That’s not an unfair question!

This story strikes a little close to home, because I’ve faced exactly the same kinds of complaints from some of my students — except that these are Religious Studies students. They are very upset because they consider one of the questions on a standard exam to be “unfair”. Here’s the question:

Question four on Islam, worth 20 marks, gave candidates a quotation referring to the Qur’an and the prophet Muhammad. Then it asked candidates: “With reference to the quotation, analyse the role played by the revelation through the Prophet in the life of Muslims.”

It sounds reasonable to me. They’re students of religion — I’m sure they’ve discussed the idea of revelation often enough, they’re supposed to be able to interpret texts, they’ve been given a quote, now all they have to do is spin out a nice line of blather, which again, is almost certainly a skill students of religion are expected to know.

But no. These students make some familiar complaints.

One student identified only as Clare said: “When we reached section three I think most students in the state had a communal heart attack as we discovered obscure and obtuse questions which were from absolutely no part of the otherwise very straightforward syllabus.

“I just lost 20 marks from a paper I studied very hard for.”

As a number of schools called for an explanation, Newington College student Nick Grogin said he was stunned by one question.

“I had never seen anything like that in the syllabus,” he said. “Nothing about it related to what I had studied and been taught.”

There was nothing about Islam in their studies? That would be deplorable. Or there was nothing about revelation, or about interpretation in their studies? That would be even more shocking.

These are students who don’t get it. I’ve had a few of them in biology classes, too. Some students think that if the answer to a question wasn’t plainly spelled out in lecture or in their texts so that they can just “study” (a verb that in some vocabularies means “memorize”) and spit back that very same answer, the question is unfair. Wrong.

Clare and Nick, you fail. And you deserve to fail. And not just because you’re wasting your time in Religion Studies.

A good test also examines a student’s ability to think, to come up with good answers to brand new problems. When a student is so limited in their intellectual ability that they are incapable of generalizing from principles they learned in the context of Christianity to Islam (or, as I’ve sometimes discovered, when they are flummoxed by a problem in Mendelian genetics in zebrafish rather than flies), they’ve flunked the thinking part of the exam.