deriving a solution that was (a) not asked for, and (b) considerably more difficult to derive than the correct answer.

The Metaphor: Something bizarre and irrelevant, having inexplicably drifted into the student’s consciousness, has been seized upon in desperation as an explanatory device.

The Square Peg: An answer that the student is determined to make fit the question, despite seeming to realise — and sometimes explicitly complaining — that it just doesn’t. This differs from the Zombie, Speech or Demonstration in that the student apparently does appreciate the nuances of the question, and merely refuses to comply with them.

The Hammer: The student possesses exactly one recognisable piece of knowledge, and is determined to use it to answer every single question. The student’s level of awareness of any question here is impossible to determine.

The Relapse: An answer that begins on-topic, with strong hints of a solid understanding, but abruptly halts in a piece of reasoning so monumentally stupid that it wipes out any hope of redemption. See also: the Arse Cover.

The Rabbit Hole: An answer predicated on a misunderstanding of everyday life that no functioning member of society could plausibly have made.

The Deluxe Padding: An embryonic answer — “yes”, “disagree”, etc. — wrapped in layer upon layer of paraphrased versions of the question, apparently calculated to fill up all the space.

The Arse Cover: A mutually contradictory double answer, perhaps intended to demonstrate as much rote knowledge as possible while alleviating the need to apply cognition in pursuit of the correct answer. At least one of the two alternatives, of course, is completely wrong, and the other seldom makes up for it.

The Prayer: A heartfelt plea for leniency, often incorporating some awkward details of the student’s personal circumstances. This often appears as an annotation to another answer that is itself inevitably hopelessly wrong. This only serves to demonstrate that the student is well aware of their own impending failure.

The Confession: The student has finally cracked, and pours forth a brutally honest assessment of their own ineptitude. This is often accompanied by The Resignation.

The Resignation: An artistic depiction of any incidental concept from the question, or previous questions, or anything within visual range of the exam venue. No relevance is intended. This simply serves as a distraction for the student from their own situation.

1 thought on “Failing: a taxonomy of techniques

  1. Re. the Arse Cover — in one particular class in high school, our multiple-choice tests were marked with the well-known “piece of card with the answer key punched out” device. The card is placed over the completed test and the marker can scan for correctly ticked choices.

    One student handed in a sheet with every single option on every single answer ticked, and got a perfect score. He got away with it until the very moment the teacher handed the tests back weeks later.

    Also, I have a few pictures of some stellar examples of ‘The Resignation’ I should show you some time.

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