Given how many college courses are taught every academic semester in the world (or even just in the U.S.), it simply must be the case that some portion of the instructors badly goof up their courses, to the point where it is not really able to be recovered from--in essence, the course is ruined. This could be things like:

  • Provably unfair or wildly too strict (or too lenient?) grading.
  • Losing exam scores (this has to be particularly common) for some or all of the students/exams.
  • Missing a large number of class sessions, or somehow leaving mid-course.
  • Etc.

I taught for a while and luckily never had such a catastrophe, nor did I know of any from my colleagues. But what typically happens when this sort of thing does occur?

  • 4
    Life goes on. The instructor/department figures out what to do (if anything) on a case-by-case basis. What kind of answer are you looking for here?
    – ff524
    Dec 9, 2014 at 3:18
  • 1
    @ff524: I think useful answers would include some of the techniques that departments typically use. Of course the decision of exactly what to do would be case-by-case, but I think many academics (perhaps especially department chairs) would find it useful to collect some possible strategies, which may include options they wouldn't have considered. Dec 9, 2014 at 3:27
  • 18
    The instructor is never heard from again. There are piercing screams from the College of Animal Husbandry.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 9, 2014 at 3:31
  • 1
    At my school (lack of data, so just a comment) losing exam scores means those students re-take a modified version of the exam. Prof leaving mid-course means a replacement is brought in to replace them and continue minimizing disruptions for the students. If grading were too easy, we would re-grade by a better grader.
    – earthling
    Dec 9, 2014 at 4:02
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    @MassimoOrtolano And still things happen sometimes. Note that the OP explicitly asks for cases when the instructor "really goofs up", so I don't think that the OP assumes that this is a triviality.
    – xLeitix
    Dec 9, 2014 at 9:44

5 Answers 5


By and large, ff524 as usual has it right: if there is a problem (even a serious one), the responsible people deal with the problem and its immediate consequences, and then life goes on. Smart people will learn from their goof-up, and it will not happen again. Less smart people do the same crap all over again until a higher-up steps in (in the worst case, this may mean getting fired). I am not sure if there is anything much more general to say about this topic.

Some examples from my personal experience:

Losing exam scores

In the university where I did my PhD, a young professor once lost track of 400 final lab exams in a programming course (that means multiple large stacks of paper - not exactly easy to lose). Apparently, he locked them in for the weekend, and on Monday they were nowhere to be found. As there were no traces of a break-in, the theory was that the cleaning lady has thrown them out for whatever reason (as she was the only one with access to the room besides the prof). Following, an entire lab was digging through garbage for one morning, without success.

The prof. sent out a very embarrassing apology, announced a make-up test, and gave students the chance to just get their mid-term grades if they could not / did not want to participate in the make-up test. Following, all people in this lab were extremely paranoid with ungraded test sheets.

Missing a large number of class sessions, or somehow leaving mid-course.

In another course in my old alma mater, an external lecturer apparently entirely lost interest in his course and basically stopped going to his own lecture after the second or third week. He was kicked out fast and unceremoniously. As nobody was available who could teach this course in his stead (it was very specialised), the course was cancelled mid-flight with the promise of a make-up course in the next term, leaving behind a number of understandably pissed students. A policy was put into place that external lecturers should not be allowed to give classes for which no replacement person was available, should something similar happen again.

Provably unfair or wildly too strict grading.

Sadly, the common way to deal with this problem is "better luck next time". That is, in my university, the best one can hope for in case of a very difficult or unfair exam is that the dean talks to the lecturer in private and asks him to make the test easier next time.

  • "better luck next time" — My department has a standing Capricious Grading Committee specifically to deal with claims of "provably unfair or wildly too strict grading". When the claims have merit, course grades are changed.
    – JeffE
    Dec 10, 2014 at 4:53
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    I really find the sentence hilarious about losing interest in his own lectures.
    – virmaior
    Dec 10, 2014 at 13:41

I have a personal story, where something like this happened in one of my classes. I was taking CS at a Canadian university in my third year and I have a course on Databases. Its our prof's first year at the school and even in the first class I remember some weirdness like how much cared about people being late. This goes on until the first assignment which was literally just the practice problems from the book, then instead of getting us to hand them in she goes through the answers in class except she cannot complete even a single question without help from the students. The midterm rolls around soon enough after this and the exam is questions from the book printed out, and half the class fails badly and the other half does rather well depending on how much of the book you memorized. After this most of the people in the class complained because she didn't know her material and apparently this happened in her other classes as well. She ended up being fired halfway through a semester and was replaced with the chair of my program, as he was the only one who could teach the class. I'm not sure how common of a response this is but it is the only time I've ever seen a professor get fired.

Normally I'd but I don't have enough points yet and I know this isn't a real answer as I have no data.

  • 1
    And what happened to the students in the class?
    – jakebeal
    Dec 9, 2014 at 13:20
  • About half ended up failing and retaking the course, those who failed got 60% of their money back. Similar to what happens if you drop a course halfway through. The ones that managed to passed still got a credit. The other class she taught was a web design course where the replacement prof changed the grading scheme to make the final project worth the majority of it.
    – user25345
    Dec 9, 2014 at 13:42

I can't explain for all of these answers, having never been an instructor, nor experienced them. However, one of my professors in college lost my exam. Neither of us know where it went, and both of us knew I took the exam and submitted it. We had tests every 2 weeks, and this was towards the end of the semester. In addition, I showed up to class all the time, so it would have been really out of character for me to pull a fast one anyways.

So, this being a calculus course, and neither of us wanting to have to sit through another hour of me re-taking an exam, came up with a compromise:

She'd assign me a grade. I would get a floored borderline grade of my test average.

My test average ended up being an A, so I was assigned a borderline A (90%) as the score for that exam.

In the end, it was also my lowest test grade for the semester, so both me and the professor were satisfied with the outcome.

However, the benefit of the outcome, at the very least, should be favorable to the student if it is not the student's fault. Not automatic 100% benefit, but the student should not leave at a disadvantage as a result of a mistake outside his control.

  • 1
    Many hundreds of years ago I lost a student's exam. I recorded a grade of 100% because I could not show that the student would have earned anything less. (And I've never lost another exam.)
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 10, 2017 at 1:08

I fully agree with xLeitix, especially with

[...] if there is a problem (even a serious one), the responsible people deal with the problem and its immediate consequences, and then life goes on.

However, I would like to add that it might help to take such a situation with a bit of humor. I once took an exam (together with 400 other students) where the exam questions were on a doubly-sided print out. Unfortunately, the assistant responsible for copying the exam sheets messed up and copied only one side, which was only discovered when the exam was handed out. So the professor had to find a photo-copier (the exam was taken in a room quite far away from her office) and make 400 copies. In the meantime, so that the students did not get bored, some assistant provided the current standings of a world championship soccer game to us by writing noteworthy events onto the blackboard.


Since a number of up-voted answers are just personal experiences, I can share one of my own (though it's not really a goof, it's a similar situation).

In undergrad I was in an intro to ethics course. About halfway through the semester the professor was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive cancer, and the oncologist told him his only hope was to drop everything and hop a plane to Johns Hopkins. He finished that week of classes, and his last day he explained what had happened, apologizing profusely. The department had found a medical ethicist from the local hospital to come in and take over. He was a nice guy, but unfortunately not nearly as good as the first guy who had been a cornerstone of the department.

The students complained that, although the grading was fair by both people, the course style and expectations had totally changed mid-way through. Technically they had a point- the original syllabus was not followed too closely, and we didn't cover all the material we had been promised. Those who complained were told that we were all expected to cope with the unforeseen and truly exceptional circumstances.

Nobody I talked to had actually argued themselves into a higher grade. However, myself and a few compatriots suspected we were graded extremely leniently. I remember being very dissapointed because the grading outline in the syllabus said I should get a middle-B, but I ended up with an A minus.

  • As a postscript, the professor lived for a few more years, so it was worth it in a sense. Unfortunately he lost about 150 pounds in chemotherapy and still died relatively young.
    – David
    Jan 9, 2017 at 19:46

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