I teach at a community college in a large city in the U.S. In any testing session (esp. lower-level, non-major courses), inevitably, one more students will arrive at the start time or a few minutes late, and say they don't have the expected equipment for the test -- no pen or pencil, no calculator, no formula card (in cases where that's expected).

What's the best way to handle this? Some options for the instructor seem to be:

  • Come prepared with a stock of extra pencils and calculators for distribution in these cases.
  • Ask students already in progress on test if they have extra pens and calculator to loan out.
  • Ask student to wait until another student finishes and then loans them equipment.
  • Send student to bookstore to purchase pencils and calculator (not always open).
  • Declare that the student cannot test at all.

What is most efficient and fair to everyone involved?

  • 1
    For Europeans - I think it's important to note the context - OP is talking about students most of whom would not have passed the Abitur/baccalaureat/O-levels. Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 19:38

2 Answers 2


What is the most fair in this context (ignoring efficiency)?

Fairness isn’t just making conditions equal for everybody; it’s also about eliminating factors that have nothing to do with the skills your exam shall test. And likely your exam is not about testing the ability to organise working material, luck, and some other minor contributors that factor into showing up to your exam with working equipment. One might argue that some organisational ability should be trained by studying but even then failing the student who does not show up with their calculator is just disproportionate (and thus not fair). Also, students with organisational deficits (which includes those suffering from ADHD) face enough difficulties when studying already and do not require additional incentive in that direction.

For example, calculators can break and it’s not exactly easy to get a quick replacement nowadays, where your exam may be the only reason for a student to own such a device in the first place. (I haven’t owned a calculator since high school, despite studying math and physics.) It is not fair to punish the student whose pocket calculator happened to be the one to break on the morning of the exam (and who didn’t buy a spare calculator for this unlikely scenario).


Thus, the most fair thing to do would supply all working material for everybody. This is obviously infeasible or wasteful for many materials, so you need to somehow compromise. Furthermore you somehow want to disincentivise relying on provided material, but in a gradual manner, i.e., with something between fully provided materials and failing the exam.

Practical suggestion

  • Acquire a decent amount of spare material (pens, calculators, …) for students to borrow. The exact number depends on your class size but it should enough to cover almost every exam.
  • If the students need more of an item than you have, rotate the item between those students during the exam. For example, if you have two calculators for three students, each of them gets the calculator for two thirds of the time. (This is not exactly nice to organise, but it won’t usually come to this, because:)
  • Announce all of the above beforehand.

This way, students are incentivised to bring their own material, but students who for some reason fail to bring working material are unlikely to face a disproportionate disadvantage.

For calculators in particular, consider not requiring students to own them at all, but have your department acquire a batch sufficient for exams. Since you probably only have one such exam at the same time and many students have pocket calculators only for this purpose, this solves your problem, is more efficient, and saves students’ time and money.

  • Interesting, but: the suggestion at the end for the department to supply materials is in many places infeasible (there's no way they would do that in my case). And the issue of time-limiting loaned equipment seems guaranteed to result in disruptive arguments with students while the test is ongoing. Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 15:14
  • .... However, you've given me the idea of acquiring a small number of loaner materials and deducting points from the test (maybe 10%) if they get used, to provide the mentioned disincentive. Maybe. Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 15:20
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    @DanielR.Collins That was the rule in one of my high school classes, for calculators, I think, where there wasn't enough to share Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 16:14
  • @DanielR.Collins: And the issue of time-limiting loaned equipment seems guaranteed to result in disruptive arguments with students while the test is ongoing. – As I wrote, I wouldn’t expect that it comes to this, but then I wouldn’t expect students not to even bring pens either – or disrupt exams with arguments. The latter would be an instant reason for failing the disruptive student at least in every exam regulation I am aware of. Finally, my experience is that pre-announced rules are much less often contested than impromptu ones, so this may additionally make a disruption unlikely.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 17:19
  • @DanielR.Collins: An afterthought: If students getting disruptive or even violent is a considerable risk and you want to avoid this, I don’t think anything short of providing material for everybody will solve that. I am also surprised that you are somewhat confident that a 10% point deduction will not cause this kind of response but sharing equipment does.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 20:56

It's the responsibility of the test-taker to be appropriately prepared for the test. This includes getting to the exam hall in time and having their cheat sheet / writing materials / calculator prepared. You shouldn't have any obligations to help them here (can you imagine calling all your students on the morning of the exam to wake them up in case they slept late?).

However, it still feels heartless to not help students in this scenario.

I think "come prepared with a stock of extra pencils and calculators for distribution in these cases" is the cleanest solution here. You probably won't need too many of them, you won't have to disturb any other test-takers, and the student can start working on the exam at once. I would, however, emphasize that students should not expect this kind of help, and if for example you forget to bring the pencils and calculators to the exam hall, then it's too bad but they'll have to go find their own test materials before they can test (bearing in mind they need to be in the exam hall by a certain time to test).

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