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I believe I may have scheduled an exam too early, and I am considering delaying it by a day or two. The material that I would cover fits in fairly well with the earlier material, and not as well with the later material. I can cover the material as is, but barely so, and the students would not have time to digest it or gain experience via a homework set. I have already put the approximate dates of our four exams in the “tentative” course schedule.

What factors should I consider when making this decision, and how should I weigh these factors?

Here are some factors I've thought of:

  • Whether or not I have time to cover the material in class
  • How much advance notice is given (Changing the date the day before is probably too late, right?)
  • Whether or not the students would like the exam to be delayed (I'm guessing they will!)
  • Department or institutional policies
  • Whether or not student accommodation services (e.g. make-ups, proctors, alternative formats, etc.) need to be scheduled in advance

Update

I think there are a few things that are clear (some from the comments—thanks!):

  • It matters whether or not any posted exam dates are described as tentative or firm. Tentative dates are estimates and students should understand that they are subject to change, whereas students may plan around firm dates.
  • Exams should not be moved to a significantly earlier date. This is not fair to students.
  • Students should not be tested on material they haven't had a chance to engage with (in and/or out of the classroom) or ask questions about.
  • Special understanding and grace should be extended to students who miss an exam date due to a scheduled change (especially for short-notice changes). Of course, students who miss an exam for a school-approved reason (e.g. sports/research/bereavement travel) usually have the right to make it up anyway.
  • If the instructor polls the students offering to make a change to the exam content and/or date, and they unanimously support the proposed change, then there's no reason not to do so.

Epilogue

I polled the students before asking this question. Almost 60% of students preferred moving the exam date back one day to cover the extra material, and about 35% preferred keeping the exam on the same day but having it cover less material. In spite of their preference to delay the exam, and in spite of the dropped material fitting better with the this exam than with the next exam, I decided to move 25% of the content of this exam to the next exam. Thanks to all for the discussion!

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    When I was an undergrad I had a lecturer who moved our exam earlier by about a week because of a change in her schedule and only announced it three days before. It was a total disaster, everyone did terribly including myself [note now, years later, I'm pretty highly esteemed in this field] because none of us had time to study, and she ended up having to let everyone sit another version of the exam if we were unhappy with our marks. Don't change exam dates. – GrotesqueSI Sep 21 at 20:08
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    @GrotesqueSI I see why you'd think not to move exam dates up, but it seems that pushing them back doesn't suffer from the problem you mention – DreamConspiracy Sep 22 at 20:25
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    @GrotesqueSI Indeed, changing an exam date to be earlier is borderline unreasonable - as is the case with making deadlines earlier for assignments, for instance. Extending deadlines (and, similarly, delaying an exam) is not nearly as big a problem. – osuka_ Sep 23 at 15:29
  • Your syllabus is a contract with your students, changing the exam scope, deleting a few questions, or moving them to the next exam is the standard way to handle this. – crasic Sep 23 at 19:14
  • Just to make sure: do you have a syllabus? (In my country, most profs don't.) – User Sep 24 at 6:54
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Exam dates announced at the beginning of the semester should only be changed with a highly compelling reason. The syllabus of a course is a contract with the students. Even if 90% of your students prefer the delay, if one of your students has to cancel an airplane ticket for a conference visit or miss a wedding, a balance has not been struck.

If I were a student in which an instructor tried to change an exam date as late as "the day before", I would certainly lodge formal complaints with the department and the institution. Please do not do this.

In your initial post, you'd not given any reason to believe that you couldn't simply move a bit of material to the next exam. That is by far the better option.

If for some reason delaying the exam is truly unavoidable, you should feel obligated to offer make-up exam times for students who may be unable to attend.

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    +1 for You haven't given any reason to believe that you can't simply move a bit of material to the next exam This was my first thought, and something I've done many times, as needed or as I thought appropriate. – Dave L Renfro Sep 21 at 19:26
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    In fact, even if it is truly impossible to give a meaningful exam on the scheduled date, I still wouldn't reschedule it - I would cancel it altogether and reweight the remaining exams. – Nate Eldredge Sep 21 at 23:53
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    I wouldn't cancel it all together as that throws of the weighting of all the other assignments. If this exam is "easy" and "light", so be it. It's a lesson to the instructor for future lecture organisation. – GrotesqueSI Sep 22 at 8:45
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    Or you can make certain topics self study, or plan more lectures, or make changes to the exam, the scoring of the exam... Changing the dates is the only no-no, agreed. – Stian Yttervik Sep 22 at 9:15
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    @gnulynnux: Yes, but if it is really not possible to give a meaningful exam, then something has to give, and I think cancelling the exam and reweighting the others is the most reasonable approach. I would say it's an implied term of the contract that the professor can reasonably modify it if circumstances require (and in fact, my syllabi say this explicitly). – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 at 0:59
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Yes, consider all of those things. But note that you will disrupt some of the students while advantaging others. The ones most likely to be disrupted are the best students with a regular schedule.

But another alternative is to change the exam so that you don't "cover" as much material and let that flow into the next exam. To me, this is a far better practice.

There is a problem with learning that unless we use certain practices to firm up our understanding (repetition and feedback, which I write about here quite often) then we are most likely to recall the thing we looked at last and it can interfere with recall of things learned earlier.

Actually, I think that a good practice is to avoid including material from the just previous lecture on any exam. Or at least, avoid covering it in such a way that requires deep understanding.

  • "...then we are most likely to recall the thing we looked at last..." wow I am having exactly this problem but I never knew how to express it so explicitly. Would you have any advice about the following situation? I am in a Numerical Linear Algebra class, and since the beginning of the semester we have been doing a LOT of small theorems: the columns of this span that, unitary matrices have such and such property, hermitian matrices have such and such property, etc. Like you say, I am having a lot of trouble remembering all of these. (cont.) – Ovi Sep 23 at 0:40
  • But I do not know how/what to practice and how to get feedback. I have proved most of these things on my own twice or thrice, and I do n but I still don't remember them and I don't know what other type of practice to do. – Ovi Sep 23 at 0:41
  • Modifying the content of the exam is much more likely to be acceptable to those who have to deal with the bigger picture of scheduling as well. Changing exam (and coursework - students' workloads must be fair) dates is regarded as a last resort. – Chris H Sep 23 at 9:42
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From a student's perspective, I would expect the following three things if you were trying to reschedule an exam:

  • At least an attempt to bring it up with the class and poll, talk about it. Who knows, maybe your new date conflicts with another class everyone is taking and they'd rather not move it.

  • At least a week's notice, probably more.

  • Finally, flexibility for anyone who can't take the new date. People set work schedules, travel, etc. If you change an exam, I would really expect you to let me take it at another time. On the other hand, if you've made it clear you expect people in class every day, you might not need to worry about this, but some schools allow professors to schedule exams outside of class time (which seems super lame to me, but whatever), and I don't know what yours does.

Now of course, on your end, how many reschedules you want to deal with is a factor in deciding if you want to reschedule.

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Keep in mind that these effects snowball through the semester once you start delaying material and dates. If you're behind by one or two days and slip the exam date, then I guess you'll be two days behind starting the next block, and if you continue at the same pace, four days behind for the next exam?

It is not uncommon for some instructors to get so far behind that they need to cover a chapter of content per day in the last week, for example. (I've had incoming students to my classes voice worries about exactly this after bad experiences in other prior courses, say.) I've even seen a colleague who got so far behind that he wound up scheduling makeup lectures after the official end of class meetings, and a midterm exam after the final exam.

Don't go down that path. Zeitplan über alles.

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Stick with the planned dates. This is not a math or engineering system that you can tweak to the utmost. You are dealing with human beings. You want people moving along a path in an expected manner.

It's much easier for you to excise some material than to change the dates. You should be able to write exams to cover arbitrary dates (e.g. every 4 weeks of the semester).

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    Could the downvoter explain? – User Sep 24 at 6:54
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    For a lot of courses (mine included), there are natural "breaks" in course content. Sure, an exam could be written to cover specific lectures, but it often makes more sense for an exam to cover a cohesive unit of the course content. (For example, I wouldn't want to give a literature exam on Book 1, Book 2, and half of Book 3, then wait till the next exam to do the second half of Book 3, Book 4 and Book 5.) – jvriesem Sep 24 at 12:32
  • @Matthias The OP is downvoting everyone that does not agree with their position. – user102072 Sep 24 at 23:26

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