Saturday, October 15, 2005

student errors

One of the great rewards of English teaching is student errors, which are often hilarious. My Level 2 conversation students recently had their midterm, which covered nine chapters out of the book. One of the expressions they were supposed to have learned was "sweet tooth," as in, "I've got a sweet tooth."

My midterm was constructed in the usual mixer format: a partner writes the answer on your paper, but you control what the partner writes. The idea, as always, was to encourage students to talk their way through the test by holding each other's lives in their hands. This has been a fairly effective way to test the students, despite the problems I mentioned a while ago, such as clustering, speaking in Korean, or simply working silently on the test questions.*

The "sweet tooth" question was phrased thus:

If you like sweet foods, then you have a...
[fill in the blanks with the two words in the phrase]

Here are some of the answers I got:

rotten teeth
diseases (one blank filled)
cavisty teeth
getting weight
fatt body
terrible cavity
junk food

And the grand champion of them all:

glucose urine

That answer had me on the floor. My students ROCK.

*This time around, I controlled the mixing much more tightly and constantly insisted that students speak in English. Most listened. One girl was stubborn about speaking in Korean, and another pair of students tried to cheat: they signed their names on each other's papers, then took their own papers back to try and work on them on their own.

I thought about doing the Catholic school thing and ripping their papers to shreds in front of the class, but decided that was too dramatic. The problem is that cheating isn't nearly as stigmatized in Korea as it is in the West. While plenty of students have a sense of academic integrity, plenty don't. In the West, we have more than our share of cheaters, but they cheat while fully aware that they're doing wrong. I'm not sure how aware many Korean students are of the wrongness of cheating. It doesn't seem to have been impressed upon them.

There is, in fact, a version of the mixer exam that is almost cheating-proof. This is what I did twelve years ago with my high school French students: they had full access to the textbook and were even allowed to speak in English if they felt they had to. There was one caveat, though: I told them that if I saw a single error in any of their answers-- even so much as a wrongly tilted accent or an unfortunately positioned punctuation mark-- the entire answer would be marked wrong. No partial credit. This made the tests much easier to grade, and at first, failure rates were shockingly high because the students didn't take me seriously. Perfection meant perfection. I'm mulling over whether to do something like that with my current students. Maybe next semester.



  1. Errors can be amusing, and so can choice of English names. In China I had students called, Cappuccino, Because, Gas, Apple, and... Swallow.


  2. Rory,

    I truly hope Swallow was a girl.




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