Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Trick Questions

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 20, 2009

What is a trick question? How does one quantify a trick question?

This has arisen because during a math test, there was a true/false question that read,

“Planets in the solar system move in an elliptical orbit around the earth.”

Some people in the class got it wrong, and were angered because it was a “trick question”. The teacher responded by saying that all true/false questions are trick questions. But is this really true?

No. The typical intention of a true/false question is to test the knowledge of the reader. For example,
“T/F: Abraham Lincoln was the 6th president of the United States.”
This is to test the reader’s knowledge. If the reader is knowledgeable on U.S. history, she will know that Lincoln was actually the 16th president. If she is not, she may answer “true”.

But the intention of the question in math class was not to test knowledge. It was to test attention. It is taken for granted that everyone knows that the Sun, not the earth, is at the center of the solar system; the question does not test for this knowledge. It instead tests if the reader read the question correctly. Since the intention of the problem is not the expected intention, it is therefore a “trick question”.

So what is a trick question? It is a question in which the method used to determine the answer is different from the expected method.


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