I was writing a 3-question examination today (undergrad) with 1200 other students when our professor comes in after ~2/3 of the exam and changes a question to make it solvable. This was a 1.5 hour exam where each question was designed to take 30 minutes so unless you did the other two questions knowing that question was impossible to solve and waited for an announcement on instructions of how to solve, you would not be able to finish. When I walked out of the exam, you could tell that everyone was mad that this changed question could have impacted their overall mark by 15-20%. What should I do to help out myself and my fellow classmates who were screwed over by this change? Has anyone ever had a similar situation?

  • If one notices that a question is not solveable, it might be better to switch to one of the other questions immediately. After having solved them, there might or might not be time to switch back to the other one. Or some things might have happened, e. g. what you describe. – glglgl Oct 24 '18 at 8:58
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    @glglgl Exam questions are often difficult. Switching questions the instant you get stuck is going to lead to a lot of context switching. So, in reality, one has to make a decent attempt at a question before giving up on it; that could still waste quite a bit of time. – David Richerby Oct 24 '18 at 11:46
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    You mention that each question was designed to take 30 minutes. Was that a stated metric, or one you assume based on number of questions/time given? – Winterborne Oct 24 '18 at 14:30
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    @Bakuriu What is a "slingshot-exam"? – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 24 '18 at 21:00
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    @AzorAhai I never wrote slingshot, you misread my original message. FYI most exams in Italy are like that with the catch that they (at least most) are not really single-shot. If you fail them you can retry for a certain number of times. But your grade is still just the grade of the single exam session, you cannot earn anything with homework during the year. – Bakuriu Oct 24 '18 at 22:17

This does happen sometimes, despite a professor's best efforts to check the exam beforehand. Professors are humans and make mistakes.

You can write a polite email to the professor (or whoever is in charge of grading the exam, if different), letting them know that you feel this had a disproportionate negative impact on your score.

That's about all you can do. It is ultimately up to the professor (or grading committee, etc) to decide what to do about this issue, if anything. They might:

  • Do nothing, reasoning that although the correction was unfortunate, it affected all students equally.

  • Give credit to students who made an appropriate attempt to solve the impossible version of the problem.

  • Adjust the "curve" or other statistical correction of the exam score to take this into account.

  • Discard the question's score, and reweight the scores on the other questions.

  • Discard the entire exam and hold a new one.

  • Discard the entire exam and reweight other exams in the course to compensate.

In principle, if you don't agree with the professor's decision, you may be able to appeal to some higher authority. This would depend on your university's regulations, and my guess is that it would be unlikely to succeed, if the professor did anything halfway reasonable. I'd consider that any of the above options would satisfy that.

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    Not doing anything doesn't affect all students equally because it makes it complete luck if you started with the other questions or not. Legally (at least in Germany) you'd have a very strong standing because it's generally not allowed to mark students differently based on this kind of luck. This is comparable to announcing the solution to one question midway through, you're not grading the students knowledge anymore, but their luck in choosing which question to start with. – DonQuiKong Oct 24 '18 at 9:56
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    @DonQuiKong I would disagree. Ability to wisely choose rights questions, spot difficult ones, focus on questions yielding most points is part of good strategy, not luck. In old days, universities in Poland based their admissions on exam performance. In maths at Warsaw University questions were scored differently depending on difficulty. Spending too much time on difficult question could prove perilous strategy and applicants were aware of that. – Konrad Oct 24 '18 at 13:05
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    @Konrad difficulty is subjective so the students will have a different order of going through the questions -> not everyone is affected equally. Or are you saying everyone should instantly know a question is impossible without wasting a single second thinking about it? Because else that second would be something someone else has more -> still unfair. – DonQuiKong Oct 24 '18 at 13:10
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    @Konrad but there is no such thing a the "correct" strategy in deciding which question to tackle first. You can go for the hard ones and stop after x mins or go for the easy ones or whatever. It boils down to - this mid-exam change affects students differently based on luck. Imagine two exactly equal students. Both know everything perfectly and will finish the exam in the given time. Both chose at random which question to do first. One of them is interrupted mid question with a change of question, the other one hadn't started that question. Now those exactly equal students get different grades – DonQuiKong Oct 24 '18 at 13:24
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    @Konrad I agree. But it's important that the situtation be the same for everyone. That wasn't the case here. So I think it's futil to argue about whether it could be done fairly if done on purpose. – DonQuiKong Oct 24 '18 at 15:01

Yes, these things happen. No one is perfect, not even a professor. But what you need is a fair resolution. One would be to just cancel the exam and adjust grading rubric accordingly. Another, not quite as good, would be to reschedule another exam.

But you need to find a, hopefully polite, way to let the professor know that some people spent a lot of time on an impossible question and others did not. Even giving everyone full marks on that question isn't fair due to the frustration that some experienced.

If the professor is focused on teaching and not just on grading, then it should be possible to work out a solution.

With 1200 people it is hard to form a delegation to meet with the professor, but that would be a logical step.

But if this just happened, it may be that the professor will announce a suitable accommodation at the next meeting. If not, you might bring it up with the TAs for the course. I wouldn't escalate it to any formal complaint, however, until you have more evidence about how the professor intends to deal with it.

My advice to the professor, however, is that if you give a diagnostic that you know is invalid, you need to drop it entirely. It can't be finessed.

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    'One would be to just cancel the exam and adjust grading rubric accordingly' Depending on the OPs location, that one exam could be the only source of grading. – Joren Vaes Oct 24 '18 at 7:55
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    it is far more unfair to adjust the grading system partway through the course than to change an exam problem at the same time for all students. At the least you should get consent from all the students for a major change to the syllabus. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 24 '18 at 13:52
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm. Hmmm. The grading system has been changed when this happens. Pretty much by definition. – Buffy Oct 24 '18 at 13:55
  • @buffy I'm not even sure what you mean. I doubt the syllabus explicitly promises such details during an exam won't happen. However it likely does promise a certain calculation for grades. Change this, and I would support the complaint of any student who's grade is hurt as a result, as would the administration where I am. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 24 '18 at 14:02
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    @Buffy Dropping an invalid grade (without giving additional make up exam/work) increases the weighing of any prior work. Retroactively increasing the weight of work that's already been done punishes anyone who calibrated the effort they applied to that work to the weighting the grade got. An extreme example of this would be, after homework is turned in, announcing that your course grade will be based entirely on that one piece of homework. Obviously, many people would have spent more time on that homework if they knew that. The rubric should be reliable, it's meant to be relied on. – David Schwartz Oct 24 '18 at 18:15

Consider not doing anything.

The issue isn't time sensitive. Its not like the grades can't be changed after the fact. It's very reasonable to believe the professor is going to analyze the grades that came out of the exam and find a solution.

The professor will have information you don't have. While you know your exam was affected, and you can estimate how it affected 1199 other people, the professor will be making decisions with all 1200 graded exams in front of them.

Now if the professor hands you back the graded papers and doesn't do anything to resolve the issues, that's a good time to start making noise.

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Other answers respond to the questions raised in the main body of your message, I'd like to comment on the broader question (asked in the title), What should I do if my professor changes the question mid-exam?, with particular reference to

unless you did the other two questions knowing [the other] question was impossible to solve and waited for an announcement on instructions of how to solve, you would not be able to finish.

Exam strategy can help here: I recommend considering the entire examination script before writing. If you're able to identify an issue with any question, then immediately raise it with invigilators. (They should promptly raise such issues with the professor.) This maximises the window during which a professor can respond to the issue. Divide the remaining time between questions, with the goal of maximising your score. If you were able to identify an issue with a question, then that question should be delayed, because you might receive additional information during the exam. Returning to the question:

What should I do if my professor changes the question mid-exam?

Be prepared: Anticipate this possibility and adopt an exam strategy that optimises your advantage.

Response to comments

You're not answering the question. You're giving advice about [what] one can do before a change [of an exam script] to reduce the impact, not what to do in response to a change.


The question of How to preparation for when a professor changes the question mid-exam would be well answered by this. What to do after the fact is the OP's question. Unless you have a time-machine allowing the OP to follow your advice "preemptively", this does not answer the question.

After an event such as the OP's, one must reflect and consider how to improve themselves. My answer explains how the OP should improve themselves for a similar such event in the future. I consider this to be a crucial part of the OP's response.

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    You're not answering the question. You're giving advice about one can do before a change to reduce the impact, not what to do in response to a change. – Acccumulation Oct 24 '18 at 15:29
  • @Acccumulation I've answered the question What should I do if my professor changes the question mid-exam? in a pre-emptive fashion, that is, for those who haven't yet experienced a professor changing an exam but might well do so in the future. – user2768 Oct 25 '18 at 6:34
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    The question of How to preparation for when a professor changes the question mid-exam would be well answered by this. What to do after the fact is the OP's question. Unless you have a time-machine allowing the OP to follow your advice "preemptively", this does not answer the question. – user74312 Oct 25 '18 at 8:08
  • @GypsySpellweaver After a bad event, do you not reflect and consider how to improve yourself in the future? My answer explains exactly what the OP should be doing after the fact, namely, improving themselves for a similar such event. – user2768 Oct 25 '18 at 8:19
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    Planning for the future exams, and learning from the experience are good, as is your advice. It still, however, does not address the OP's concerns. – user74312 Oct 25 '18 at 8:24

One of my professors had a blanket rule that was applied to handle situations like these - You must solve the question to the best of your ability. If the missing piece of information can be simply substituted by a variable, say 'x', your answer must be in terms of 'x'. If you think that a question is not solvable, you should prove so in your answer. If you are successfully able to do it, you get full points for that question. Based on the difficulty of said proof, they also awarded bonus points, thus turning a potentially problematic situation on its head.

This worked wonders. The students were thrilled when they were able to successfully do this, and the professor had achieved a higher goal than what a simple exam would do. In fact there were unconfirmed rumours of the professor 'making a mistake' on purpose every once in a while. You can suggest that your professor adopt a similar policy in the future.

As for what you can do now, your options are limited. People make mistakes. You can contact the professor via a polite email and make your concerns known. You can also ask what strategy they would apply, to make it fairer. Whatever they do, it's probably not going to be 100% fair anyway. If they do nothing, or their strategy is blatantly unfair, that would be the time for you to take your complaint further if need be. But any half decent strategy is probably going to get the support of any grading committee(s) and/or department heads.

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  • Can every even integer greater than 2 be written as the sum of two primes? You're free to introduce X if you wish or prove unsolvability. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 26 '18 at 13:22
  • @DimitryGrigoryev You're simply trying to break the rule without context. OP's issue is one of missing or incorrect information in the question (which is a genuine mistake), not of unsolved problems. But, I'll humor you. In the highly unlikely scenario that a question for an undergrad class test, that seems reasonable at face value, turns out unsolved, I would still like to see the students try. That's where "best of your ability" and "bonus points" come in. Having the students make their best attempt allows the professor to come up with a fairer grading strategy. – TheJack Oct 26 '18 at 21:51

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