I am a senior finishing dual degrees in chemistry and mathematics and missed an exam in an upper level chemistry course due to a brief hospitalization which was fully documented. I was granted a make-up exam by the instructor along with a few other students. Our exam was 14 pages long, five pages longer than the original, and incredibly difficult in comparison. Several questions were structured in such a way that knowledge of very obscure and minute details from the 800 plus lecture slides and 200 plus pages of text was required. Without exaggeration, the make-up was perhaps 5 or 6 times harder and significantly longer for the same amount of time. I have no doubt that I failed and will be lucky if my score is even 60%. What actions, if any, should I take? I plan to talk the instructor when my grade posts, but I doubt that is going to get me anywhere. After spending at least 48 hours studying in the last two weeks, this feels very defeating.

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    I don't have any good advice, i just want to say i'm sorry, you're not alone, and most importantly given time this big deal will be totally insignificant in the grand scheme of your life. Don't lose faith in yourself, your abilities, particularly your ability to determine your own future! Oct 26, 2018 at 17:05
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    Country? Please note that it is not easy to make make-up exams that are of the same difficulty than the original. Oct 27, 2018 at 11:00
  • due to a brief hospitalization Is this course the only one you're taking this semester? Is this exam the only exam you missed during your brief hospital stay? How long did it take for recovery from the illness? Are you fully recovered yet? What did your medical doctor's documentation/note/letter say? Did your doctor say you are back to 100% functionality? Are you sure the instructor had read the doctor's note? If the answers to the questions above are in your favor, you really should talk to the instructor about it before the grade is posted.
    – Nobody
    Oct 27, 2018 at 13:09
  • I have no doubt that I failed You don't get to decide your grade. The instructor does.
    – Nobody
    Oct 27, 2018 at 13:15
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    Just curious: how do you know the makeup exam was much harder than the original exam if you didn't write the original exam? Is it possible you're just going on hearsay where students who didn't write the original exam jumped to the conclusion that the makeup exam was much harder simply because it was longer?
    – Henry
    Oct 27, 2018 at 15:04

3 Answers 3


Given that exams are difficult to create, especially make-up exams, it is just possible that it will work out when the instructor sees the results. I doubt that it was any sort of 'retaliation'. Wait for the grades and have a conversation.

It is too early to take action until you see the actual results and their effect.

Let me note that for some sorts of exams, writing intelligently about the problem is enough. If the problems are especially difficult then it may not really be possible under exam constraints to find a proper solution. But if what you write is "sensible", and demonstrates that you have the required knowledge, it may be enough, depending on the person interpreting the results. In any case, it is pretty much impossible to treat the results as "equivalent" to those of the normally given exam. A sensible instructor will recognize this.

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    I'm not so sure. I had one professor who made the make-up exams literally impossible to pass (think "prove l'Hopital's rule" for the first exam in Calculus 101, before it's even been mentioned) because he thought that people were just using them to buy more time to study. It's possible the prof is just spectacularly bad at writing exams, but with such a huge disparity it's... odd, to say the least.
    – anon
    Oct 26, 2018 at 21:29
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    Sadly, I know a colleague who does this as well. It's a terrible practice, but it does exist in the wild.
    – JKreft
    Oct 26, 2018 at 21:38
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    @R.T It's also worth noting that if the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction, most institutions have some sort of procedure for appealing an unfair grade to some higher authority. You'll need to look up your institution's regulations to see how this works. There's usually considerable deference given to the instructor's decision, but this case sounds like it could be sufficiently extreme to overcome that. Oct 26, 2018 at 23:29
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    The fact that the make-up exam was five pages longer than the original does seem to count somewhat against the "given that exams are difficult to create" theory. It is, indeed, quite difficult to ensure that a make-up exam is comparable to the original in difficulty, but it's not that difficult for them to broadly be similar in size. Oct 27, 2018 at 0:25
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    @R.T For closure here, consider coming back and appending an edit to your question telling us how this turned out. In particular, was this nice accepted answer right in your particular situation. Oct 27, 2018 at 17:47

It's been a long time since I took a university course but I wonder if you might be unduly concerned about the makeup exam? From what I hear, professors are very prone to use Bell curves when marks aren't what they hoped for. For what it's worth, I once taught a database course at a college when a friend who had the gig normally had a conflict and couldn't do it. I wrote a pretty straight-forward exam with no trick questions or indeed anything terribly challenging but the marks were disappointing, mostly in the 60s and 70s. I'd already heard vague general rumours about colleges and universities belling up marks so I asked if I was supposed to be belling up the grades. The department head strongly encouraged me to do so. On reflection, I decided that the exam was perfectly fair and I could not justify altering the marks; I submitted exactly the grades the students had earned. I never heard further about it beyond one student expressing his disappointment that he hadn't gotten a mark of 90+ as he had with the other courses in the program.

If Bell curves are truly rampant in academia, then this may well solve your problem.

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    A bell curve would be ok for a class with a hundred students, but creating a meaningful bell curve when only a handful of students are taking the test is impossible.
    – MaxW
    Oct 27, 2018 at 17:09
  • @MaxW - Thanks for explaining that. I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of statistics. The department head at the college where I taught may have been in the same boat: the class I mentioned in my anecdote was only 6 students yet he apparently thought I could bell up the marks, as did the instructor I was substituting for, who has a stronger math background than I do.
    – Henry
    Oct 29, 2018 at 19:33

Late, but I suspect the right answer is somewhere between the other answers.

As Buffy says, I think you should wait until the results come out before starting any sort of formal process. It could be that your grade will be better than you hope, and certainly it's hard to complain that your grade is unfairly low before you even have a grade.

On the other hand, as Daruiod's (edited) answer points out, I do think it is unlikely that your professor just accidentally made the exam way too hard. This probably was a strategic move. The suggestions about including other students in your complaint, and talking to the professor before grades come out, also make sense.

So, in summary, my recommendation is to:

  • Talk to the instructor (politely) before you get your grade, and say that you understand that the makeup exam is harder to prevent strategic sicknesses, but you have a well-documented illness and you hope that the grading will reflect your knowledge. The professor won't lose face if he gives you a good grade the first time, but his position will be a bit more entrenched after he returns your graded exam.
  • If despite this he still gives you an unfairly low grade, you will have no choice but to appeal. Don't talk to the professor again, but go to the department chair or whoever is in charge of grading procedures. Professors typically have wide latitude in such matters, but manifestly punishing you for an illness/disability just might be enough to win such an appeal.

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