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One of my graduate-level classes had our midterm exam worth 30% of our class grade. Since our class is too big for proper distancing in our usual room, the professor split the class.

Two-thirds of the class would take the exam with the professor, while the rest of us would take the exam in another room with the teaching assistant (there is no intended difference between these groups of students). The class is normally 100 minutes long, but the exam was scheduled for 90 minutes and was expected to conclude 10 minutes before the usual class end time. The teaching assistant was punctual and ended the exam for us at the 90 minute mark.

I found out from students who took the exam with the professor that they were allowed to finish the exam at the normal class end time, meaning they had an extra 10 minutes to work.

How should I approach this? I don't know any of the people who were in my exam group so I can't reach out and see if we are in agreement over the issue of having less time for the exam. Plus, even if we are, I'm not sure what realistically could be done to balance the scales.

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    If you bring it up with the professor, what would be your desired outcome?
    – Louic
    Oct 26 at 7:37
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    @Louic honestly, that's the reason I'm asking here. Personally, I was nearing completion and just did not have a chance to go over my answers. There's a chance that I could have caught a calculation mistake or expanded an analysis answer with an extra ten minutes, but it's not a guarantee. I can't point to a specific thing and say "I was halfway through solving this problem and could have finished with an extra 10 minutes".
    – PoHoDaj
    Oct 26 at 15:06
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 27 at 17:17
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I would contact the professor about this. I'm not really sure that there is a fair way to solve this, I can't come up with one for now at least. A solution is definitely up to the professor, since they created this unfairness. Maybe they will not do anything, I can't tell.

But, you should contact them to ensure that this doesn't happen again since this is indeed not fair to all students, and the professor should know this. 10 minutes extra on a 90 minute test is quite a lot extra time.

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    I think it is also worth contacting them quickly, in particular before any grades have been finalised or returned. Then it can be dealt with smoothly - professor does not want to first hear about this from a dozen angry students with poor grades turning up at their office door to complain!
    – user1729
    Oct 26 at 10:06
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    I've had a prof perform a t test on the groups, and bump those in the lower group up by whatever the difference was. It was a much bigger disruption, lol Oct 26 at 15:15
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    I'm at a loss about how to do this without sounding accusatory. The TA announced the exam times a few days prior on Canvas. It was the professor who deviated from the "official rules", but writing an email saying something along the lines of "you gave your exam section an extra 10 minutes" sounds confrontational.
    – PoHoDaj
    Oct 26 at 16:35
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    @PoHoDaj One non-confrontational way would be to speak to the TA, as they are involved in this too (and TAs are often less intimidating...). Alternatively, email the professor but don't focus on the "broken rule" or make it out to be "official" vs "unofficial", but instead focus on the impact - on the "why you care". so say something like "the other group got longer and I am worried this impacted my and other students grades".
    – user1729
    Oct 26 at 16:49
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    @PoHoDaj Just stick to the facts. Something like: "I've become aware of a situation which I feel needs to be brought to your attention. As you know, the recent [descriptor] test for [class] was split into two sections. Unfortunately, the two sections were given substantially different amounts of time to complete the test. The section proctored by the TA was permitted 90 minutes, while the students in your section were given 100 minutes. I don't know what resolution for this disparity is possible or appropriate, but I felt it inappropriate for me to not bring this difference to your attention."
    – Makyen
    Oct 27 at 1:52
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Did most students finish within 90 minutes?

I've done exams where basically everyone has finished with 15 minutes to spare. Equally I've done plenty where it was almost expected that you'd run out of time and you'd have to triage your answers.

If most people finished in time, then they didn't get any benefit from the extra time. Students with a marginal passing/failing grade who got the TA could legitimately challenge the result based on the extra marks they might have got in 10 minutes, but the bulk of the class will be unaffected. @WoJ commented elsewhere about grades being used for awarding prizes etc., and these would still all be valid.

If most people didn't finish in time though, then the difference is significant. In this case most of the class at affected, and this is a structural problem which needs to be addressed by the department. The professor can't handle this alone - nor should they try, because reasonably fair assessment is a precondition for a university being permitted to run classes at all. Certainly this is an honest mistake, but it's a mistake nonetheless and it's the kind of situation which is why the department will have formal procedures for reassessing questionable exams.

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    Within the group of students who took the exam with the TA, only one finished ahead of the deadline (~10 minutes prior). Everyone else was still working when the TA collected the exams. My impression from talking to the students who took the exam with the professor was that their group was in a similar situation (even with the extra time).
    – PoHoDaj
    Oct 26 at 22:28
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Ask your professor to use some statistical analysis to determine if the distribution of scores in the group who received 10 more minutes differed statistically from that of the group who did not. If it does your professor would be able to report by how much. Resolving the problem becomes easy then. The marks of the group who did not receive the 10 more minutes are to be inflated by the difference. If there is no statistical difference then take some comfort in the fact that it may not have had too much a material difference.

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  • Reasonable idea, but the existence of students whose grades were harmed by it is consistent with there being no statistical difference between the two groups. Oct 28 at 17:50
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You have no obligation to follow up. The real competition is over what you learn, not so much over your grades. At least that's where you will be once you leave the school because grades can't be compared between different schools. If your feeling of unfairness isn't extreme, you could just as well let it be.

If you do want to follow up, you have no obligation to consult the rest of your exam group. Their circumstances and preferences might be different to yours, but that shouldn't stop you from providing your own feedback to the professor.

If you do decide to follow up, you have no obligation to suggest any resolution ("to balance the scales"). Keep your feedback simple, factual, and don't commit yourself to expecting or not expecting the professor to take a compensatory action.

Even if they won't take any action this year, or even acknowledge your report as a serious problem, they should be able to reduce the variance in exam duration the next time.

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    While I agree with the sentiment that learning ultimately supersedes grades, the course requires a set grade to pass and this exam was worth 30% of that grade. I also agree with keeping the feedback simple and factual, but I'm at a loss about how to do that without sounding accusatory. It was ultimately the professor who deviated from the exam procedures that was announced by the TA in writing, so any kind of feedback would ultimately have to include an accusation that the professor made a mistake.
    – PoHoDaj
    Oct 26 at 16:42
  • @PoHoDaj - Grading is never absolutely fair. Professors rotate, tests evolve, conditions change, announced rules are approximated. Some tips: 1) Accidents happen, too. Reporting a mistake doesn't need to sound accusatory. State your facts, don't speculate, don't assign blame. 2) Write it one day, re-read and send it the next day. 3) Do not CC other people unless you were writing on their behalf with their permission. Oct 26 at 17:05
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    Grades do count a lot. Besides the "passing or not passing", you can have prizes, funds, programs, etc. that rely on grades.
    – WoJ
    Oct 26 at 18:38
  • … and since OP said this was a graduate-level class, I should point out Why is B or B− the minimum passing grade for most graduate courses in US?. Getting less than a B in any class can get a grad student kicked out. Oct 27 at 23:46
  • @MarkPlotnick - You are referencing a page that says that "grades [in graduate programs] per se matter less than in undergraduate classes" and that if you get a (passing) B, you should not ask the professor not about possible ways to upgrade to a B+, but rather whether you should drop out of the entire program voluntarily due to the lack of excellence. And that's a rather sensible attitude if you are in the first year of a five years long program. Life is short. Oct 28 at 16:22
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I would informally email your institutions academic integrity board and enquire about the policy around exam fairness. All you need to say is that you suspect that the other group received an additional 10 minutes and why you believe this (ie. they dismissed 10 minutes after the first group).

In my mind, you shouldn't be the face of raising this directly with the professor, it could seem like sour grapes and bias interactions going forward.

The institution hires people who understand the policies who can investigate what has happened.

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    In places I am familiar with, the expectation is that you first bring issues with the class to the professor, then if needed to a chair or someone else. Jumping this step would escalate the issue. Also, our integrity office is only about student cheating, not about fairness of exams, and I would guess this is rather common.
    – Kimball
    Oct 27 at 14:50

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