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When we are talking about an exam or end-of-term test in mathematics, is it more common to describe the main parts of a problem set as:

  1. Tasks
  2. Exercises
  3. Questions
  4. Problems

and what is the proper name for the subproblems? I have little idea of how the distribution of the usage of those various words in this regard is, and if there is a choice of words that is more idiomatic or prevalent throughout the native speaker communities. Is there a difference between US-English and British-English too?


Any clarifications or discussions about the usage of any of the suggested words above or other words describing the same are very welcome, indeed!


CONTEXT: I teach mathematics at an international line of the Danish so-called Gymnasium (upper secondary level). And I am trying to converge on a standard usage of the English so that we do not invent local mal-practices, but it is quite difficult at times since I still have a lot of uncertainties above specific words myself.

  • That is a lot of questions. The four words you list each have different meanings and would therefore be used differently. Could you clarify your exact problem. – Chenmunka Mar 11 '16 at 9:40
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    On the British usage side of things, pretty much every test I've ever taken, including mathematical ones, called them "questions". It's equally valid to refer to maths questions as problems, though. "tasks" and "exercises" tend to be used to refer to things that you work through while learning, rather than things you answer during an end-of-term test. – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 9:40
  • @JohnClifford: Thank you! That was what I thought too, but I live and work with non-native speakers in Denmark and was confused to hear and see "Task" and "Exercise" used for tests too. By intuition, I would go with problem and subproblem. What would you call the subitems of a question? Parts or subquestions or something of the like? – String Mar 11 '16 at 9:44
  • When we refer to them specifically we usually call them by the letter that was used to denote them in the paper, like "What did you have for 1c?" but "parts" would be another valid term I'd use. – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 9:45
  • @JohnClifford: And the problem set would then rather be referred to as a test or a question sheet or something like that? – String Mar 11 '16 at 9:49
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While any of those words could be used, the simplest choice would be to call each of the numbered sections in a maths exam "questions", and to the sub-problems as "parts" of a question.

Thus you could ask your student to redo question 3, or to check her answer to part b of question 4.

Of your other suggestions:

  • "Task" suggests something that will take longer than an exam. You might set the student the task of investigating prime numbers.
  • "Exercise" suggests a collection of short questions. A book might include an exercise composed of 20 quadratic equations
  • "Problem" Is one type of question, generally one that requires analysis or higher reasoning, rather than the use of an algorithm.

But there is considerable overlap.

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