Not a potted plant

At the end of the semester, I had an interesting experience re: all guess, no check.

I’ve always started class with a blooper, but last August it occurred to me that instead of simply entertaining students with a daily blooper, I should ask them to diagnose and fix the blooper, too.

Fun !

Unfortunately, asking my students to fix bloopers quickly brought home to me just how few members of the class actually knew the bloopers were bloopers. To most of them, howlers like “Patient has chest pain if she lies on her left side for over a year” sounded fine.

I had noticed this failure-to-parse in the past, but until I asked each and every student in the class to diagnose and revise the same blooper, I didn’t realize just how many students weren’t seeing the problem. They weren’t being entertained, they were just being polite. (My students are real sweethearts.)

Anyway, long story short, we fixed one blooper a day, and by the end of the semester virtually everyone was picking up on the problems right away. Some had gotten really fast and sharp at seeing the fix too.

So when it came time to write a final exam, I decided to include a blooper I had found a few years back on Adam Kempler’s site:

I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way.

Sentences Taken from Accident Report Forms

Only four students got the question right.


Out of 15.

All the others misdiagnosed what was wrong with a stationary truck coming the other way, then produced brand-new bloopers of their own as the revision.

The reason everyone got the question wrong was that almost no one in the class knew what the word “stationary” meant. In fact, two of the people who successfully corrected the blooper gave the wrong reason for doing what they did; it’s not clear those two knew what stationary meant, either.

I should have seen it coming. Usually I’m pretty good at guessing which words students won’t know, but this one got away from me, probably because I was working under so much time pressure.

But here’s the all guess, no check part.

Not one student simply asked me, when they got to the blooper question, what “stationary” meant.

Not one!

How ??

I am not a potted plant !

I live to answer questions, and my students know it.

But no one asked.

So what was going on? I would love to know.

Did they guess a meaning and then assume they were right?

Or did they just skip the word and create a whole new meaning that was wrong, without then asking themselves whether that meaning would make sense of “stationary“?

More than one student said the problem was that the wording made it sound as if the person, not the person’s car, had collided with the stationary truck. That implies . . . what, exactly ?

I think it implies that they just skipped the word “stationary” and never came back.

Not good.

More in a bit.

And see:
All guess, no check
Not a potted plant
No guess, no check
Google Master is the Google Master

8 thoughts on “Not a potted plant

  1. If your students came up in a system where teachers were “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage,” would they think you would even have answers that could help them?


  2. Maybe they thought you meant a “stationery truck” and were too polite to point out the spelling error? (Of course, the chance that they know the difference between “stationary” and “stationery” is even smaller, and who is selling enough stationery to have a truck full of it?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sort of my thought, too.

      From just the sentence, it’s not clear whether it was a stationary truck facing the moving vehicle (which could be referred to as “coming the other way”, since that was likely its last direction of movement even though it isn’t currently moving) or a stationery truck traveling (or travelling, depending on dialect) in the opposite direction to the reporting vehicle.

      If it’s the former, it’s just a problem of describing the situation on the wrong time scale.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. oh heck ! I wish I’d asked. One student, a young woman from South Korea, **did** think it meant paper supplies …. (and told me so)

      But, of course, she looked up the word after the test & pointed out her error to me.

      Apparently they still look up words in South Korea.

      (Also … no cell phones in class, no eating in class — she was pretty amazed by classroom mores here)


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