Here are a true question and answer from an exam set at Oxford University and found by an assessor evaluating the marking scheme and marks awarded.

Needless to say, there was a long discussion about the merit of this answer.

Neither the resultĀ or the mark was changed!

I wonder if this illustrates the poorer aspects of a one ‘fits all’ assessment system which depends on a formulaic and only one ‘right answer’ system?

Does this answer not display a greater knowledge and a higher level of thinking skills on the students part and a lack of thinking on the assessors part?

Was it a good question in the first place?

Lastly, would you employ this student or one of the hundreds who got the right answer right and who would be better equipped to learn fast in today’s fast moving and challenging job environment?

Even if you wanted to employ this student how would you find him as he probably wouldn’t have passed the exam and may have flunked his course? So, he would not even get into your job screening process if you were going by academic achievement?

If you are a teacher how would you view this type of answer, (in your own subject area), and what are your thoughts on assessment and how it is being used.

Do we need people who are taught to trot out the ‘right answer’ or those who can question the question and give a valid answer to the question which should have been asked, as this student was attempting to do?

I know which type of person I would and am employing and I guess I know who Richard Branson would probably go for too?!

This is a typical example, but what does it say about what we are trying to test in our students? It appears we are not testing thinking!

The Question


‘Joan went to the shop to buy her father and herself an ice-cream. The sizes are shown below.

On her return home the ice-cream melted. Will the melted ice-cream fit into the cone?







Please show all calculations. You can ignore the thickness of the cone.

Correct Answers

A large number of candidates had calculated the two volumes and achieved full marks. But then I came across this one……..

I could attempt to answer this question by a simple volume calculation of the sphere and the cone, but it would seem to be a waste of my time as this would not satisfactorily answer the question for the following reasons:

  1. Any liquid is greater in volume when it is frozen. I have no idea what this % difference would be with ice-cream.
  2. My experience of these types of ice-cream cones is that they will soak up some of the liquid. As I am told to ignore the thickness of the cone it is reasonable to assume that I am at liberty to also ignore any absorbed liquid but what I can not ignore is the fact that in becoming wet the cone will distort and lose shape. Any change of shape will have a dramatic effect on the volume of liquid it can hold.
  3. If I ignore all the points above I still have a large problem. To make this type of ice-cream ball one uses a scoop. The problem is that in scooping theball air gets trapped inside the ball. I have no idea how much air, so would need to conduct some experiments and determine an average, then my guess could be more accurate.
  4. Are you sure the sun is shining? Any mathematical calculation I could do here would be worthless in terms of answering the actual question posed.

It was marked as zero and a big red comment from the examiner SMART ALEC’

Anonymous assessor

Written by Chris Heron with thanks to Prof. Steve Cushing