Top Grade for Literal Instructions

Student receives top grade for following exam instructions literally.

Claim:   Student receives top grade for following exam instructions literally.


Example:   [New Scientist, 1999]

[This] reminds me of an exam I sat a few years ago while doing my English GCSE. We were given three pieces of writing, each with a set of questions attached, and were asked to “Choose one of the three exercises below”.

While we were all sweating out pages and pages of answers, a friend of mine simply wrote “I choose number two”, and did nothing for the rest of the exam. Since he had, technically, fulfilled the requirements of the paper, he had to be given full marks.

Almost all GCSEs I’ve seen since then have the instruction “Choose and complete one of the following”.


Origins:   College lore is replete with “wish fulfillment” legends such as this one, in which clever students one-up their instructors and achieve high marks on exams not through their superior knowledge of the subject matter, but by taking advantage of semantic ambiguities in the instructions given to them. (See the “Carry” Grant and Barometer Problem legends for some examples.) We’re not only supposed to admire the student in this legend for his cleverness, but for his temerity as well — how many of us have the guts to risk failing an exam in order to prove a point by pulling a stunt like this?

The “since he had, technically, fulfilled the requirements of the paper, he had to be

given full marks” claim is, of course, nothing more than a common exam fantasy. If a professor were really bound by the literalness of his instructions (even when his intent was clearly something different), then the “correction” offered in the example above would have been of little avail. “Choose and complete one of the following” indicates that the student must do something more than simply make a selection, but it still doesn’t specify exactly what the student must do — it doesn’t instruct the student to provide a correct answer, a good answer, or even a logical answer; it simply requires him to “complete” a section. The student who scrawled several paragraphs of nonsense would therefore also have “technically, fulfilled the requirements of the paper” and have to be “given full marks.”

Variations of this legend type involve students who, when given exam questions beginning with “Can you . . .” (e.g., “Can you explain the difference between Naturalism and Realism?”), simply respond “Yes” and receive high grades for their literal truthfulness.

Last updated:   22 June 2011


    New Scientist.   “Letters.”

    28 August 1999.

Also told in:

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 207).
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