# What are the implications of the whole class failing an exam?

I am an MSc student and in my class are 10 people. The module has been taught exceptionally poorly and as a result none of us can see ourselves passing the module. The exam is in two days time. By failing the exam we will have to retake it in the summer because we will not met the threshold to pass the module.

The lecturer mentioned that the department was thinking of scrapping this module so this may be the last time it is run. Also throughout the module we got the impression the lecturer was really concerned about us and we got the impression people have done really badly in this module in previous years to cause him concern. Talking to other lecturers in private, have supported the fact that this professor is very bad and has not taught the module well enough to prepare us for the exam.

In the open book homework assignments, the class average has been high, around the 60%-70% region. But these assignments in total only account for 20% of the final module grade. The final exam accounts for 80% of the final grade.

What are the implications, if any, for the lecturer or the university if everyone in the class fails the final exam?

I am in the UK.

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It depends very much on the school, the department, the status of the lecturer, and probably the country/academic system. Anecdotally, I've heard from fellow junior faculty that when they tried to submit grades with too many failing students, the department "strongly encouraged" them to be more lenient. But this was in the US, where failing is seen as a bigger deal than in some other systems, as I understand it. – user37208 Jan 10 at 18:15
It's not clear to me why you think that everyone in the class might fail the exam? – Brian Borchers Jan 10 at 23:38
There is always that one guy who knows everything from the module before the course started, and he probably isn't hanging out with everyone else because you would have known that by now... – Nelson Jan 11 at 5:11
Studying math I experienced this: A test had 4 subtests each awarding 25%. A conversion table was used to get the grade from the percentage. > 50% to pass, 75% ~ average grade. Too many failed and the percentages were multiplied by a factor. The clever students were able to get more than 90% and with the multiplication factor they went above 100%. The grade distribution was weird with a big group barely passing and a smaller group getting the rarely awarded max grade. The factor increased each year. It was unsustainable and algebra was eventually assigned to another professor. – Martin Liversage Jan 11 at 9:30
@MartinLiversage That is generally less of an issue in the UK because the average grade would be closer to 60%. – Jessica B Jan 11 at 12:31

In the UK, if it's felt that noone has reached the required standard then noone will pass. The basic paradigm is that everyone is measure against a standard, unlike in North America where it's more about measuring students against the others in the class. Still, it would not be a popular move to fail a whole class. What the effect on the lecturer would be will depend on their position, and what the uni is like.

Given it's two days from the exam, and I'm guessing it's in maths or similar, I think you should start memorising. The pass mark is 40% (usually), and with high homework scores you can pass with slightly less than that. You're more likely to convince someone you deserve to pass if you can show you've understood the basic ideas of the topic. Make sure you can reproduce the key definitions and theorems, and have at least an intuitive understanding on the methods of proof appropriate to what you are doing.

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I would say the North America part of your answer is incorrect or at least far from universal. I have taught in four USA universities and never seen this policy. – If you do not know- just GIS Jan 11 at 4:35
It's not the standard grading policy, but some professors do grade on a curve in some classes in the US. – dramzy Jan 11 at 7:42
@Ifyoudonotknow-justGIS What I came across was students and staff telling me that the most important thing was the average. Also, the (high) school system doesn't allow for proper comparison, as I've encountered it. The people I spoke to said they would be ranked within their school, but there's no reference point between different schools. That's a big contrast with the UK, where exams are set and marked nationally. – Jessica B Jan 11 at 8:14
The thing that most strikes me as unusual is the variation in the exams. If you're trying to argue over marks, I would probably start from there. But I would probably check first with another professor in the subject, as it's just possible that the questions are more similar than they appear to students. I would also look up the examiners' report, if you can. If there's been high fail rates in the past, there should be some comments about how the module should be treated in future. If problems are ongoing then stopping the module is the obvious choice, and you say that's already on the cards. – Jessica B Jan 11 at 8:27
I think the answer has a point, even if maybe it's not phrased as I would put it. Based on my experience in the NA system (less than @Ifyoudonotknow-justGIS, to be sure), we do use the idea that there is a certain standard students are expected to reach. But if an entire class fails an exam, we typically take that to mean one of two things: (1) the exam was too hard, setting up even those students who did meet the standard to fail, or (2) the standard itself was unreasonable. We typically don't entertain the possibility that every student in the class is simply not good enough. – David Z Jan 11 at 9:59

First, to make sure that we are talking about the same thing, let me make clear that my answer pertains to a scenario in which the entire class failed after making a sincere, good faith effort to study and do as well as possible on the exam. (If you are talking about something else, like students conspiring with each other to all fail the exam as a form of protest of the bad quality of teaching or because they believe it is pointless to even try to study for it, my answer would be very different.)

Now that we got that clarification out of the way: if all the students failed, that would certainly be a very clear warning sign to the professor and department that something has gone seriously wrong with the course. What I would recommend in that case is for the students to document their grievances in a very clear way, including any relevant evidence, and take the matter up with the department chair or head or other appropriate university authority. Assuming that you are in a reputable department at a reputable university, what I expect to happen is that the department will initiate some kind of external review of what took place by people other than your professor. Assuming that your claims are found to be reasonable, I believe the department will be strongly motivated to take steps to address the situation in a way that repairs at least some of the harm that was done to the students. This could be in the form of a change to some or all of the grades, or, if it turns out the grades are essentially meaningless and no useful information can be salvaged from them, some other creative solution.

If the department is unwilling to address your complaints, you can try to enlist the help of your student union, go to other university authorities (e.g., dean, grade appeal committee, ombuds office), and, if else fails, even try to use social media to create a scandal and rally support for your cause. However, if you really have a strong case with good evidence that you have been mistreated, I doubt that will be necessary, since no sensible department will want to risk having its reputation tarnished by mistreating its students in a blatantly unfair way.

Finally, let me add that in my opinion the right thing for you to do right now is to concentrate on studying for the exam and not worry too much about emailing the professor with your concerns or about what will happen in the aftermath. It may turn out that your concerns were unwarranted and a good number of students end up doing just fine, so all this energy that you are spending right now on worrying would have been better spent on studying. Good luck!

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Solutions are to retake exams or other evaluations, as the extant ones are probably tainted or at least so heavily biased/measuring irrelevant aspects (here some teachers are accused to write exams like a sphinx, only those who solve the riddles know what is being asked) to be useless. Much more damage would be done if the material was not assimilated at all, which would mean retaking the course in any case. – vonbrand Jan 11 at 0:42
I think it's imperative to voice concerns as early as possible, as opposed to only after the exam. 1) The teacher should get honest feedback and the chance (time-wise) to change things. 2) Complaints after the fact can be interpreted more negatively. Compare "Dear Dean, I think this course has serious problem X. What can we do about that?" with "Dear Dean, we all failed because of X. Please help!". – Raphael Jan 11 at 22:01
@Raphael that's a good point, and indeed it would have been better to start complaining a long time ago, but two days before the exam I think it's best to focus on studying. Also, if it proves necessary this page can be used to document the students' concerns. – Dan Romik Jan 11 at 23:11
Based on my experience with professors and officials, a voiced concern now ("I've been studying for X weeks [better make sure that's plural] but Y makes me doubt that it is possible to prepare properly for Z on the exam.") still beats whining after the exam. The email takes you fifteen minutes to write, so it's not a big deal. But you are right: all you can do on your end is study. (Disclaimer: in my experience, such concerns voiced by students are usually based on wrong assumptions/expectations and lack of self-responsibility. Such effect nothing. You need factual, undisputable mistakes.) – Raphael Jan 12 at 8:26

Everything will depend on individual university policies.

I can say that at my institution, more than a few eye brows would be raised and the professor would have to have a very good basis for failing more prone than the very unofficial maximum of about 15-20%. If it's because no one turned in their final paper, or everyone were caught cheating, the failing grades would be justified. If the final paper were unreasonable ("write a three hundred page paper, topic to be assigned two weeks before it's due"), then students should go through standard grievance channels.

If this were an undergraduate intro class with departmental exams and several other instructors teaching the same course, then if a pattern of poor exam performance is established, then if the professor were non-tenure track, they'd likely not have their contract renewed.

For graduate level classes, I'll admit, I've never seen or heard of such a thing. If students could document genuine pedagogical incompetency, then perhaps the department could arrange a solution, though what that would be, I'm not sure. If it's incompetent assessment (but not instruction) they could probably just give an alternate assessment and have other faculty grade it. Something similar happened to me when a professor died towards the end of the course although we didn't actually have to rewrite the paper thankfully.

In all cases, though, merely having all failing grades will only pique the interest of your instructor's colleagues/department head. Everything else will depend on department policies, the instructor's status in the department, the reason for the failing grades, etc.

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What can you recommend we do? A couple of us emailed the lecturer expressing our worries but he has not replied. When he does reply would it be worth talking to him in private and offering a different idea on how he could examine us ? – Al jabra Jan 10 at 18:37
You indicate the course has been taught badly before. Is there a picture of the type of exam you are to expect? Failing of of a whole class is extremely rare, is the topic so difficult? – Captain Emacs Jan 10 at 18:47
@captainEmacs Yes we have past exams but they dont help in this case.The questions are all very different across all the papers, there is no consistency in the type of questions that come up. The course is very difficult and very lengthy, the module contains three times as many more notes as all other modules. – Al jabra 25 mins ago – Al jabra Jan 10 at 19:18
From the outset, it looks like an interesting module; what is your evidence that the lecturer did a bad job in the past? Was it worse than last years (you seem to indicate that it was bad before)? Too much material? Too difficult material? Incomplete explanations? Or something else? I have seen (when I still was a student, when this was considered acceptable) failure rates of 80%, but never 100%. Especially as it is not the first time this is run, such a bad rate would be pretty rare. – Captain Emacs Jan 10 at 19:31
@Aljabra I'm not in the UK, but I'd say document, document, document. Any extraordinary action taken by the department would almost certainly require extraordinary evidence. If you're not getting responses to e-mail, consult in person (tactfully). Sometimes, mentioning things in passing to other professors can have some effect (in small departments especially), but sometimes not. If there is a student Ombudsman or Dean of Student's office, they may be able to provide more specific advice with respect to your institution. – guifa Jan 10 at 20:36

It is very difficult to write an exam that everyone fails and still adhere to departmental rules and the office of the dean. In organic chemistry it is quite common actually for the majority of the class to fail just by the difficulty and amount of material. That is the purpose of the curve. I taught at the most prestigious engineering school in the country and it was mandated that a C- (70%) must be the average at the end of the semester. How that was done was not difficult as there is always some type of normal distribution unless there is an exceptionally small class, in which case the few in the course would earn a C-.

However there was a situation recently wherein the professor by deliberate choice failed his entire management class and there was a great deal of fallout. His reasoning was simply this:

None of you, in my opinion, given the behavior in this class, deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character. It is thus for these reasons why I am officially walking away from this course. I am frankly and completely disgusted. You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level ... I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade.

As predicted, a higher-up in administration didn't elaborate but his pompous outburst was quashed as the university reported that his intentions would not come to fruition.

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The administration intervened in that Texas A&M case because students weren't given a chance to take the final exam and pass or fail the class on academic grounds. The administration said: "No student who passes the class academically will be failed." I don't believe it's strictly relevant to this case, where the students expect to fail on academic grounds. – ff524 Jan 11 at 0:25
@ff524: Although this is certainly a different situation, I think it remains relevant to the question at hand. It provides a boundary case, at least. – Pete L. Clark Jan 11 at 1:19
Some skepticism as to the claims of this new user, using the title of a classic rock album and the picture of a glamor model with her derriere exposed, having "taught at the most prestigious engineering school in the country", seems warranted. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 11 at 2:21
The difficulty in writing an exam adhering to the rules and where everyone fails depends on the country: the OP is in the UK, where rules seems to be different from the US. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 11 at 3:57
@MassimoOrtolano It definitely does depend on country. I would have no trouble writing an exam adhering to departmental policy in the Czech republic which fails the whole class. And that's true even if the professor did a very decent job of explaining the material. Failing a student is trivial. – DRF Jan 11 at 5:03

I have a suspicious mind. One possible cause of all students failing is the students deciding to fail in order to make trouble for the instructor. I am finding it difficult to see how the OP and the OP's peers can know they are going to fail unless that is what may be happening. They got good average grades on the homeworks, so it is not a case of unfairly harsh grading. If, in past years, everyone failed the exam they would know what happens afterwards.

That would be a very bad strategy, as well as dishonest. People experienced in grading exams in the subject are likely to be able to distinguish deliberate failure from students failing due to excessive difficulty of the exam despite doing their best.

I hope I am wrong, and the OP intends best effort on the exam.

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The OP indicates they are in an MSc (Masters ?) program. As such, one would expect to have sufficient academic experience and familiarity with both the college's, the faculty's and the professor's expectations by now. In a class full of experienced students someone should have been able to the identify teaching gap and raise the concerns with the lecturer or department faculty earlier. It seems rather too late to deal with now in an impartial manner

I had one such experience in my first year in a 100-level. By the end of the third week the class took their concerns to the department head and within 2 weeks they completed an assessment, validated our concerns, assigned a replacement lecturer and gave due consideration in the final grading that we could not reasonably complete the entire curricula under the circumstances in contrast to the other classes.

It's your education; take charge. If you sit there like a lump on a log, you get as much out of it as the mushroom does.

As for the actual grading question, again you should understand what are the expectations. My brother took a Master's level astrophysics course where the professor indicated at the outset: This was probably the toughest course in the department and the college. In turn they were some of the brightest students in the school. The point of the course was to stretch the students understanding of the subject. His exams (mid and final) would be 3 questions each, 3 marks each. Expect almost all students to fail. Answering a question correctly would get you one mark; demonstrating an in-depth understanding of the material got you 2. If you got 3, you probably wrote the theory/book and are auditing the course. Most students were expected to get 3 marks (1/1/1) or (2/1/0). The class final average was ~ 2.7; yet all but was given a pass. That grade was not based on a curve, rather the professor's assessment of whether the students truly demonstrated they learned the material. Everyone understood the terms and expectations from outset.

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