During class, I asked my instructor about a certain thing that didn't make sense to me. Basically, there was a problem that I couldn't figure out how to solve using the methods we've studied. The instructor told me that the problem couldn't be solved using those methods. As this aligned with my own suspicion, I took her word on it and moved on.

During the oral exam, I was talking about this, and said that the problem was not solvable. The examinator said that it is solvable using those methods, and he explained how.

My response was "ah, I see, that makes sense", and then we kept on discussing.

But now, after the exam, I am thinking whether it would've been acceptable of me to just "put the blame" on the instructor by saying that I got the wrong information from her?

On one hand, that is the truth, and by telling them this, I might avoid being held responsible for a mistake that wasn't entirely my fault.

On the other hand, and this is how I felt during the exam, it felt to me out of order to bring up the instructor in the exam. She wasn't there to defend herself, so it seemed wrong to talk about her "behind her back", so to speak.

  • 12
    What would you have gained from this? I've never had an oral exam so I don't know how they work. Jun 12, 2018 at 23:49
  • 8
    Life tip: something being someone else's fault doesn't inherently absolve you of responsibility for it.
    – user541686
    Jun 15, 2018 at 8:29
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    Nonetheless, you could not answer.
    – Willtech
    Jun 15, 2018 at 13:20
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    I don't know if it's the same in oral exams, but in real life, blaming someone else is rarely a good strategy. Just turn it around and take the responsibility: "I must have misunderstood what X told me", and you come over as much more professional. Jun 17, 2018 at 9:32
  • @AzorAhai... how? Jun 17, 2018 at 16:33

8 Answers 8


That is an annoying thing that happened to you, and I can see why it would bother you. University instructors are human, and we sometimes make mistakes, or misunderstand a question from a student, or have blind-spots in our knowledge. It is certainly annoying to a student if this leads them to error.

However, there is a bigger issue here. Setting aside the interpersonal issues of whether or not it is advisable to "blame the instructor", I would suggest you take a broader view of your responsibilities as a tertiary-level student. By university level, it is expected that students are no longer children or adolescents, and they are old and ugly enough to critically assess what they are told by their teachers, and proceed on the basis of rational inquiry and evidence, rather than on the basis of faith-in-authority. If you are told by an authority figure like a university instructor that X is true, then it is up to you as a student to seek evidence/argument to confirm this claim, and treat the claim with scepticism if there is not a clear and convincing explanation.

In your case, you were told something that was false by an instructor. Since that thing was false, presumably your instructor could not have backed up the claim with a water-tight argument, had you inquired about the reasoning for the claim. You say you "took her word for it", but that is not what tertiary-level instruction is about. By taking her word for it you rejected the standard of reason and instead adopted the heuristic of believing that which is plausible, and is confirmed to you by the assertion of an authority figure. You paid an appropriate price for that by getting caught in an error in your oral exam, so hopefully, lesson learned.

In this case your instructor probably just made a mistake when she asserted that error to you, or misunderstood your question. However, in my view, it would even be legitimate as a teaching exercise if she intentionally gave you a wrong answer and then tested to see whether you would parrot it back to her in an oral exam. The point here is this: you do not go to university to learn to uncritically repeat the assertions of authority figures with PhDs; you go to university to learn to reason rationally, based on evidence and logic. You failed to do that in this case, so you made a mistake. That is great, because university is where we go to make these mistakes, get penalised for them, and then learn not to do them again.

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    It's usually difficult if not impossible to prove that a problem can't be solved by a particular method.So I don't fault the OP for not insisting on a proof. But then, with this information "known" only on the instructor's authority, the right thing to say in the oral exam would have been "I've been told that the problem isn't solvable" (or perhaps "told by Professor X" or "told by an authoritative source"), not flatly "the problem isn't solvable". Jun 13, 2018 at 2:03
  • 35
    In your case, you were told something that was false by an instructor. - There's also the possibility that the student misunderstood what the professor was saying (the converse to your note that professors sometimes misunderstand students).
    – Kimball
    Jun 13, 2018 at 5:49
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    I have to disagree somewhat here. Hunting for evidence and independent confirmation of everything you hear is a cartoon version of science. By contrast, real scientists accept “that which is plausible”, (and/or “confirmed [by] an authority figure”) all the time. In fact, weighting statements by their prior plausibility and by the reliability of their source is almost certainly how all reasoning works (according to the hypothesis of Bayesian reasoning), and there is, a priori, nothing wrong with it (and it’s not incompatible with “reasoning rationally”). Jun 13, 2018 at 9:41
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    A teacher intentionally giving wrong information would be unethical. To test for "parrots", as you say, it is enough to provide a short (but correct) explanation and check if all you get back is the exact same explanation, without any further insight. Lying is hardly a good teaching option, it will create confusion, and as @KonradRudolph said, we can not check every sentence for accuracy, so we must trust that teachers are right most of the times, and always try to be right. Jun 13, 2018 at 12:03
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    To paraphrase, the student said "I can't see how to solve that with these tools", the instructor said "that's because you can't", and you expect the student to challenge the instructor's statement? The instructor just confirmed what the student had already (incorrectly) established themselves. Jun 13, 2018 at 15:42

Gracefully accepting your mistake was the right thing to do. Even if your examiners took your story at face value, it's doubtful that they would have adjusted your score. It's unfortunate that you got bad advice, but at the end of the day, you're still responsible for the material.


Lots of people will tell you lots of things over the course of your life. Ultimate responsibility for what you choose to believe and what you choose to pass along as true belongs to you.

In this case, assuming that everything you said is true (and five minutes with you in the front of the room during an oral exam is not necessarily the best place for you to assess if the examiner was correct, just as a casual discussion with an instructor after class isn't), you used the body of information you had to form an understanding on a topic, your examiner didn't feel like your understanding was correct, and explained why. You said "thank you". We call this "academic discourse".

Your actions were appropriate, if you did indeed see that the examiner's analysis made sense. That said, if the examiner had made some sort of mistake, and you saw a flaw in that analysis, you might have pointed out the error if you thought your own understanding was correct. If the analysis offered by the examiner wasn't clear to you, you might have asked for clarification. All of these, like the action you took, would have been appropriate. Even if you saw a flaw in the examiner's analysis, and you chose not to point it out, that is fairly acceptable (though I would prefer it if my students stuck to their guns when they know they are right).

"Blaming" someone else for your misunderstanding would not have been appropriate, and might well have been interpreted by your examiners as a character flaw.


You're right - it would have been inappropriate to dump the matter on your instructor. It would have made no difference if she was present at the examination, because that's not the time to get into a he said/she said conversation.

The conversation you want to have is with your instructor. Confirm independently that she was wrong (otherwise you're simply taking the word of the examiner - not much better than simply taking the word of the instructor). Let her know, politely, that the information given in class doesn't seem correct for the following reasons: (show your work). If other students were present when the incorrect information was given, I imagine they would want to make a correction.

I would disagree with Ben and say it's possible she should take some of the blame in this situation, but she is the person best equipped to make that decision as the instructor of your class. We certainly don't have that information. If she feels that it's appropriate, she might speak with the examiner on your behalf.

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    A small note of diverse opinion: It would have made a lot of difference if the instructor was at the room. Of course the student should not promptly point the blame to the instructor, but if the instructor readily assumed partial blame the examiners would lay completely different eyes over the student for the rest of that exam. Also, the student could have made allusions to the conversation he had with the instructor, so that the instructor would remember the event. There is also a possibility of the examiner being wrong, and the instructor's in a more comfortable position to argue this case.
    – Mefitico
    Jun 13, 2018 at 18:38

Short answer:
Suck it up and move on.

Long answer:
Welcome to the real world. It will happen with your colleagues. It will happen with your supervisors. It will happen with your boss. Worse, often time, they would even point the finger back at you and deny they have even said such things. It's your words vs. theirs, and it is a battle you will never win. Paper trail helps, but everyone is too busy to get to the bottom.


I think Ben's answer is great, but I also want to give another possible perspective that has not been mentioned so far:

It could be that during the semester your instructor was referring to the methods you had studied so far, while you were referring to all methods related to the course (?). At least I can see how just a little change in the description of your question has a huge impact on how to interpret what has happened and there is enough room for misunderstandings.

In any circumstance, it is usually never a good idea to blame someone right away. It is, however, always acceptable to ask questions in order to clarify. Never attribute to malice what could be attributed to an honest mistake or misunderstanding. And, as a humble person, always be prepared that it could actually be you who made that mistake (for example, by misinterpreting what was said).


Others have given answers on what to do in that situation. I will instead highlight what I do to avoid this situation beforehand.

After asking the teaching assistant, I try to verify their solution. If I cannot reliably confirm it, especially if they were unsure themselves, I will then send a concise email to a reliable source asking for clarification. That is usually the second in command, else directly the professor - never a student assistant.

I have been burned enough times to know that any other way is unreliable. There is no need to feel guilty for asking once you 'did your homework'.

In another aspect, it sounds a lot like in your specific case, there was a misunderstanding. That you and the instructor have talked about a different question would be a probable explanation for the unfortunate situation you encountered.


I agree with the other answers that say you should probably just let it go and move on. However, if you think you might be on the borderline between two grades, or between passing and failing the course, then you might want to ask for consideration. Explain the situation to the instructor, explain that you accept responsibility for the mistake, you're not asking for a grade change, but if you end up with borderline marks you would appreciate any leniency that they think is appropriate.

When I did a little assistant teaching during my PhD, when there was a misunderstanding of this nature, the instructors were willing to take this approach. In any case, I don't think you'd offend anyone or look like a "whiner" for asking.

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