Exam Howlers

Times Higher Education releases its annual compilation of amusing student writing.
July 28, 2011

The student who wrote in a semiotics exam that "language is a system of sins" could well have been referring to this year’s Times Higher Education "exam howlers" competition.

That entry, submitted by Daniel Chandler, lecturer in media and communication studies at Aberystwyth University, was one of scores sent in to the annual contest, in which lecturers are invited to share their favorite mistakes and misunderstandings.

In a paper marked by Karen Devlin of the University of Hull, a student translated the phrase "pash of tallow" – meaning "head of wax" – in Seamus Heaney’s poem "Strange Fruit" as "having a crush on a fatty substance."

Helen Steele, tutorial assistant at Swansea University, entered several howlers from a "Europe of Extremes" history module. According to one student, "the Sixth Army became trapped in a huge pocket during their attempts to take the city." Whether a tiny army or a rather large item of clothing was envisaged is not clear.

Another, perhaps suffering the after-effects of one too many BBC costume dramas, confidently stated: "The third estate caused tension to arouse between the bourgeoisie and the nobles."

This was not the only example of inadvertent sexual innuendo. Ann Wood, of the department of biochemistry at King’s College London, had a student on a food science and technology course who advised using a "genital mixing action."

"I think the student meant 'gentle,' " Wood writes. "But it was wrong anyway."

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, was warned by one student that "premature ejaculation could be a touchy subject" in an essay on John Rochester’s poem "The Imperfect Enjoyment."

Two howlers gave life to traditionally strictly theoretical subjects. Eileen Reid, widening outreach officer at the Glasgow School of Art, recalls marking an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau that referred to "Professor Nobel Savage."

And the student who simplified a subject by writing about it "in Lehman’s terms" baffled Iain Woodhouse, senior lecturer in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, until he read the phrase aloud ("layman’s terms" was intended).

Pity, too, the poor interviewing techniques of a man of the cloth cited in an exam paper marked by Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University, which said that "the priest killed her so he could get information from her."

David O’Connor, professor of microbiology in the Center for Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton, was party to the startling claim that a runny nose may be more to worry about than it seems, as "mucus is a vicious, thick substance."

While students have provided much merriment, it is to be expected that some academics take such errors as an affront to their skills as lecturers. But after reading the statement that "American power is based on superheroes," Jason Dittmer, lecturer in human geography at University College London, lamented: "I clearly need to teach this material better."

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