16
$\begingroup$

Sometimes, when preparing some calculus exams I try to have a "funny question" such as:

  1. T/F I love mathematics
  2. T/F Calculus 2 is easier than Calculus 1, ...

So my questions are:

  1. Do you think it is a good idea to have such questions in an exam?
  2. Can you suggest more questions like that?
$\endgroup$
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ For "I love mathematics," what is the "correct" answer? For "Calculus 2 is easier than Calculus 1," what is the "correct" answer? $\endgroup$ – Joel Reyes Noche Jun 10 '18 at 23:44
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ A teacher of mine included two funny question in our physics exam. E.G. "From which country is the quiz-platform Kahoot?" and "When was Kahoot founded?" We made presentations with Kahoot in our class, so it's a little bit relevant but most of my classmates including me were a little bit upset about these unserious questions in a serious exam. IMO exams are serious and it confuses even more, when there are funny questions. That's our society now xD $\endgroup$ – Féileacán Jun 11 '18 at 5:58
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ I once had an exam for which the individual questions' point values summed to 97, and rather than adjust them I decided to add a 3 point value to "correctly spelling your own name". Would you like to guess what happened? :) $\endgroup$ – mweiss Jun 11 '18 at 15:44
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Those questions belong in a survey, not into an exam. $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 11 '18 at 22:14
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ Not to be mean, but -- is the consensus here that those questions are actually funny? Humor is very culturally specific and does not translate well from one language & culture to another. Those questions read to me as just odd, not humorous. $\endgroup$ – mweiss Jun 12 '18 at 4:07

12 Answers 12

34
$\begingroup$

I think there's room for differences of opinion on this, and the answer might depend on the ages of the students or who the specific students are. When I was a student I enjoyed questions like this, but I'll explain why I don't include "funny" questions now that I'm the one making exams.

It comes down to cost and benefit. I think the actual benefits are between small and non-existent. I could imagine some theoretical benefits---maybe lighthearted questions help stressed students relax and do better on the exam; maybe they make the course more fun for some students, which might motivate them to work more or to continue to take math courses. But I don't think either of these things really happen in practice.

On the other hand, I think there are real costs. Whenever I think about doing something funny on the exam, I start to worry about students who are really confused, or taking the exam in a second language, who might have trouble realizing that the question isn't intended seriously, and lose time trying to figure out what they're supposed to do with it.

$\endgroup$
  • 20
    $\begingroup$ +1 for the last paragraph. Don't do this. Even if students aren't confused they may get worried about whether the answer to the stupid "joke" question is going to hurt their grade. At best, all you accomplish by including questions like this is giving an unfair advantage to students who share your cultural context, sense of humor, framework of social cues, etc. $\endgroup$ – R.. Jun 11 '18 at 15:00
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ What if the question could be made to be objectively answerable? Like "T/F This is the first question?" $\endgroup$ – David Starkey Jun 11 '18 at 20:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DavidStarkey I don’t think that helps. Students still have to spend time and thought figuring out the right answer and worrying about whether there’s a trick they might be missing. $\endgroup$ – Henry Towsner Jun 11 '18 at 20:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DavidStarkey: I disagree that your question is objective. It is technically not a grammatically correct question! =) $\endgroup$ – user21820 Jun 12 '18 at 6:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Cubic By that logic, then exams must be pretty hard to map to people. I mean what does "Name" mean? Name of the class? Name of the instructor? Name of the person that made the paper? In fact, just about any question that has a word in it could be considered unclear at that point. $\endgroup$ – David Starkey Jun 12 '18 at 16:56
28
$\begingroup$

No, I think this is a really silly idea. Let's assume that students are trying to get a 100% score. What is the correct answer to "I love mathematics - true/false"?

Is the "I" there the teacher? The student? If it is the student what is demonstrably the correct answer? How can the teacher marking the exam possibly know if the student loves mathematics or not? (The student might hate it, but be doing it because it is a course prerequisite).

Since there is no answer that can be shown to be correct, then the student has to guess "what am I supposed to say here?". Whatever answer they guess, if they are wrong, they won't get a top mark for the paper.

Now you might say "I'll accept any answer and mark it correct". But the student will have wasted time on the question, trying to work out what it means, and therefore having less time to spend on genuine questions.

Some students might try to read the question as a riddle or puzzle. For example, "I" = 9, "L" = 12, "O" = 15 and so on, and then try to work out what that means mathematically.


As an example of why this can fail, see this article about a VCE (year 12) exam held in Australia in 2012. A history exam paper inadvertently had a giant robot on the artwork Storming the Winter Palace by Nikolai Kochergin.

Giant Robot

Students complained that they wasted time trying to work out the significance of the robot, for example:

I went through a thought process something like this, 'What's that thing? It's definitely a robot. But it's on my history exam, so it's not a robot. But it can't be anything else. LOOK AT THOSE GUNS!' I stared at the image long and hard. It was extremely off-putting because you just don't expect there to be a mistake on your exam, especially one like that.'


Don't do it. It might be a fun game to you, but for the students this is an off-putting, time-wasting exercise that could well cause them to do more badly on the exam than they might otherwise have, and then subsequently complain.

In the case of the Australian exam the assessment authority had to apologise afterwards for any impact that the image might have had on students completing the exam. And in their case it wasn't even intentional!

Indeed, the authority had to adjust the scores for 130 students over the confusion about the robot.


Dave L Renfro said:

I sometimes had students answer my 1+1=−−− question (see my answer) with things like 10(in base 2),

Yes, I didn't want to bring that up, but see Quotations by Bertrand Russell:

"But," you might say, "none of this shakes my belief that 2 and 2 are 4." You are quite right, except in marginal cases -- and it is only in marginal cases that you are doubtful whether a certain animal is a dog or a certain length is less than a meter. Two must be two of something, and the proposition "2 and 2 are 4" is useless unless it can be applied. Two dogs and two dogs are certainly four dogs, but cases arise in which you are doubtful whether two of them are dogs. "Well, at any rate there are four animals," you may say. But there are microorganisms concerning which it is doubtful whether they are animals or plants. "Well, then living organisms," you say. But there are things of which it is doubtful whether they are living organisms or not. You will be driven into saying: "Two entities and two entities are four entities." When you have told me what you mean by "entity," we will resume the argument.

Thus, even a "simple" question about what is "1+1" could have arguably difficult answers.


Another issue is, by making joke questions you are treating the exam as a joke. That is, it is trivializing the experience. Some students may have studied long and hard, and have expectations from their parents that they do well. To have jokes introduced into the exam appears to say that the examination is being trivialized.


This question is out of the domain of the subject. Asking a question about a state of mind ("do you like something?") is more appropriate in, say, psychology. It isn't a calculus question and is therefore inappropriate. For example, if you asked "How do you boil a hard-boiled egg?" people may well object that this is not a relevant question in a calculus exam, even if they knew how to boil eggs.


Adding in questions that (assuming the reader can tell are a joke) alters the effective score in the exam. Let's say your joke questions are worth 5%. That means that:

  • Someone can get 5% in Calculus even knowing nothing about the subject; and
  • The other answers are scaled in value. For example a question which claims to be worth 10% of the score is really 10% of 95 and not 10% of 100, altering what the question is really worth.

Having joke questions, which are intended for everyone to get right unconditionally, could penalize a student who, because of time constraints, does not reach that question. They may say afterwards "if only I had known there was a 'free' 5% from answering questions 19 and 20 I would have answered them first".

You might respond "but I'll give everyone full marks for my joke questions even if they don't answer them" now makes the questions seem even sillier. An exam question that is always marked correct? Even if you don't answer it? What is the point of having it?

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for indicating that "funny questions" should be given the same editing thought as other questions, unless maybe the test specifically says something to the effect that all appropriate points will be awarded for a response to the question. Incidentally, I sometimes had students answer my $1+1={}_{---}$ question (see my answer) with things like $10 \; \text{(in base } 2),$ which of course I certainly counted correct. I also tended to look to make sure the last question was answered as the papers were finished and brought to me at the front desk. $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 11 '18 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ See my amended answer. :) $\endgroup$ – Nick Gammon Jun 11 '18 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ Thus, even a "simple" question about what is "1+1" could have arguably difficult answers. --- See my answer to How do I convince someone that $1+1=2$ may not necessarily be true? $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 12 '18 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Very good. I note also the number of linked answers on that page about the difficulty (and other issues) from trying to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. $\endgroup$ – Nick Gammon Jun 12 '18 at 23:20
24
$\begingroup$

Not a good idea in my opinion.

I am on the Autism spectrum and as such I am a very very literal person and I am often derailed by trying to understand a poorly-defined question. Neurotypical people can look at a poorly defined question and naturally understand that some of the interpretations are absurd and most will naturally understand the meaning. I have to analyse each interpretation in turn before I can discount some.

Let's look at your two questions:

T/F I love mathematics

I don't know who 'I' refers to in this context. Does it mean me or does it mean the question setter? Trying to work this out could cause me some stress and effect the rest of the paper. I think that this refers to me, the question answerer but because I cannot be sure I will keep coming back to this question just to be sure. Most people will automatically understand to whom 'I' refers.

T/F Calculus 2 is easier than Calculus 1, ...

This is highly subjective, the definition of easy is unclear and even to me the term 'easy' is not clear. easy lectures, easy tutorials, simulation work easy. How to I aggregate the different parts and scale the different levels of 'easy into a single result. If I found lectures in one easier to follow and the tutorial work in the other easier I could be stuck trying to decide which was easier overall.

While it may be fun to put in jokes please be aware that it can cause a lot of stress and worry to some, often the quiet people who would not indicate that they are having problems.

$\endgroup$
9
$\begingroup$

I think it's fine in moderation, but keep in mind that what you think is funny might not be funny to one or two of your students, so you'll want to tread very carefully when doing this.

Occasionally I've written tests in which, after several attempts at making reasonable point-value assignments to the problems, I couldn't quite get the total to be $100$ points --- I'd get it to add to something like $98$ or $99$ points, but not $100.$ For example, there might be one $25$ point problem and three $15$ point problems and two $10$ point problems and three $3$ point problems, and I didn't want to increase any of these by $1$ point.

The way I handled this was to include an extra problem at the end, something like $1+1= {}_{---}$ that was worth $1$ or $2$ points to get the total to be $100.$ Yes, I know I could just compute a percent by calculating their point total divided by $98$ (or by $99),$ but when you have $50$ or more tests, it's well worth a little extra up-front time getting the total to be $100$ so that you don't have to grab your calculator and write something like $72/98 = 73$ (circling the $73)$ for each of the $50$ or more tests. Of course, whenever I did this, I told them as I was handing out the tests to not overlook the last problem if they're short on time at the end, and the instructions for the last problem would say something like "Freebie problem to get points to add to $100$".

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If you are so willing to give out the last 1 or 2 points by asking an easy question, why not just save the time by leaving this question off and just giving everyone +1 or +2? If someone gets a 72 out of a 98 point test, mark the gradebook as a 74. I would hate for some people to miss the +2 points because they didn't see the 1+1=___ written on the bottom of the last page. $\endgroup$ – ruferd Jun 12 '18 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ It went over well with students, and as I indicated, I made sure everyone got the points. Also, if I just left it out, then I'd still have to explain to students why the point values I wrote at the beginning of each problem (handwritten on the printout, before photocopying the printout, which we were always asked to do because photocopying was apparently a lot cheaper than printing directly from the file) did not add to 100, something if you don't do then you're going to get lots of raised hands and students coming up to your desk worried that you messed up with the points. $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 12 '18 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ and as I indicated, I made sure everyone got the points --- I just noticed this was in a comment to Nick Gammon's answer and not in my answer. $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 12 '18 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ At least it gets everyone to read all the questions. $\endgroup$ – Ian Jun 13 '18 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ The only reason I ask is because I have done the exact thing once or twice (made a test with only 98 or 99 points, but gave everyone a +1 or +2). None of my students every noticed the points not adding to 100, but perhaps your audience will be more vigilant than mine! $\endgroup$ – ruferd Jun 13 '18 at 21:16
8
$\begingroup$

I strongly recommend you never use these kinds of questions, for the same reasons others have brought up. I once asked "what was your favorite topic from this class?" on a final exam, and gave full points for any reasonable answer. Unfortunately many students gave non-answers like "thanks this class was fun" and "have a good summer", and other students used significant exam time writing thoughtful answers. This was a bad question, and the ones you suggest strike me as more confusing and less useful.

If you're looking to add more cheer to an exam, here are some ideas.

  1. Include interesting quotes, comics, or jokes related to the material (make sure it is obvious that they are not part of a problem).
  2. Take a class picture and put it in the exam.
  3. Use lots of colors and figures.
  4. During the exam, have snacks or fidget toys available to students.
  5. Find some relevant puzzle-like problems to do in class/homework, and if students seem to enjoy them, put a particularly easy one on the exam.
  6. If and only if you make it abundantly clear that they won't be graded, add optional thought-provoking questions at the end for students who finish early. I like math brainteasers, math philosophy questions, and the Turing test ("in the space below do your best to convince me you are a human being and not an artificial intelligence").

For all of these, be aware of how your individual students may respond to them in a high-stress situation. I would not recommend these ideas for every group of students. Err on the side of caution, and avoid potential distractions.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I love these ideas! Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Sue VanHattum Jun 12 '18 at 20:25
5
$\begingroup$

This is a really interesting question, and I've been on both sides of this. Here's where I'm at with it now.

On Funny Questions

I think they're lighthearted great ways to relieve stress. I also find it fun to add an interesting (bonus) question at the end. For example, there was an exam on March 15, so a question on the Ides of March was asked.

The Other Point

However, I would strive to make sure that the bonus / funny questions have NO IMPACT on performance. The test / the problems should be weighted that the grade comes from the math, not the extraneous. It should not be possible to go from an A to B or vice versa from these types of questions.

Sure, a 94 to a 95 is fine, but you should not go from a 69 to a 70 or whatever the cut off is.

The Bottom Line

They're great and fun, imho, so long as they don't severely impact the grade.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The flip-side to this is a slightly easier - but also "valid" question that gives a humorous answer - like a set of simultaneous equations for variables $T$, $O$, $W$ ("Time", "Output", and "Workers" ?) and the question is to find their product. The "ideal" form of solution finishes as $TWO = 2$, but any equivalent (e.g $WOT = 2$) scores the same $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jun 12 '18 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal this could be setup as prove TWO = 2 $\endgroup$ – Ian Jun 13 '18 at 9:14
4
$\begingroup$

No. Let them concentrate on the exam. Humor should be relegated to the victory party afterwards. Or the consoling sorrows party. Funny questions is too cute and distracting while in exam. It's not even that it will disturb their exam. But that the humor will fall dead.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

I've read the answers and realize it is inappropriate to put a question such as this on an exam, because some students may not "get it" and may stress about it instead of focusing on the exam.

However, as an elementary school teacher, I sometimes made individualized makeup tests or additional work as needed. Since these were individualized and I knew my students well, I think there were times when it might have been appropriate.

Bottom line - this idea is not for a group, but if you make something up for an individual student who will appreciate it, definitely put it in. If in doubt though leave it out!

If you do put in a question like this, I suggest that you put above it:

you can skip this question without penalty since it is just for fun

You can also put the above on a general test if you explain this direction the day before and remind the students of it during the test. That way kids who are disinterested and/or confused by it will skip it.

Some examples of cute questions:

  1. Add the number of ears that Mickey Mouse has to the number of dwarfs in the Snow White movie. Divide by the number of letters in the 5th month.
  2. True or False - This question is funny
  3. Why did the chicken cross the diameter of the circle?
  4. How many mathematicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
  5. True or False - Math is the best subject ever.
$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Personally, I don't think that funny questions are such a good idea for the reasons already mentioned (such as: confusing students, skewing marks, etc.). Now, if your goal is to simply integrate some elements of humor into your math exam, one possibility could be to put funny pictures/"memes" at the end of the paper for students to enjoy once they have finished. One of my chemistry teachers always used to put picture jokes at the end of the exam relating to chemistry (obviously not the content), and there were never any problems. Another one of my teachers liked to put quotes at the end of the exam instead.

Both were examples which didn't adversely affect the student's performance by giving them another question to think about, but instead provided something that might serve to "lighten up" the student's mood.

Of course, so to eliminate any confusion, they would always put these things after an "end of exam" text line.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

I'm coming at this question from a slightly different angle. It's possible you've specified "exam" but have meant something more akin to an in class "quiz" or "pop quiz" in common vernacular.

The word exam has the formal connotation in that the result has real bearing on a grade or GPA. If this is not the case, and the situation is less formal such as an in class quiz, then using humour in a quiz would be more forgivable, perhaps even bolstering your reputation as a teacher and educator with regards to your relationship with your students. I've been a student of a teacher with this mindset and it did allow the students to feel closer to the teacher, considering him as the "cool teacher" if you will.

As others have stated, if this is a formal exam or has any bearing on grade, humourous questions should be avoided.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I'm guessing by "real bearing on a grade" you mean "major bearing on a grade", because if the work has no bearing on grades, then students may not participate. For what it's worth, I used to have 3 distinctions of graded classwork when I taught (and these were explained on the syllabus) --- quiz (a relatively short, 10 to 20 minute assessment, that was given 12 to 16 times during the semester), test (an "hour long" --- means 50 minutes for MWF classes and 75 minutes for TuTh classes --- assessment of which usually 4, and sometimes 5, were given during the semester, (continued) $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 13 '18 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ final exam (the 3 hour long --- in the last 10 or 15 years of my teaching this got shortened at a lot of places to 2 hours --- comprehensive assessment given at a specified time during final exam days, after the class meetings were finished for the semester). The issue about an extra freebie question I mentioned in my answer was almost always for tests. For quizzes, I kept the point values at 10 each and wasn't bothered with something worth, say, 7 points (an unusual value for a test), and for final exams I had a lot more questions available for distributing point values. $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 13 '18 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ Not participating in class was often reflected in report card comments at the end of a semester, so it wasn't possible to not participate entirely, unless you liked getting chewed out by your parents. Most of the in class quizzes we had didn't effect grade at all, but I live in Australia, perhaps class work is characterized differently here? Only assignments or end of year exams were able to effect grade directly. $\endgroup$ – Xpndable Jun 13 '18 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding giving credit for class participation and such, see my two comments here and this 2 March 2010 math-teach post archived at Math Forum. In the U.S., especially before college, documentation of grades was extremely important. In fact, at one high school I taught at, there was a minimum number (forgot the value, but it was at least 4 or 5) of grades each teacher (continued) $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 14 '18 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ was required to have in his or her grade book for each student before a certain date, which came before the first 9-weeks report cards. I think it might have been for the first school-wide parent-teacher conference, held one night a few weeks after classes began. The purpose was to prevent parents from being caught by surprise by "Johnny's" poor performance when the first 9-weeks report cards came out, since "Johnny" often didn't tell his parents (truthfully) how he was doing in class. Of course, for those doing failing work, we were also required to contact the parents by phone . . . $\endgroup$ – Dave L Renfro Jun 14 '18 at 9:07
1
$\begingroup$

First, I see that you wrote "funny question" like that, in quotes. You really mean a question that's unrelated to the exam problems. (If only for the fact that the questions were not humorous.)

I've seen teachers use this to help relate to their students, to know them better. Sometimes on a personal level e.g. "What are your plans for weekend / what do you do in your spare time? or as it relates to the class, e.g. "What part of this past chapter did you struggle with or find confusing?"

If the question, answered truthfully, will help you teach the class or help build your relationship, you'll find value in doing so. Make it the last question, and clear that if left blank, no points lost. You don't want such a question to add any anxiety to the testing process.

$\endgroup$
-1
$\begingroup$

I think funny questions are fine if used with discretion. Perhaps prefer including them in minor quizzes or tests where the impact is not as large, over more high-stakes exams.

As a student, I'm fine with some humour. It can help establish a more friendly atmosphere, reduce the tension and anxiety that comes with taking tests, and the freebie mark or two is always nice. That being said, since marks are serious business for students, I suggest the following when including funny questions:

  1. Make them bonus questions. In other words, the student should be able to get 100% even if they don't answer any of the funny questions.
  2. Make them not worth much. The focus of the test should be the study material. The funny questions should not be worth more than 1 or 2 additional marks, max.
  3. Put them at the end of the test. This is so that the student only gets to them once they've finished the real questions.

I've had teachers in the past who've included these types of questions, and my classmates seemed to enjoy them. One such teacher would only give the bonus question verbally near the end of the test, which ensures that the students don't waste too much time on it.

Here are some bonus questions that I've come across in the past:

  • "Write 'seven' in Swedish."
  • "What time does my flight leave tomorrow?"
  • "Which fruit was I eating at the beginning of class?"
  • "During the test, someone got up to get a tissue. Who was it?"
$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.