If a professor at a university explicitly states an exam will contain "multiple choice questions and true/false questions" and then administers an exam with several short answer and essay questions, is that worth filing a complaint to the department about?

I'm a very dedicated student and don't mind essay questions at all, in fact, I prefer them...when I've been given proper notice and can prepare accordingly. There's a much different way to approach material when you need to draft responses from memory. If it WASN'T clearly stated what the format of the exam would be, that would be different. If it were one or two questions that deviated from the format, that wouldn't be a big deal. But to clearly state it would be multiple choice and true/false and then to have about 20% of the exam not follow that format seems unprofessional and poor practice.

I've already reached out to the professor about it and have not yet received a response. However, I'm considering also contacting the department. Am I overreacting? Or is this reasonable?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment, and avoid answers-in-the-comments.
    – cag51
    Feb 15 '20 at 1:28
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    Did they say it would only contain such elements? And, did it contain those in addition to the short answer/essay questions? Feb 15 '20 at 1:42

11 Answers 11


First, there’s some important background information to consider about professors, which is that they are human and occasionally make mistakes just like everyone else. In particular, as can happen to anyone in any other workplace or general life context, they may sometimes forget what they said to whom and when, or say something they didn’t fully intend, e.g., omitting an important detail or making a statement that is misleading or not entirely accurate.

Moreover, these effects are at their worst when a professor is overloaded with work. Small misstatements of this type can happen for example because a student accosts them with a curveball question at the end of lecture when they are frazzled and distracted and in a hurry to get somewhere (happened to me more times than I count), or due to many other kinds of cognitive overload that are a frequent occurrence in many professors’ lives. As an example, just this week I confused the lecture times of the two different classes I’m teaching in an email to a colleague about scheduling a meeting, and have found myself making a few other similar (fortunately insignificant) mistakes recently. This is very atypical for me, and it’s clear to me that it’s strongly correlated with a period of increased workload.

Coming back to your question, it’s obviously not great that the professor did not give you accurate information about the exam, but saying it’s “unethical” is making a statement about the professor’s intent. If they deliberately misled you, then yeah, that’s not very nice, and, depending on how misleading their description was, I can see the label “unethical” as being potentially appropriate. But based on my experience, I’m extremely skeptical that the misrepresentation was intentional. It’s much more likely that the explanation involved an error, forgetfulness, preparing the exam at the last minute and making a spontaneous decision to add an essay question without realizing that this would make some students upset, or some other such explanation.

Basically, in most situations of this type in academia, rather than assume bad faith, your default assumption should be that the person whose behavior you are aggrieved about made a mistake. They may be disorganized or even mildly incompetent, but none of that equates to being unethical. Unless you have hard evidence of an intent to deceive or the level of incompetence implied by the mistake is truly outrageous, complaining about this seems like a waste of time to me.

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    This is similar to Hanlon's Razor, except it's caused by other factors than stupidity. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor Feb 13 '20 at 17:12
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    Discussing things with the professor might be entirely appropriate, though, given the effects that such a switcharoo could have on students with, e.g., anxiety which can turn things into an ADA question. I don't know if the OP is a student with disabilities, but having witnessed the extreme effects that such conditions can have with a family member in college, I know that having other students being willing to approach (emphasis: approach, not complain and jump to conclusions) the professor about it is a good thing because such students might not feel comfortable doing so. Feb 14 '20 at 2:46
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    @computercarguy, I’ve extended that with “don’t assume stupidity when it could be ignorance” and “don’t assume ignorance when it could be misunderstanding.”
    – WGroleau
    Feb 14 '20 at 4:43
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    I think this answer puts excessive weight on the word "unethical" and misses the intent of the question. Which is, is this grounds for a complaint. I believe the word OP really intended here was "unfair", but simply saying 'unfair' would make the question sound like a "boo hoo yes move along" rather than confer that this is something that should be dealt with. Unfortunate choice of words, but there you go. Feb 14 '20 at 11:09
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    @TasosPapastylianou thanks for your thoughts. I think your criticism of my answer is a bit unfair, but not unethical.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 14 '20 at 18:44

If a professor at a university explicitly states an exam will contain "multiple choice questions and true/false questions"

What you described they said is not the same as if they had said
"The exam will be 100 percent multiple choice questions."

So I think having 20% not multiple choice questions is perfectly fine.

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    (+1) I was just about to say something to this effect in a comment, then noticed there were some answers, so I thought I'd read over those first. Incidentally, it could be the case that the OP poorly conveyed here what was actually said by the professor (sometimes people use "contains" for "consists entirely of"). Feb 13 '20 at 10:27
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    This may be true in a technical sense, but it is not good practice for a professor to make “gotcha”, technically-true-but-misleading statements. If you can predict that some students will be misled by what you say and still say it, that’s unprofessional. The real problem is that it’s often difficult to predict such things. My guess is the professor made a mistake, as I said in my answer. But if they intentionally said something they knew to be misleading but phrased it in such a way that they could argue it was formally true on the grounds you’ve described, I’d say that’s not “perfectly fine”.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 13 '20 at 19:50
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    More likely than this being a "gotcha" is that the professor thought they were clearly saying that the exam will have some multiple choice and true/false questions and either accidentally were less clear than they intended or that they were clear but the student misunderstood or misremembered anyway. Feb 13 '20 at 22:58
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    We can only speculate on this since OP has not yet provided clarification. I just wanted to point out that it might not be a good idea to file a complain with OPs wording. If I was asked for my personal opinion on this: Even if he would have made it 100% clear that there were only multiple choice questions in the exam, I still would not file a complain. I got used to stuff like this at my university and I learned to never trust a professor when he is talking about the exam. Feb 14 '20 at 7:58

Firstly, wait until your professor gets back to you. As Dan Romik says above, it could've just been an honest mistake - either on your part or on the professor's.

Secondly, you might want to ask other students about the exam. Did they feel blindsided as well? Did they know there would be short-answer questions? Take their answers into consideration.

Thirdly, if you want the professor to really make a change going forward, I'd recommend stating as much in the teaching evaluation surveys - assuming your school has them. Be objective, reasonable, and respectful. At my school, professors take them very seriously and emphasize that they need feedback from us in order to improve the class. Leaving a paper trail that this has happened might make your professor a bit more mindful when they write the future exams. But if this is a one-off thing and/or the professor makes an attempt to "correct" for it, that may not even be necessary.

Based on your description alone, however, I would say that escalating the problem to the department is jumping the gun - especially when the professor hasn't even responded yet.


There is another aspect that may be at play here -- the professor may have announced in good faith that the exam would be 100% multiple choice, and possibly even created such an exam, and then learned that departmental guidelines don't allow such easy exams for a course at this level. They would then have a variety of suboptimal ways to solve the problem; depending on timing, making an announcement of the changed format that would not reach all students might be seen as unfair.

I once took a survey course that was described in the syllabus as graded solely based on class participation. On the first day, the professor gave us a syllabus that included a paper at 50% of the grade. (At that university at that time, switching to a different class was a very unappealing prospect, as only undesirable section times of unpopular courses were not oversubscribed by the beginning of the semester.) I thought this was deeply unfair, but not unethical.

My recommendation is to look carefully at the description of the exam you were given, and if there is still a discrepancy, ask the professor for the reason, stressing the difference in preparation for one format over the other.

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    There's another gray area worth noting in that the professor may have intended such an exam, and then chosen to change it at a later date for some reason (though not necessarily a department/university coercion) and simply forgotten to report the change. Feb 13 '20 at 20:20
  1. It seems like a mistake (if everything you write is accurate). I would probably consider "unethical" (this word gets used too often here...) to willingly lie to students, but that is not what is going on here.
  2. It is reasonable to make a complaint, in my view. The complaint will be discussed internally.
  3. Don't expect that this complaint will have a visible effect on your grade. It is not reasonable to expect that the exam is voided, repeated, or that votes are increased for everyone. You took an exam in a reasonable format; the instructors have enough elements to form an opinion of how much you understood the content of the course and assign you a grade. If grading is on a curve, there is no particular reason why you were penalized over your peers. If grading is not on a curve, I assume (after your complaint) that graders will take into account the conditions in which you all took the exam.

I believe the question here masks an even more serious problem.

"Why was a sample-paper not provided in the first place?"

I 100% agree with the student's assessment that the format of an exam is absolutely critical knowledge which largely dictates the type of preparation for that exam.

I 100% disagree with the (in my opinion naive) comments above that "if you really knew the material it would not matter". One need not think further than driving tests as a simple example that this is simply not true.

The question of whether an exam "should" be generalizable enough such that it accurately reflects the topic it is supposed to examine, and how to achieve such an exam, is an altogether different question which has plagued educators for centuries. But as it stands, one can guarantee a crippled outcome in an exam if exam technique is unaccounted for, let alone misdirected.

So yes, the act of 'not providing a sample paper in the first place', let alone misrepresenting the format of the exam when described orally, (whether this was done maliciously, which is very unlikely, or by omission), is absolutely fair grounds for a complain to the department, because the department is responsible for ensuring exams are fair and representative of student's abilities.

Note this is not a case of 'burning' the professor involved. The department absolutely needs to know so that it can manage the delivery of its courses better. And if there are no departmental guidelines ensuring appropriate provision of sample-papers to students, this will hopefully prompt them to create such a guideline.

PS. Many of the answers here have given far too much weight on the word 'unethical' in the title, and have interpreted this and focused instead on whether it is appropriate for the student to be 'throwing accusations of intent'. While this is a reasonable, albeit secondary, point to address, I believe this is missing the point entirely, and it doesn't sound to me like, bar some frustration for the feeling of unfairness involved, that the student is somehow on a personal crusade against a professor. It is entirely accurate to state that the format of the exam is necessary information, and it is entirely fair to initiate a grievance procedure if this has been misrepresented to the extent that it affected student outcomes.

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    It's pretty amazing how quickly times change. Up until about 20 years ago (northeast U.S.), neither I nor any of my acquaintances had ever heard of a "sample-paper" for college exams, throughout any of our careers. Feb 14 '20 at 17:26
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    @DanielR.Collins many professors do not provide that kind of practice/sample material even nowadays, and there isn’t a universal expectation that they have to do so, despite this answer appearing to assume that there is.
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 14 '20 at 18:42
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    @DanielR.Collins sample papers are not necessary in the presence of past papers. And in the absence of both, some sort of description of exam format would be necessary. In my 20 years since college I've never heard of people walking blind to an exam. Obviously I'm sure we both agree on this, and simply putting the emphasis at different points on the spectrum. The point is I agree with the student. It is in the educator's best interests that students do not walk blind w.r.t. the format of the exam, let alone receive misleading instructions (intentionally or otherwise). Feb 14 '20 at 21:12

I would say no. Just because the professor told you that there would be certain types of questions on the exam, unless he specifically stated that there would not be other types then he did not misrepresent the exam at all. As long as there existed multiple choice and true/false questions in the exam then he in fact told the truth.

This situation varies from the answer posted by T.Verliefde in that the example in that answer did not include the type of questions indicated.

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    Unless this was a formal logic class, "He technically told the truth" is not a convincing argument. Language is sometimes ambiguous, yes, but in common English, the statement "The exam contains multiple-choice and true/false questions" is generally taken to mean that those are the only types of questions on the test, unless there is context to suggest otherwise. A professor giving such misleading instructions regarding an exam would be inappropriate (though, of course, it was likely an accident in this case). Feb 13 '20 at 20:19

I do think this could be ground to consider a complaint, although not because of ethics, but because of correctness.

If the official description of the course stated that the exam would contain multiple choice questions and true/false questions, and the actual exam deviated from this, this seems to me like some form of 'breach of contract'.

At the University of Antwerp, an exam was annulled because of both deviations in the exam description (indicating essay and multiple choice questions, but only providing multiple choice questions) as well as issues with the content of the questions at hand. (Dutch article)

To answer the question, I would not complain regarding ethics, but a complaint/question to an examination board regarding the correctness of the information regarding the exam would be the correct step forwards in my opinion.

EDIT: I think that the main benefit of posing the question would be to prevent future students encountering the same misinformation or confusion. I don't think that the situation is as severe as in my example, but it proves that it can happen. Also note that the professor in the article was not punished for his mistake, which is in line with my (and other's) opinion that this is not an ethical issue.

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    It isn't clear from that article that any complaint would have been upheld if the questions had been correct though.
    – Graham
    Feb 13 '20 at 17:25
  • +1 It's a good answer (citing an example!), even if I wouldn't formally complain.
    – M. Stern
    Feb 13 '20 at 19:31

The real thing the instructor maybe-kinda did wrong was not spending enough time explaining the test format. Teachers hate wasting time on mechanics and Admin -- I'd love to say tests will be "normal" and move on -- but students get nervous. We don't want our A students freezing up, or Q's where 1/2 the class clearly misunderstood. In the long run, it's worth it to waste class-time going over the format.

Maybe a sample test (use last semester's), or sample Q's in class (or by TA's in recitation). For those essay Q's, there would have been an example -- "if you see an essay Q like this, an answer like this is fine. You don't need to add X, Y, and Z". I used to even explain how 1 inch of space for the answer meant the answer was 1 line, but you didn't lose points for using more (during a test, students will suddenly freak about about things like that). So now students know there will be some short essay Q's.

It's not so much unethical. It's just that if a certain number of students are spending too much time fretting over process; as an instructor, it's our fault/problem (which we will fix next semester).

I had a similar thing happen. The final exam for a huge class was Friday afternoon through a scheduling error. We had to use some multiple choice Q's and I spent some class-time going over them, since it was new. But the back 1/3rd of the final was written-out Q's, exactly like previous tests. I didn't need to re-explain them. I don't think anyone assumed it would be all multiple choice, but it's possible.


Other answers explained already why you should not question the professor's ethics here. Additionally, you should take a step back and analyse what went wrong if you, as a dedicated student (which I do not doubt since you obviously take your studies seriously), cannot formulate answers about the content that you "learned".

Try to put more emphasis on understanding the lecture and try not to learn for an exam but maybe find answers to the questions you personally have about the subject. Your current way of learning seems very shallow and inappropriate given your interest in your studies. And to answer your question: after you calm down and give this a second thought you might actually thank your professor!


I guess it depends on how much weight the exam carries - all our exams carry between 50 and 100% of the credit for a module (which would equate to between 5% and 25% of the credit for the . So this could be very serious. This is why all our exams have to be vetted by an external examiner. The style of the exam has to be laid down at least a year in advance, and recorded in the module handbook.

Under those circumstances, a lecturer providing you with a short-answer/essay exam, when a multiple choice had been specified would certainly be grounds for complaint. I doubt it is "unethical", as I'm sure the lecturer would not be trying to trick you. What on earth would he gain from doing so - its him that will be in trouble if the average grade on his module is down. But that is irrelevant. You have been disadvantaged, and the department/school needs to find a way to account for this.

  • Modules? This is an English public Uni? My experience with an American State Uni is very different. We'd never restrict an instructor's testing options like that, certainly not in advance. And oversight is much less -- mostly the (every 4 year?) Accreditors. They would't except to see test formats in the syllabus, or worry about changes in average grades. For you, does the department design courses, and the lecturer merely administers them? Feb 14 '20 at 15:48
  • Yes, this is England (all but one UK uni is public). Modules have to be specified in a module specification form, but that generally lists the aims, learning outcomes, teaching methods (how many lectures, seminars, practicals etc), and the assessment modes (exam, coursework essays, presentations etc). They can be submitted by the department, but often they'll be submitted by the module co-ordinator. Exam formats comes in the handbook and because exams must be validated by the external examiners, and printed by the university service. All exams are administered by the university centrally. Feb 14 '20 at 17:18

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