A story problem is a type of exam question that presents a situation, followed by one or more questions based on that situation. They're presented for any number of reasons, including:

  • to test whether or not the exam-taker can apply their knowledge on a subject to a real-world situation
  • to ensure that the exam-taker has a sufficient grasp of any complexities endemic to the material
  • to see if the exam-taker is able to integrate knowledge from different disciplines or areas
  • to determine whether the exam-taker is capable of discerning the subject material amidst other, possibly irrelevant details
  • to find out whether or not the exam-taker is able to apply his or her knowledge in possibly unexpected ways
  • to simultaneously bore and irritate the exam-taker, while frustrating his or her hopes of finishing the exam early

Perhaps the most famous (and reviled) examples of the story problem go something like this:

Two trains leave stations that are 160 miles apart, heading towards each other on the same track. The first train leaves at 5:00 PM and is travelling at 50 mph, the second leaves at 6:00 PM and is travelling at 60 mph. At what time do they collide, and at what point on the track?

On a personal note - the best story problem I've ever seen was the second part of a lengthy civics exam. It filled an entire sheet of paper, first with a very complex discussion of a legal situation, and then a number of very intricate directions and points to consider in an essay. Right near the end of the list of directions was one that read "You have now finished the test. Put down your pencil, wave to the teacher, and go home." It was interesting to see who started writing, and how they reacted when people started to get up and leave...

Incidentally - 7:00 PM, at a point 100 miles from the first station and 60 miles from the second.

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