Reading too much into the question

More thoughts on my statistics class from today. We were going over some review questions, and I said that one of them didn’t have enough information for us to determine an answer. The instructor responded,

You’re reading way too much into the question.

Well, no, I really wasn’t. It was a poor question. I’m really not sure why she didn’t just acknowledge that it’s a poor question – it’s not even a pride thing, because these questions are from the textbook publisher, not from her. And even when I am the one who wrote questions, I’ve told kids who challenged them, “You know what? You’re right. I could be asking this question more precisely.” And I make a note to improve the question for the next time I come to that material.

So the first part of my point here is, it’s okay to recognize that a question/assignment/whatever is not the best and could be improved. I think my students like knowing that I will receive their critiques (delivered respectfully, of course) and consider their feedback. I know that I didn’t like feeling like I wasn’t being listened to, being told to just write down the “right answer” and move on.

But the second thing I wanted to say in this post is a question I thought of as a result of this experience. Is there a point at which it’s okay to tell a student “you’re reading too much into the question”? Obviously we want to stop kids from saying,

“Well, Johnny won’t have ANY apples left after he gives 3 to Suzie, because right at that moment Suzie gets turned into a ZOMBIE, and she doesn’t care about the apples anymore but just wants to eat Johnny’s BRAAAAAAINS, so Johnny figures life is more important than apples and he drops the apples so he can run away. Will he survive Zombie Suzie’s attack? Just wait until I turn in my next homework!”

Because that would just be silly.

But. There’s a lot of good thinking that students can do in between “just give the answer you know I’m looking for” and the zombie scenario. I’ve read several bloggers talking about WCYDWT (What Can You Do With This), which is all about posing new problems, digging deeper into what’s right in front of you instead of just relying on the (possibly/probably poorly written) questions in the textbook.

There probably are good occasions for telling a kid he’s reading too much into a problem. But I think we might jump there a little more quickly than we ought to sometimes.

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