Stories and tests

Should a math test tell a story? That’s certainly not what most people think a math test should do!

Should a course tell a story? More on that tomorrow, but at least I might get a few more takers for that idea.

Let’s first discuss math tests. I can argue both sides of the issue here:

  • On the one hand, students should be nimble enough to handle any appropriate problem thrown at them, regardless of order or specific content: none of this we’re-in-Chapter-3-so-we’re-supposed-to-factor nonsense!
  • On the other hand, one of the (many) reasons why math doesn’t make sense to so many students is that they don’t get a feeling of coherence, the big picture, the themes.

Also, it’s really hard to make a math test tell a story if it’s supposed to measure what students know and what they can do. So nobody writes tests that way.


One year in the ’70s, when I was team-teaching honors precalculus with my friend and colleague Phil Lewis, we decided to see whether we could actually write a final exam in the form of a short story. Weird, right? But this was Lincoln-Sudbury in the ’70s; weird was normal. Phil and I had already been thinking about the precalculus course as a story (more on that tomorrow, as I said above), so we first co-wrote a chronological account of what we had done all year and how it all connected. We included relevant math problems on every page or so, with plenty of white space after each problem. Then we went through the story and systematically replaced various words and phrases with blanks (underscores long enough to handwrite the missing text). Students would fill in the blanks and solve the problems.

We had warned the students that that would be the format of the final, as a way of tying the whole year together, and we were cautiously optimistic that it would lead students to look back at their course and see how everything made sense as a story: with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with characters in a setting, where one or more conflicts occur and are resolved. Cool, isn’t it?

Well, we had been much too pleased with ourselves. “Cautiously optimistic” wasn’t enough. Not to put too fine a point on it, the exam was something of a disaster. To this day I remember how there were far too many competent (even excellent) students who just couldn’t handle the bizarre format. I still think it was a worthwhile experiment, but the only way it would have worked would be if the students had seen previous assessments in that format. Throwing it at them for the first time in a final exam was clearly not a good idea.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning