give 3 reasons for ...

November 2nd, 2007

Having been a student for something like two decades I have come across many bad teachers, lots of broken approaches, numerous stupid ideas and several people who should not be teaching at all. One thing that continues to surface, which I thought I was done with after junior high, is questions of this format:

Give three reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire.

It's one of those things that seems so stupid, and so obvious, that noone would possibly be doing it, right? Wrong, they persist with this.

Let me answer the question. I open my Roman Empire box. In there I have various smaller boxes, one is called reasons for downfall. This one contains files. So let's see, there are 8 files in here, but I only need three. Okay, now I can transcribe the reasons one by one onto the answer sheet.

Newsflash. Human knowledge is not stored in file cabinets which enumerate causes and effects. I have *never* found myself in a real life situation where enumerating three reasons helped me get something done. Why three? How about two and a half? How about three and a half?

To anyone who actually wants to know something one well-argumented reason is worth far more than three snippets, and it probably touches on several other effects in play. This is a far more natural way of expressing thought than to compartmentalize and enumerate little slices of knowledge.

What are we actually doing here? Are we learning or are we doing brain teasers? If you ask people to enumerate 50 colors that would also be challenging, because most can't think of that many. But what would be the point?

So it is obviously futile, but it's also harmful. If you have *ever* thought deeply about *anything*, then you know how complicated cause and effect scenarios are. There can be so many factors, so many causes than are predicated upon other causes and so on, which means that decomposing the entire problem in terms of this causes this is very difficult. We love to ask ourselves why? but we rarely find good answers to those questions, because the answers are too hard to understand.

What you are doing when asking for three reasons is tremendously trivializing the problem. You are creating the appearance that one could actually give three reasons and that would explain the whole thing. Can we not have more honesty than this? Explaining the collapse of the Roman Empire is actually a hugely difficult undertaking, considering how many people affected and were affected by it. And each of those had their reasons and interests at stake, and adding up all of this is not something you can explain in three paragraphs each stating one reason. Or put it this way. If you *do*, it's a completely meaningless answer.

So why do people do this? Since it's common practice, you don't have to give three reasons for giving a question like this on a test. But how did this start? Face it, it's a really easy thing to do for a teacher. They put very little thought into it and they move on. It's much more difficult to phrase a more complicated question spanning (say) two lines that entices an intelligent response.

Instead of focusing on the problem students are thinking:

  • Goodie, I remember those three paragraphs in the textbook almost word for word. I haven't really thought about what they mean, I only read them, but luckily they came up on the test.
  • Damn, I can only think of two reasons.
  • I have two good reasons and a third one, but I'm not sure if I can give the last one on its own, because it's not "enough" of a reason by itself, I think.
  • I have three reasons, but two of them are triggered by the first one, so does that qualify as three or just one?
  • I have five reasons, but I'm not going to get any more credit for that, because I can only give three.

I have found myself in all of these situations at one time or another. Particularly the first one used to happen a lot in junior high.

How do you fix it? Just as easy:

Give a reason for the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Or if you want to make it clear that you encourage "more than one" reason (however it is you distinguish reasons from each other), you can say.

Give a reason (or more than one) for the collapse of the Roman Empire.

If you don't want to be so obvious that you are obsessed with quantifying reasons, rephrase it:

Why did the Roman Empire collapse?

Congratulations. Your students are now thinking about the problem rather than about your idiotic requirements for the answer.

How does this change the question? It doesn't. Students know how many points they get for this question, so they can estimate how long a response has to be, whatever the format of the question. Meanwhile,

  • those who have extensive knowledge are more likely to go beyond what you expect and they may get more credit, and
  • those who don't know anything are less likely to cook up something on the spot based on three keywords they remember from the textbook, because it's much harder to incorporate those fragments into a sound argument than into three short paragraphs that are complete clichés.
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3 Responses to "give 3 reasons for ..."

  1. erik says:

    Hear hear! Should do a colloq talk on this :D

  2. Paul Matusiak says:

    Totally agree on this. Though I'm not sure weather I would do as well in school had they done what you're saying :D

  3. Tony says:

    I agree completely. However, I would be willing to bet the teacher asks for more than one reason to ensure that a student who only browsed the textbook will not get full credit. I believe it is to show the separation between those who remember just enough to elaborate on one and those who read and studied and know all the information. Just my hypothesis.