I'm wondering about the use of word problems on exams which are "cute": they have a slightly funny story, or some sort of pop culture reference, or tie into a running theme of some kind. (As an example of the last category, I recall hearing about a professor who was, or at least professed to be, obsessed with some animal, perhaps a porcupine, and routinely gave word problems in which porcupines were the main actors.)
Some advantages are:
- Many students seem to enjoy them (I know I did when I was a student).
- They can provide a small break from the monotony and stress of an exam.
- They can make a problem more memorable and get students to read it more carefully. (For instance, the one time I did this in a class, students asked about the "Indiana Jones problem" from the rest of the quarter.)
Some concerns are:
- They may unfairly disadvantage students who aren't native speakers
- They may distract students (especially weaker students) from the essential information (for instance, a sufficiently nervous student might not realize an unfamiliar pop culture reference is purely fluff)
- Students who dislike the class may be further annoyed by the apparent frivolity
Some questions (closely related enough, I hope, to count as a single question):
- Is there any actual research on the effect of such questions on student performance?
- Am I missing important benefits/problems?
- Does anyone have useful anecdotal evidence in favor of or against such questions?
- Does anyone have tips for using such questions in a way which avoids those concerns? (In particular, I don't think kinds of problems I'm talking about are equally problematic.)