Academic Poll: All or Nothing Questions

A philosopher at McGill University has stirred up a controversy by requiring students to get perfect scores on a quiz about the Greek alphabet or drop her class on Plato:

The course, which at times refers directly to original texts, requires students to gain a familiarity with the Greek alphabet. To make sure that would happen, Laywine tested them on the subject last week — with the requirement that anyone getting less than 100 percent correct would have to drop the class.

To be sure, the exam was given during the add/drop period, no knowledge of Greek was presumed and Laywine spent the first two weeks of class teaching the alphabet. But nervous students evidently spread the word: An article in the McGill University student newspaper this week described declining enrollment and fear in the classroom. “I dropped the class because the syllabus terrified me,” one student told the paper.

This reminds me of a joke I make in intro mechanics. When I talk about acceleration due to gravity, I note that I have a tendency to put a question of the form “Which falls faster, a heavy object or a light one?” on the final, and that any student who gets it wrong will fail the class. Getting it right doesn’t guarantee passing, but getting it wrong is an automatic failure.

Of course, I can’t actually do that, but I’d really like to. There are a few other questions that probably go in the same category: “True of False: The total energy in a closed system is constant,” for example.

So, here’s a poll for everybody who’s ever stood in front of a classroom:

What are the all or nothing questions for your class? That is, what are the simple questions that any student must be able to answer correctly, or be kicked out or fail the course?

Leave your questions in the comments. All comments must be in the form of a question, under penalty of death.


  1. #1 perry
    September 19, 2007

    real (non-isolated) systems have wave functions, yes or no.

  2. #2 Anne-Marie
    September 19, 2007

    In my genetics class last spring, the final had an “entry question”, with the warning that you must get it right in order for the professor to grade the rest of the exam: wrong answer = automatic zero. That seemed a little harsh, but it was a concept that the professor had gone out of his way to emphasize the entire semester, it wasn’t just something he pulled out of left field. I have no idea how many people answered it incorrectly and got their tests tossed, but there was definitely a lot of shocked commentary on it by students right afterwards.
    The question:
    How do Mendel’s first and second laws relate to meiosis?

  3. #3 Professor
    September 19, 2007

    This is a statement, not a question.

  4. #4 Scott Spiegelberg
    September 19, 2007

    What are the notes of a C melodic minor scale? I picked this question since it’s something I’d expect my students to know in any level of theory or musicianship. For psychology of music: what are the theories of pitch perception, including descriptions of the strengths and weaknesses of each theory?

  5. #5 NJ
    September 19, 2007

    What is the airspeed of a fully laden swallow?

  6. #6 Dennis
    September 19, 2007

    re: #5 – African or European?

  7. #7 N. Johnson
    September 19, 2007

    “What is the airspeed [velocity] of a fully laden swallow?”
    What do you mean? An African or European swallow?

    Why is the sky blue?

  8. #8 NJ
    September 19, 2007

    Comments 6 and 7 of course contain the mandatory answer…

  9. #9 vanderleun
    September 19, 2007

    “Because it isn’t green.” — Charles Schultz

  10. #10 other Dennis
    September 19, 2007

    “True of False: The total energy in a closed system is constant,”

    Do you mean isolated system? Or is that a trick question?

  11. #11 Anne-Marie
    September 19, 2007

    Sorry I wasn’t clearer, you’re right that the fact that Mendel’s laws relate to meiosis is a statement, but the answer he was looking for was an illustration of when segregation and independent assortment occur in meiosis, as in drawings and labels for the exact stages.

  12. #12 Colin M
    September 19, 2007

    An information theory question for computer scientists:

    Does there exist a lossless compression algorithm that reduces the size of every possible input file?

    (Answer: no, by the pigeonhole principle.)

  13. #13 Johan Larson
    September 19, 2007

    Teach the alphabet for two weeks? What is that, the remedial class?

  14. #14 Drugmonkey
    September 19, 2007

    Define “Negative Reinforcement”.

    Schizophrenia (translated as “a split mind”) refers to a condition in which 1) an individual is indecisive or 2) a person expresses two or more distinct personalities. True or False?

  15. #15 Uncle Al
    September 19, 2007

    Requiring objective qualification is racial hate language. Diversity!

    “INERT INTELLIGENCE IS THE PARADIGM OF INSTITUTIONAL RACISM!” Eructated from a UC/Berkeley Boalt Hall alumini reunion podium by a balding professor in blue jeans.

  16. #16 Chris
    September 19, 2007

    What is the central dogma of molecular biology?

    DNA -> RNA -> Protein

  17. #17 Brian
    September 19, 2007

    Of course my first response would be “It depends on the class.”

    However, the thought came to me that what would be really cool would be to gather together those of us in the academic profession in a wide range of fields. Gather together these basic questions in our respective fields, and then have each person explain the answer clearly. A collection of lectures on the fundamental concepts of our specialties.

    It would make an interesting book.

  18. #18 Harry Abernathy
    September 19, 2007

    For an intro to materials science course:
    What is steel made of?
    What is Bragg’s law?

    On “Must Pass” quizzes: In my high school chemistry class, we had to learn the chemical formulas and charges of thirty common ions and radicals. After the third day of class, we were given a daily quiz on all of them. You had to keep taking the quiz (and keep counting the quiz grade) until you got a ‘100’. On top of that, you had to write each answer you got wrong 25 times each day! I bet you most of Mr. Merritt’s students TO THIS DAY can still tell you the difference between the hypochlorite and perchlorate ion!

  19. #19 ponderingfool
    September 19, 2007

    What is the central dogma of molecular biology?

    DNA -> RNA -> Protein

    Which would actually be wrong. That is the sequence hypothesis. The Central Dogma according to Crick tells that sequence information can transfer from nucleic acid to nucleic acid (DNA to RNA or RNA to DNA) or from nucleic acid to protein (RNA to protein) but the sequence information of a protein can not transfer to another protein nor to nucleic acid (i.e. no protein to protein nor protein to RNA or DNA).

    The sequence hypothesis states the information coded for in the sequence of nucleotides specifies the sequence of amino acids in a protein.

    Larry Moran wrote up a whole piece on the common misunderstanding & quoted Crick:
    “The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred from protein to either protein or nucleic acid. (F.H.C. Crick, 1970)”.

  20. #20 such.ire
    September 19, 2007

    When I was TAing organic chemistry, something like “What’s the maximum number of covalent bonds to carbon under normal conditions?” Or, “In arrow pushing mechanisms, at which end of the arrow does the H+ ion go?” It’s amazing how many people never got the answer to those two…even by the end of the semester.

  21. #21 Jon Lawhead
    September 19, 2007

    I’m trying to think of one of these questions for philosophy, but even the simplest questions can have terribly complex and/or debatable answers…

  22. #22 Jordan
    September 19, 2007

    I think I could support such a system at the end of the class, perhaps like the final genetics exam mentioned above. However, having such a quiz at the beginning on the class denies students the chance to later catch up. If such as quiz had been given when I started Statistical Thermodynamics, I likely would have failed out. However, I managed to figure out what was going on as the semester progressed and actually ended up doing rather well in the course.

    Though I haven’t taught it yet, for structural biochemistry I think my question would be:

    What is the structure of L-alanine?

  23. #23 Janne
    September 19, 2007

    100% seriously sounds too harsh. It’s just too easy to do one or two dumb mistakes even when you know it perfectly; read off the wrong line, get distracted and mark the wrong answer, whatever. And if you’re the kind of person to panic over tests (like myself) you’ll inevitably start second-guessing the teacher and your own better judgement. I know Hiragana really well – I’ve used it every day for years now – but I could see me get less than 100% on a test simply because of mistakes that has nothing to do with my ability to use the syllabary.

    As for my question: “is negative reinforcement the same as positive non-reinforcement?”

  24. #24 Danil
    September 19, 2007

    What do you get when you multiply six by nine?

    Ultimately, this topic reminds me of Dement’s “1066” anecdote in Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep.

  25. #25 Corey
    September 20, 2007

    Re #21:

    Here’s a candidate question for philosophy:

    Does the fact that the moon orbits the earth constitute a priori or a posteriori knowledge?

  26. #26 agm
    September 20, 2007

    What is the difference between speed and velocity?

    (Yes, I like being evil to the pre-meds, on the grounds that if they wanna be doctors, they should be able to absorb complex information and put it to use.)

  27. #27 rob
    September 20, 2007

    Accepting that the earth is neither a true plane nor a true sphere, is the earth better described as a plane or a sphere? This is one that I’d give to anyone trying out for The View. Apparently, some people miss it.

  28. #28 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 20, 2007


    Q: What is the difference between speed and velocity?

    Pre-med student: Speed Kills [citation to amphetamine paper] whereas velocity is a vector [citation to epidemiology of mosquito-carried Malaria].

    # 27

    Q: Accepting that the earth is neither a true plane nor a true sphere, is the earth better described as a plane or a sphere?

    Moons-for-Goons student: The earth is like a plane because it flies very fast carrying many people.

  29. #29 Bilsko
    September 20, 2007

    Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.