Students Need More than Just Spell Check

September 1, 2009 ( - Aside from funny typos, this year's entries in the Times Higher Education's "exam howlers" competition include students who confused science with folklore, conflated famous figures who lived centuries apart, and came up with new interpretations of great literary works.

According to the Times Higher Education, the “Google generation” finds it hard to imagine life before the Web, it seems. A student of Leo Enticknap, lecturer in cinema at the University of Leeds, explained that a political group “used the internet to publicize their cause, just like the French Resistance did during the Second World War”.

When David Null, an emeritus professor at California State Polytechnic University, asked his class to write about the person they most admired, he was impressed to receive an essay on Martin Luther. However, it turned out to be a mishmash of facts about a 16th-century Protestant reformer, who miraculously also managed to head up the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, some four centuries later.

In another entry, Kevin Reiling, from the Faculty of Sciences at Staffordshire University, said a biology student spent an entire paper telling about the science of gnomes. “It took me a while to realize she was referring to genomes,” Dr Reiling remarked, according to the report.

Other entries include:

  • A student explained that The Fool’s remark in King Lear that “thou madest thy daughters thy mothers; for … thou gavest them the rod and puttest down thine own breeches”, means “King Lear pulled down his trousers and gave his daughters the rod.”
  • A commentary on a medieval French poem said that “all of the sentences end in a coma.”
  • A student at the University of Brunel told Gareth Dale, senior lecturer in politics and international relations, that the United States had the most powerful and advanced military in the world, possessing “highly-developed and powerful marital equipment.”
  • A student explained that the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed “people in the state of nature were nasty, brutish and short”. Hobbes was in fact referring to “life”, rather than “people.”
  • Asked about the British electoral system in an exam, a first-year politics student at Royal Holloway, University of London, told history lecturer Rene Wolf about a system called “first parcel post.”
  • A student who conducted a research project in a local school stressed the role of “pier-support mechanisms” and the importance of carrying out inquiries in a “friendly manor” to Andrew Osbaldestin, the University of Portsmouth’s head of mathematics.
  • When David Null, an emeritus professor at California State Polytechnic University, showed members of his class a film about a boy found in a forest in 1797, several thought they had watched a documentary about recent events. “The fact that there are no automobiles or electricity in the film did not shake one student’s belief that the film was a recent documentary. He explained that he had never been to France and assumed it was just a very backward place,” Professor Null said.
  • John Wilson, placements tutor at the University of Central Lancashire, was asked for a reference via the following message: “Will you please be a referee for a job for which I am appalling?” The student was applying to be a teacher.