GLOBAL: Examination howlers: but who is fooling whom?

As students return to their campuses in Europe and other countries in the northern hemisphere, they will face the first set of examinations for the year. But while they have little choice but to sit the exams, or go home again, students have their own way of getting back at a system that often makes them feel powerless.

On a medical school examination, students were asked: What is a fibula? To which one replied: "A little lie". Another question asked, What happens to a boy during puberty? and an answer came back: "He says goodbye to his childhood and enters adultery". Likewise, to the question: What is the meaning of the word varicose?, a student wrote: "Close by".

In another test, a student defined a myth as a female moth while someone else declared that Algebra was the wife of Euclid and a third argued that ``Sex and reproduction do not necessarily go hand in hand''.

Such exam howlers bring wry smiles or guffaws of delight to those lecturers and school teachers weary of playing noughts and crosses on their scripts.

"If environmentalists are given any more power," sighed a student in his biology paper, "the world will be overrun by nature.'' A friend observed that "artificial insemination is when a man does it instead of the bull'' and a third thought that "nuclear activity causes distortion in the jeans of women''.

Science comes in for its fair share of howlers (Charles Darwin, for example, is said to have written the Organ of the Spices) but that subject is hardly alone. "Sydney is affronted by the Pacific Ocean.", according to one student of geography. "In summer," another explained, "the days are longer because heat causes expansion."

"History is almost a thing of the past", said one bright spark in a history exam but then added the immortal line, "Washington's motto was liberty, equality and maternity''. In another test, students were asked: Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? To which one wit answered: "At the bottom."

Even religion has its moments: "Get thee hens, Satan!'' commanded one scribe while a colleague noted that "predestination is the thief of time". Another offered the profound thought that "unlike drink and drugs, there's no recovery from religion''.

When art teachers set examinations they, too, can be presented with highly original notions. One student thought that ``the Mona Lisa was the most beautiful woman ever to be laid on canvas''.

Another wondered at the fact that Van Gogh had cut off his ear, put it in a matchbox and sent it to a waitress in a cafe. "I suppose he wanted to hear from her,'' the student said.

Hang on, that's too clever to be a clanger. Surely this young fellow was having a shot at the system. And that might be the truth behind many a howler. They are not all slips of the pen but a way for the powerless to express their true feelings.

For how else can students protest? They are forced to sit the examinations or the tests, with little or no say in what happens before, during or after these ordeals. And they must accept the outcome without demur. If they pass the exams they are not likely to complain; if they fail, any criticism they make is rendered valueless by that very fact.

Subject to the whim of others, some revolt by putting down plays on words, cleverly twisting a thought in the hope the marker might just be confused or amused enough to award a pass. Consider this comment: "The population problem could be solved by the regulation of all members.'' This is not a boo-boo but a subtle dig at all examiners.

Similarly the comment that "Jaws was the worst public relations exercise that sharks ever had'' is no blooper. Nor is the observation that "If you feed a cow sunflower seeds you get poly-unsaturated milk".

Along with the witticisms, ("Take the scenery out of the Sound of Music and what have you got - Nun) deep insights sometimes appear in exams. "An axiom," said a student of mathematics, "is a thing that is so visible it is not necessary to see it."

A girl in the same class noted that "mathematics teachers succeed if their students have difficulty obtaining the right answers to their tests". How right she was. For what other purpose does the traditional examination have than to fail a certain proportion of a class, or to locate their marks on a continuum from good to bad?

So the student who wrote, "The Oedipus Complex means liking your mother as if she were a normal woman'' was responding to this assault on his freedom by mocking his tormentors. In fact, he was clearly no dope. And neither was his friend who recognised that "there's a difference between preserving a language and using it; it's the using it I object to''.