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EVERYONE KNOWS FINAL-EXAM LEGENDS - JUST ASK MARILYN

SHARE EVERYONE KNOWS FINAL-EXAM LEGENDS - JUST ASK MARILYN

Marilyn vos Savant's "Ask Marilyn" column in Parade magazine recently included a reader's letter asking about a tricky final exam question and its even trickier answer. In her reply, Marilyn proved that she knows college exam legends - or at least one version of them.

The reader, from Tucson, Ariz., said she had taken a philosophy course in which the professor posed a one-word question as the entire final exam. The question was, "Why?"Only one student received an A on the exam, and she only spent 10 minutes on her answer while the rest of the class wrote for the entire period. The Tucson reader asked Marilyn, "What was the answer?"

Marilyn's reply began, "If the answer was `Why not?' I'd like to give an `F' to that professor."

I realize that my IQ falls short of vos Savant's, which is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" as the highest on record, but I do know some other versions of the tricky-answer story. For example, the student's response "Because" is nearly as popular a punch line as "Why Not?" in this well-known legend.

Another form of the story claims that the exam question was, "Define `courage.' The best answer is said to be a sheet of paper on which a clever student has written only, "This is courage."

Or the examiner may ask students to define laziness. The only A grade in the class goes to a student who uses three sheets of paper to respond; he writes just one word per sheet, "This - is - laziness."

Usually such exam stories are attached to philosophy classes, but occasionally they show up in connection with other subjects or even as supposed essay topics that were posed on college entrance exams.

At least one professor has actually employed the "Why? Why not?" gambit in the classroom. According to a news story published in the Anniston (Ala.) Tribune last October, Dr. Harry Rose, Jacksonville (Ala.) State University's 1990 Outstanding Faculty Member, included that question in his repertoire of innovative teaching methods.

The Tribune article reports that Rose keeps his students on their toes by occasionally giving one-word finals that have two-word answers.

What Professor Rose didn't say to the reporter, but what I suspect to be true, is that he had heard the story during his own college days and decided to try it out when he became a professor.

Another tricky question I've heard about more than once is, "Write the best possible final exam question for this course, then answer it."

One student immediately wrote, "The best possible final exam question for this course is: `Write the best possible final exam question for this course, then answer it.' "

Frankly, I'm not sure that the student's reply does in fact meet the terms of the original question. Maybe I should ask Marilyn for her opinion.

The British, incidentally, prefer a different college exam legend in which the student's cleverness is foiled, so to speak.

I'm thinking of the old story about the Oxford student who demanded that a pint of ale be served to him during an examination, since he had found an ancient statute that granted this privilege to every student.

The student was duly served the ale, but he was fined for not wearing a sword to the examination, which was required by another statute that he had overlooked.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.