My typical experience with examinations is that when a question expects a student to use a function provided in a previous question that the current question will make this explicit. I recently took an exam containing a question in which this was not the case and combined with some odd/incorrect phrasing due to English being this professors second language I was unable to answer a question worth a fairly significant amount of the overall grade due to this confusion.

Listening to some chatter as I left I noted that at least a few other students were also confused by the question and I realized shortly after leaving what the question should have been and that it would have been very straightforward to answer if it had been written more clearly. I even used the method it asked to demonstrate in a later question. I suspect that a significant majority of the other students figured out the intention of the question and answered it correctly.

I'm unsure what to do here, is it possible for a student to determine when a question is sufficiently unclear for it to be a problem?

The lecturer has also included impossible questions on graded assignments as well so I felt like it was not outside the realm of possibility for their to be a fatal error on an exam question.

  • 4
    Did you report the problem to the lecturer during the exam?
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 23:39
  • The question bordered on sounding plausible so I assumed during the stress of the exam that I didn't understand the topic well enough to answer.
    – helps
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 23:41
  • 1
    Take a look at my question to see if you can get anything useful there academia.stackexchange.com/q/191151/157609
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 12:30
  • 3
    I think the first (only?) action item is to ask the professor. I (as a TA) have participated in preparation of HW problems and exams, and I've always made sure to make the problems crystal clear. If I agree that there is room for reasonable misinterpretation, I always take the student's side: an unclear problem is the instructor's fault, so a student should suffer no negative consequences. Even more so for the exam. Unfortunately, if you fail to convince the instructor that the problem is unclear, I don't think you can do much (unless you are ready to file an official complaint or something).
    – Dmitry
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 5:23

1 Answer 1


You should do nothing, unless the question was unfair, i.e. related to material not covered in class.

If the question was ill-posed or otherwise unclear, then you will not be at a disadvantage since (almost) everybody else will be in the same boat. The wise instructor would anyways eliminate this question (or at least not penalize students who did not answer correctly) once it is apparent that the question statement was problematic. Remember that instructors have enormous discretion with final marks and nobody wins if the entire class does poorly.

Of course it is possible that the question was clear to many (if not most), that you fall in a minority, and that your suspicions are false. It is often the case that students realize a question was indeed simple after they walk out of the exam room.

  • 8
    If the question was unclear, it could easily happen that half the class guesses the intended meaning and half does not, so not almost everybody will be in the same boat. And the instructor might not realize they need to eliminate this question - they might fail to realize it was unclear and nobody tells them. So I disagree with this answer.
    – Oliver882
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 10:22
  • 2
    I'd have a different feeling if the question was something I didn't actually understand but it was actually really straightforward. It makes me feel like the question was measuring my ability to interpret someone's broken English instead of my knowledge of the topic at hand.
    – helps
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 13:48

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