A student in an undergrad class seems to have forgotten to answer the last few questions on a written essay.

This student has achieved an average of A+ so far (over the term)

The last few questions are not worth much, but is the difference between receiving an A and an A+

This student has also submitted a draft of this essay earlier in the term to get feedback (all students are allowed to do this once).

Should I give 0 because this student did not answer it, or part marks because this student knows how to answer it (as evidenced by the draft) but simply forgot?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 13:27
  • 4
    What does it mean to have submitted a draft version of an exam question? Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 14:25
  • 4
    1. Did the draft essay include the last few questions? 2. Same question as @DanielR.Collins - how can an essay with drafts be eventually written as answers in an exam taken on campus?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 14:43
  • 3
    Is casually asking the student a possibility? That should inform your decision - i.e., you'd get closure but from a pure "test" perspective, forgot is the same as doesn't exist. However, if the student did submit but you don't have it, then it's a different problem. But you'd also have to ask the other students who "perhaps forgot" to be fair.
    – PhD
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 23:29
  • 8
    This is precisely why you should grade blind.
    – cfr
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 4:19

18 Answers 18


You should give zero for the answers in question. You are grading what the student handed in, not what s/he potentially could have handed in. The logistics are just as much part of fulfilling an assignment as the knowledge. It would be unfair to the other students to be more lenient on this particular student than others.

If you wish, you may give the student another chance to answer these questions, but then you should do the same for all students.

(I once failed to notice in an exam that the question sheet was printed front and back, and only answered the questions on the front. I duly accepted my C+, along with the two others who had made the same mistake...)

  • 146
    If three people made that same mistake, then that sounds like a flaw with the test. There's a reason why tests or professors will sometimes make note of the test being two-sided. Even though it was ultimately your responsibility to check, that doesn't mean that improvements can't be made or that leniency shouldn't be granted. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 10:14
  • 74
    If you "forgot" about the back side of a contract, you're gonna have a really hard time explaining that to a judge when you get sued for a breach of contract. Getting reduced grade is a good way to learn this lesson.
    – Nelson
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 10:27
  • 42
    Hmm. Just because you suffered through it doesn’t mean others have to. At least the handed-in draft should count for something: there’s really no good argument to discount it, other than senseless adherence to rules (which, for me, is indistinguishable from malice). Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 10:33
  • 39
    @Nelson That's why in contracts the pages are usually numbered (at least the contracts I had the pleasure of reading). This is a feature which should not be missing on any exam either.
    – M.Herzkamp
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 11:18
  • 76
    @Nelson Most contracts are initialized on each page and signed on the last page. If someone comes with a contract with a signature on the front page and no signature on the back page I would not be confident that a judge would rule that the provisions on the back side was valid.
    – Taemyr
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:24

You have to be uniform in grading. If you are going to make an exception for one student, then you need to make that same exception for every other student in the class who would be affected.

If a "star student" screws up, you can't give her special treatment that you wouldn't extend to a D- student who made the same mistake.

(Personally, I would not give credit unless there was clear evidence something went wrong—for instance, did a page get lost somehow? Instructors are not infallible, and sometimes things can get messy if there are a lot of papers to grade.)

  • 6
    But if only one student forgot the last page, is it unfair to the others to let them finish it?
    – WGroleau
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:38
  • 19
    Yes, it is unfair. I didn’t say forget to finish, but if there’s an error on the instructors’ part—did a page get separated?—then an exception is reasonable, since the fault isn’t the student’s.
    – aeismail
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 18:17
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    @aeismail: What if the instructor would be willing to do this for a D-student too? Is it still unfair to you?
    – user541686
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 23:43
  • 3
    @mehrdad: then what's the point of having a test given at a specific time on a specific day?
    – NotMe
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 1:22
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    @Mehrdad: If it's the student's fault, it's unfair unless the instructor actually goes through all the exams, and gives the same opportunity to everyone affected. If it's the instructor's fault, that's a different matter.
    – aeismail
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 1:30

Since most answer seem to have the opposite opinion I think that at least the other side needs to be voiced. The goal of grading is to accurately track how well a student understands and can apply the material taught in class. Written tests and exam papers are just a convenient way to measure this, they are a proxy for it. One answer even suggested that the exam was meant to test the "testing" skill. It is not. It is just an inconvenient side effect that it does. If you are convinced a student understands the material and is able to apply it then you should grade him as such.

As noted there can be downsides to this. There is the issue of perceived unfairness and other students might start to make (false) claims that they too just forgot some question etc.

Furthermore, it is true that there is some real unfairness in the fact that quite likely sometimes you will know the student well enough to know to award him the points and other times you won't. But then again there is something unfair about not awarding him the points when clearly he knew the answer. I think correcting injustice where you see it is more fair than ignoring it just so that you are treating all injustice the same way.

What is also important is that you don't run into trouble for your method of grading. So don't stray to far from acceptable local grading methods. Since cultures differ widely in what is acceptable and isn't acceptable I would also advice ask a colleague at your own university as his answer is more valuable to your specific case than a general stackexchange answer will be.

For the future. If you feel like you can get a more accurate measure of a student in the interactions you have with him throughout the course than from a written form of exam it might be a good idea to explicitly make clear from the beginning that interactions throughout the course make up a small part of the grading (this encourages questions and active participation).

  • 8
    The question specifically mentions an essay. In an essay you should not only be judged on what you know, but on how well you can present that knowledge.
    – pipe
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 13:40
  • 1
    Indeed you might still deduct some point for not presenting these answers eloquently (since there was no presentation at all).
    – Kvothe
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 13:51
  • 1
    Exams are for presenting knowledge in the appropriate format. One student showing they know something in an exam setting is very different than showing it in an uncontrolled setting. Exams test your ability to apply knowledge under specific constraints; one of which is generally time. It's not just about proving that you've applied the knowledge before. The controlled setting is important. Some people get really stressed during exams. It's not fair to them to give other people points because they can demonstrate knowledge outside of exam format. That's not what is being tested.
    – JMac
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 19:26
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    The thing is, if we award points based on "the teacher knows the student knew the answer", why have tests in the first place? Just have teachers give evaluations of what they think the student knows. Twofold answer: First, teachers aren't mind-readers; tests are a way for the teacher to figure out what a student knows. But we could still say that this is the general case, and in specific cases where the teacher DOES know what the student knows (like here, supposedly, thanks to the draft essay) it is OK to use that. Which gets to the second point: teacher bias. (...)
    – Oosaka
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 12:19
  • 2
    (...) There are a million ways a teacher can favor students they find congenial over those they don't, and human nature makes the impulse to do so inevitable, if only subconsciously. And "subconsciously" is more than enough to have real effects. One way to reduce this is external fairness-imposing rules. Even with such rules (such as ostensibly fair testing practices) it's very easy for a teacher to show favoritism if they're so inclined; without them it all goes out the window. "I'll give points to this student I wouldn't otherwise because I know they know" has huge potential for bias.
    – Oosaka
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 12:30

To start with, giving them partial credit for a blank question would be unfair to all other students. Additionally, test-taking or essay-writing are also skills to be gained during education, not only knowledge. Would you give partial credit to a student who runs out of time in an exam, or tell them that "next time, you should bring a watch and keep some control of the time, and think you you spend the time in the exam"? Reading carefully the questions and making sure everything is answered is part of the assignment itself, like in real life they will have to learn all their customer's needs and meet all of them, whatever it is they work on. Finally, this is an undergrad, and the discussion is between an A and an A+. Like, what are the stakes? If this was a matter of "this student will be invited to leave the program if not for this partial credit" or "fired from their job", you may want to be lenient and take their whole performance into consideration and not a single essay, or if it was a matter of health issues and they had written it while being sick, but, really, what is the life impact of an A instead of an A+ in an undergraduate program? Seriously. The impact on this student's life is minimal and you are risking being accused of having favorites (which is not necessarily true) and of unfair grading policies (which would be true, or at least the grading policy would be different for one student compared to others).

  • 1
    "To start with, giving them partial credit for a blank question would be unfair to all other students." How? Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 16:07
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    Because any other student with a blank question or a blank exam would not get any point for it. All students need to be graded under the same rubric.
    – Anna SdTC
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 17:53
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    Well, the OP is talking about giving credit to one student who left part of an essay blank, not about giving credit to the whole class for parts of the essay that each person left blank. If there was any hint that the OP would apply the same policy to all the class, it would be fair. Grading a single student under a different rubric is definitely not.
    – Anna SdTC
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 18:46
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    @Acccumulation Then you should reread the question. They explicitly ask "Should I give 0 because this student did not answer it, or part marks because this student knows how to answer it (as evidenced by the draft) but simply forgot?" They are clearly leaning towards giving points due to the draft, and they are clearly talking about a specific student.
    – JMac
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 19:22
  • 4
    @JMac "Then you should reread the question." Just because someone reaches different conclusions doesn't mean they lack in reading comprehension. "They are clearly leaning towards giving points due to the draft" That does nothing to contradict my position. "they are clearly talking about a specific student." There is a specific student who is in this situation, but no indication that a different student in the same situation would be treated differently. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 19:52

Give the student partial credit for these questions based on the draft. This ensures the assessment is based on the student's knowledge, rather than the mechanical aspect of copying information from the draft to the exam paper. The "penalty" is that they may lose points if their draft answer is of lower quality, as they won't have had a chance to incorporate any of the feedback and revise it.

For fairness, do the same for any other students who have omitted questions on the exam but answered them in their drafts.

  • I don't see the question stating there were any drafts. We would never have had enough time to first write a draft and then copy it in an exam.
    – skymningen
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 11:04
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    @skymningen Yes, there was a draft. This student has also submitted a draft of this essay earlier in the term
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 11:08
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    If the exam was timed, that means they get an unfair advantage, because students who did answer the last questions had less time to spend on the earlier questions. If the student had forgotten to hand in some coursework that wasn't done with a time limit, then allowing earlier drafts that were handed in to count would be reasonable, but work that wasn't done under exam conditions shouldn't count towards an exam mark.
    – armb
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 11:56

You need to stick to the marking scheme.

That said, if many missed the last question or it was poorly answered by most then you may consider completely removing that question - this means that all students are still graded on the same basis.

You cannot arbitrarily change the scheme for one student only.

  • 14
    Removing a question is still unfair on those who spent their time on it, and scored higher than others. Any moderation of the marks must preserve the order according to the marks on the exam they sat.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 6:46
  • 4
    @SolarMike that doesn't preserve the order at all, somebody who didn't answer it gains far more additional marks than those who did. It's just as unfair on those who spent time producing a good answer for that question as giving everybody zero marks for it.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 7:29
  • 14
    @SolarMike What? No. Jessica said that giving everybody zero on a particular question would be unfair to those students who did well on that question and would change the ordering of students. Your response was to suggest giving everybody full marks for that question instead, and suggest that this would preserve the order of marks. I'm saying that Jessica's point is equally valid in either case. If everybody gets the same marks for that question it makes no difference whether that is zero, full marks, or anywhere in between.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 7:48
  • 1
    If fairness is not the point, why do all students have to complete the same exam in the same amount of time with the same limitations on outside resources? Why are disadvantaged students provided with additional aid in completing exams? @WGroleau
    – Nij
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 4:31
  • 2
    Your sarcasm aside, the law makes clear that judging is fine - it is a problem only when the judgement is based on irrelevant factors instead of those the assessment should.
    – Nij
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 20:38

It's context dependent. You should abide by whatever grading policy you have in place. In the future, you can have grading be minimum guarantees. So the student will receive a grade no lower than the numerical score, but the teacher reserves the right to move the grade up by a third of a letter if his/her professional judgement warrants such.

If he/she is a star student, you can explain to him/her that you would be happy to write a letter of recommendation for him/her in the future. That will be worth far more than A vs. A+ over the long run.

  • I think this may be the best way to handle this particular situation. Fudging the exam score for one particular student is patently unfair to the rest of the class, for reasons stated in other answers. But there are times when a professor can justify giving a higher grade than what a spreadsheet might say to give (such marked improvement over the course of the semester; or one solitary bad score that mars an otherwise exemplary performance). This should be done prudently and sparingly, of course, but there are legitimate reasons for the occasional exception.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 20:59
  • It's likely the grading scheme does not address every possible eventuality, e.g. what if an accidental water stain covers some of the text of the answer - and also - what if someone flipped two pages by mistake.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 14:36

Here's a pragmatic answer: you should give 0 because otherwise students (this student or others) might get the idea that they can get extra marks this way, and either attempt to do so or else complain at the idea of others doing so.


To be fair to all other students, you should grade whatever the student handed in. If the student forgot to answer the last few questions, then marks should not be awarded for these particular questions.


From a 20 year old student point of view

In Italy, where I live, each question on an test weights around 10 points. If a student forgets to answer a question they usually can ask for a retry in an oral test (or sometimes written).

This test allows the student to get at least a few of the points they would normally get for a forgotten question (normally up to 5 points). But it also allows the teacher to ask extra questions about the same subject as the original forgotten question.

Asking extra or harder questions (together with the penalty in not giving all point he would normally get) in this case is usually done to prevent a student to cheat using this mechanism by making sure he can't just look at the test and leave the questions he doesn't know the answer to blank, then study those questions and get the full points later.

Seeing you said that the student has indeed shown that he knows the answer to the question you might be able to give him a few points using this method in a fair way, without giving him a huge advantage over other students


Another option is:

You can exclude that part of the exam from the entire course grade.

For example, if the exam was 30% of the course grade, and he forgot 50% of the exam, then you can remove that 15% of the course grade and just scale the rest accordingly.

Ultimately this is a subjective question and there are multiple answers that would be valid, but as long as you would be willing to do this for any student who seemed to make this genuine mistake regardless of his/her grade in the course, I think this option would also make sense: after all, you could easily make the argument that you're trying to gauge their understanding of the course material, not their ability to make logistical errors.

Furthermore, don't forget you still have the discretion to award an A+ for the course if you still think the student had A+-quality work throughout the semester. You don't need to change the exam grade for that.

Lastly, note that I assuming this is about higher education. If you're talking about high school or earlier, I would be more lenient, treating them more like kids than adults for these mistakes.

  • The statement that a grade can be awarded simply because the course organiser wants to, is false in many universities. Second, disincluding an entire assessment is unfair to all students and does nothing better than ignoring just the missed question, or is just plain not possible, if the institution policies (or the laws governing them) do not allow it. -1 for local statements made as if they're universal, with no evidence that they're true for the asker.
    – Nij
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 4:27
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    @Nij: Do you have a single counterexample you can share or are you just downvoting due to a hypotheticals? In every college I'm aware of, including but not limited to my own, instructors were well within their rights to award whatever grades they felt reflected student performance, irrespective of their grades on intermediate assignments. Would love to hear your counterexamples.
    – user541686
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 4:45
  • 1
    You give zero evidence except "this is how it works in all the ones I know". Then you complain that the criticism states the same thing. Either it's good enough or it isn't. Give the evidence to support your positive claim first.
    – Nij
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 4:42

Grade it as it is turned in - if questions are not answered they are incorrect, if they are answered wrong they are incorrect. This guarantees a couple of things -

1: Most Importantly Fairness : your own bias for a particular student who "knows the answers" gets in the way.

2: Like giving a bonus to an employee who 'knows how to sell' but did not sell ie meet the quota. Life lesson achievers receive, do'ers receive. They will always put forth whatever effort they need to succeed.

You are not being mean, hateful or otherwise regardless of the empathy you might feel for this student.

I think that it might be another thing if that student had two of their family members killed or die the day or two before the exam .. but that is what I would call a human thing - you can understand with good reason the student would be under duress. In that case I might be compassionate - but I would make a note to self that is my rule for any and all students..

  • 1
    As for that part about bias, that's exactly why I ask all my students to write their name on the cover sheet of the exam, and on the cover sheet ONLY. This lets me grade the all exams without knowing whose test is being graded, thereby eliminating that bias.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 20:48
  • @J.R. and that is good as long as you don't recognize handwriting - my memory can sometimes be a bit photographic .. but you are correct in grading as you do - to know ourselves (or say also our human nature) is a good part of how to understand fairness to others.
    – Ken
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 10:14
  • It’s not foolproof, that’s for sure. There are almost inevitably a few students with very distinctive handwriting (be it excessively neat, or atrociously small and hard-to-read), or that one student with the bold blue gel pen. But the majority of the class is still being graded in near anonymity.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 11:07

You might have the option to give an incomplete for the class, since, to your judgement, it was an incomplete assignment.

This is a generous approach.

Then the student can complete the exam, or a replacement exam, and potentially receive their A+. You could let the student know that they wouldn't receive less than an A in either case.


Well, if you were a high school teacher, I'd say to consider the student's work as a whole when marking their work, using the work that they'd submitted over the course of the term, including their drafts.

However, university is generally supposed to be more rigorous than high school, right? So, I probably wouldn't consider the draft when marking the paper unless my department had a policy dictating otherwise.

If you're a relatively new member of your faculty, I'd say to ask one of the more experienced members of your faculty about what your department's policies on this sort of thing are.


For now, you're stuck with the grading policy. If it's black and white, stick to it. This is a learning opportunity for the student.

It's also a learning opportunity for you.

When I was in college, all important exams clearly stated the amount of pages the exam had and the amount of questions it contained. FIRST order of business was checking those numbers when you started the exam.

We all learned something very important there: make sure you know what needs to be done. Were your questions numbered? Was there a front sheet telling your students the amount of pages and questions? If not, consider adding those in the future to avoid exactly this problem.


This situation points to an anomaly in the examination based evaluation system: "You are what you are at the time of examination!" But this can be eased out as follows. If the system permits, one more examination (another written essay in this case) can be conducted to take best of two performances. But even that is not anomaly-free. A student who gets a higher grade with the first exam may lose out on a relative grading scale if others perform relatively better in the second. When the second examination is not announced a priori, it can be a cause of concern for such a student. So the best of two can then be applied on grades and not on marks. With the first exam, if a student gets a B, and considering the second one a 'C', then the final grade is B, and so on.

  • So you suggest to suddenly announce a second examination? How would that be fair to the students who cannot plan accordingly? Also, it might be that the exam in question already comes with a reiteration or is the reiteration itself – at least it would at most be a subtle change to the question. Having two exams may slightly alleviate the situation for the student but it doesn’t fix it.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 17:07
  • As mentioned in the solution, best of two needs to be applied on grades, not on marks.
    – dry leaf
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 17:57
  • Personally I believe marks should always be adjusted (or, consideration should be given to doing so) before combining different scores, to avoid results being skewed by different difficulties of different parts of the assessment.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:34
  • Surely the simplest approach, if you want to go this way, is to just do best of two on the draft and the final essay? If the draft is better, assign a grade to the draft and that's the final grade. Unless I'm misunderstanding the situation, I'm honestly unsure what purpose an "exam" that contains a pre-written essay serves anyway or why it is a useful activity to have students come in and transfer an essay they've already written to an exam paper. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:51
  • best of two needs to be applied on grades, not on marks – and that would solve the problem how?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 23:14

I believe the second is more fair: part marks because this student knows how to answer it (as evidenced by the draft) but simply forgot? Because the essence is that he shows he has the knowledge. Let's say another student did manage to answer but his answer was poor enough comparing to the first who didn't. What's the point of the exams? To demonstrate that you learnt the lessons & can 'teach' it to others.

  • 3
    Exams prove that you can apply the knowledge in a controlled setting. By doing a draft at home, you haven't really proven anything about your ability to function on an exam. It's not fair to give points to the person who left an exam empty while another person wrote in a poor quality answer due to the stress of the setting. In that case, they should have left it blank too and relied on the draft. That's not fair to everyone actually writing during the exam.
    – JMac
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 19:29
  • 2
    Also, this student used their time to improve their marks on other parts of the paper. Giving them marks for prior work is basically giving them a lot of extra time that others didn't get.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:30
  • @JMac: I teach people "Calculus" or "Programming in C", not "calculus under pressure" or "programming within 3 hours only". Like other answers have suggested, the settings of an exam should not be considered more than an unfortunate artifice.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 14:41
  • Incomplete answer. Please elaborate.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 2:35
  • @einpoklum It's only fair that if everyone else is marked based on the "unfortunate" process; everyone should be. It's not exactly fair to grade 99% of your students for "Programming with 3 hours only" then grade on something else for one student.
    – JMac
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 13:44

In real life, say the student becomes a secret agent, and they "forgot" to defuse the bomb before it detonated, killing 20,000 civilians. Do you just let them off because their previous job performance was decent enough? No.

"But that's unfair!" you may say. No, it's not. What would be unfair would be giving this student marks for doing nothing: unfair to the other students who did in fact have the wherewithall to turn up to an examination then answer the questions you asked.

Backing out of the fantasy for a moment, consider some practical issues with your specific situation. Perhaps the student ran out of time (for which you don't give free marks, do you?) or perhaps, when preparing a draft essay for you out of examination conditions, they'd cheated.

If this student complains, tell them they are not in kindergarten any more, and they should pay more attention to what they are doing. It is a valuable life lesson.

  • 2
    This is exactly what they call "False Analogy". I mean, secret agent?? seriously? LOL
    – polfosol
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 11:16
  • @polfosol: The situation is the same if you make the answer boring and have it talk about a devop or a bank teller instead. No matter what you do in life, you don't get points for "forgetting" to do your job, so why should you be rewarded in an exam? Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 14:48
  • @polfosol: You're free to write your own more boring answer though :) Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 14:50
  • @polfosol: Plus I dare say the OP didn't specify that the exam wasn't an exam on being a secret agent Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 14:50
  • Although my point still stands, but your last comment definitely deserves a +1 ;)
    – polfosol
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 16:46

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