I do not know if this is one of the unpleasant consequences of online classes. Here is a typical scenario that plays out:

  1. Students take an exam.

  2. They complain if it is a multiple choice question or fill in the blank questions that they are not being provided partial credit for thinking through the problem and are being awarded only for the final answer which could be wrong even though the various steps leading to the answer were partially correct. Also, cheating in the exams are much higher than usual due to lack of easy proctoring mechanisms despite usage of latest online proctoring tools that seem easy to game.

  3. If they are asked to scan and upload their answers as a pdf file along with their working, there is never ending stream of requests after grading to have their answer re-evaluated because they made some different assumption or that their answers are "partially right". I teach a math-oriented course where there is mostly only one right answer and questions are usually not susceptible to being misinterpreted. Yet, after sharing the grading key, students put the burden on the teaching assistant to consider their answers again and if possible award partial credit. Many times these turn out to be frivolous requests. Yet, it seems impossible to stop these frivolous requests to regrade and re-evaluate their entire answer scripts. Everyone involved in the grading process (the TA and me, the instructor) have limited time at our disposal especially for a large class. The fact that I am not physically meeting my students seems to have somehow encouraged students to keep pushing in pursuit of a better grade.

What are some techniques to stop this unhealthy habit? The TA and I spend sufficient time and effort to ensure that we are consistent in our grading across the entire class, but beyond a stage it is impossible to fine tune our grading to differentiate between different shades of wrong answers.

  • 3
    Related, possible duplicate: What to do about “grade grubbers?”
    – GoodDeeds
    Jun 18, 2021 at 7:28
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    Why do these requests lead to you having to re-evaluate the entire script? Surely, these requests must come with a description of which part they believe they deserve partial credit for, and why? (If not, requiring that may be sufficient of an answer.)
    – TimRias
    Jun 18, 2021 at 10:13
  • @mmeent They do come with a description but still these tend to be on every question where the student has not gotten full credit. Multiply this with the number of students in the class and you can get the picture. Essentially, there seems to be no cost or price to pay for a frivolous query. That is the fundamental issue imo.
    – user9734
    Jun 18, 2021 at 10:22
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    @Tryer Why are you even entertaining these queries? At most, I'd issue a copy-pasted response of the form "if you have identified a clear factual error in marking, please raise it through the official means". Jun 19, 2021 at 11:06

3 Answers 3


My suspicion is that most of these are problems with your exam design rather than having anything inherently to do with "online teaching".

  • You can have multiple-choice in an online exam or in a normal hall exam. In both cases you will get the (justified) complaint that partial solutions aren't worth anything. This complaint is inherent to having MC questions, and the only way to address it is to not use MC questions. Conversely, an online exam can have regular open questions just like a normal hall exam. If you choose to have MC questions instead because of the obvious grading-related advantages you'll need to live with the consequences.
  • You say that open questions lead to "a constant stream" of requests for re-evaluation (because the students claim they misunderstood the question). Again, I don't see how this is specific to online exams - if the same questions would be clear to the students in a hall exam, why are they not sufficiently clear in an online exam? And if they are not clear, why did the students not ask for clarifications during the exam (I am assuming there is a low-barrier way to ask for clarifications from the teachers in real-time, right?)?
  • I do agree from my experience that the online setting somehow increases the amount of frivolous requests one receives, but there really is no mandate for a teacher to react much to them. If students keep sending you updates of their exam after the examination period is over, stop accepting such updates (you presumably also wouldn't accept late updates to a hall exam). If you would normally not let "but I misunderstood the question" stand as a valid argument, then use the same reasoning also in an online exam. And if you get substantially more such requests than normally, I would take a good hard look at the exam and wonder if they are just less clear than the exams you normally do (and then the obvious fix is to improve the clarity of your exams).

Ultimately, my impression is that you (maybe subconsciously) may have used the transition to online exams to make detrimental changes to your exam design (e.g., adopting MC questions rather than open questions, potentially providing less support to students during the exam, etc.), and your problems stem from this rather than from the medium. Doing exams online should not be an excuse to reduce the time that you and the grading team invests, otherwise you will run into issues (that aren't inherently the fault of the online setting).

  • 2
    If anything my exams have gotten easier in the online mode. My previous exams used to be closed book / closed notes. Now, it is open book, open notes, and I have not made the questions any tougher.
    – user9734
    Jun 18, 2021 at 10:24
  • @Tryer Same. And let's not kid ourselves - if students want to, cheating (of different types) is much more readily available.
    – xLeitix
    Jun 18, 2021 at 18:30

It is perfectly legitimate to give multiple-choice questions in an exam, and the standard marking approach for these has always been a strict right/wrong outcome where there is no partial credit for working. Usually the strictness of this approach is ameliorated by the fact that there are several multiple-choice questions and they are usually low-mark questions, allowing student marks to average out well in the long-run (i.e., students who have good partial knowledge tend to get more right answers over the long run than students who have no idea what they are doing).

I agree with the other commentators here that there is nothing inherently important about this being an online exam as opposed to an in-person exam. In both cases you should simply hold the line and tell students that there is no partial credit for multiple-choice questions. This is something that has applied to generations of students and we have all learned to live with the occasional frustration of getting no marks on a question where we had a partially understanding of the material.

There are a couple of practices that can be useful in reducing marking challanges. One useful practice is to give a general feedback session on the exam outcome prior to accepting any specific queries/challanges from students. You can then set out a general explanation of marking and expectations about what kinds of queries are reasonable. (I do this in a lot of my courses, and I have not had problems with excessive challanges to marking after these sessions.) Another possibility here is that your grading key might be too specific, and this might lead students to believe that they can evaluate the appropriate mark for an answer better than the TA. Sometimes less specific information on grading can be a benefit here, since there is an element of professional judgment in awarding partial marks for questions.

When I have a TA marking assessments in my courses, the main thing I am concerned about is that they are consistent in their grading standards for all students. If the TA turns out to be overly lenient or overly demanding across the board (relative to how I would have marked it) that is not a big problem for me. Students should be made to understand that there is variation in professional discretion in the awarding of partial marks, and that you have confidence in the TA to do this in a reasonable way. In the rare case where the TA's marking is beyond the bounds of what is reasonable (e.g., much too harsh for the year level), or if there is some other problem where all students were dealt with unreasonably harshly, you can usually compensate this by scaling the marks for the assessment item for the whole class; a better approach than trying to re-grade for individual complainants.


I agree with xLeitix that exam design is the first thing to consider. You need to be justifiedly confident that your exam questions are appropriate, sufficiently clear, etc. If your instituion doesn't have a systematic process for others to provide feedback on your exam design, you may want informally approach colleagues to get their opinions on your exams.

Making an exam completely multiple choice can easily lead to a student with good overall understanding of the topic to fail. A mix of multiple choice and open questions can be a decent balance between marking load and fair assessment. In any case, if you are certain that multiple choice is the appropriate format for some questions, then students may grumble a bit but this should cause any additional workload for you.

When it comes to marking open questions, it is again a matter of being justifiedly confident in your decisions. You should consider appeals based on the ground that you have made a mistake, but not on the grounds that you made a judgement call that could have gone another way. If your questions are clear to anyone knowlegable on the topic, then "I interpreted it differently" isnt a cause for reconsidering marks either.

Be very clear about your new appeals policy to the students. Let them know that you will only revisit an exam script if they explain how exactly they think the original mark was based on a mistake by the marker, and why. Stick to the new rules. Students will quickly see that they need to put in some effort now to get their exams looked at again, and that it only pays off in the rare cases where there actually is a mistake by the marker.

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