Saturday, November 13, 2010

Extraneous Information

There is a saying in drama that "if there is a gun hanging on the wall at the beginning of the play, it must be used before the end." That right there is the difference between a law school exam and a chemistry exam.

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar given by a law school professor about taking law school exams. An important note he made was that everything in the hypotheticals have meaning, are relevant and should be addressed in the student's response. I think he said that he doesn't include things in a test just for the sake of good writing and reader interest.

In chemistry, things are quite different, especially in physical chemistry exams. Chemistry professors will give the required information to solve a problem along with some useless information for the problem at hand. Suppose a professor asks for the density of an ideal gas at a given temperature. Off the top of my head, I think one or two other pieces of data are needed, notably the molecular weight of the gas. A sadistic pchem professor would throw in some irrelevant information such as the specific heat of the gas or the root mean square. The unsuspecting student will furiously try to incorporate the extraneous information that has no bearing on the question asked by the professor and subsequently get the wrong answer. Often times after the exam, the cries of "that's not fair" can be heard from the class. The professor doesn't even bother to act sympathetic or understanding and only stands there a smiles thinking "I tricked your little ass."

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