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A student emailed me after a recent exam, complaining about not having enough time to finish the exam. Out of all the students, most managed to finish within 2/3 of the provided time. I wonder what might be some possible ways to respond to this kind of complaint. (This is my first time teaching a class of my own -- I only TA'd before, so I've never had to deal with this type of issue in the past).

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    His grade was not bad, between 60-70% (I work in a system where 70%+ is a top level grade (similar to an A in the US), and 60%-70% is pretty decent. I actually expected him to perform much worse than that when I got his email. – saccades Jan 30 '15 at 14:26
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    @saccades If 60-70% is typical, is that because most people aren't expected to solve all the problems? If so, is he aware that that's how this test works? If you're giving a test where students aren't expected to be able to solve everything, but he's not aware of that and is trying to solve everything, that might be the reason. – cpast Jan 31 '15 at 2:56
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    It was absolutely possible for students to solve all the problems. In fact, some students did get 90%-100%, and quite a number of students fell within the 70% to 90% range. What I meant was getting 60-70 in this education system is not considered poor performance. Based on what I've been told (by my colleagues), students are typically aware that that is the case - that is, 70%+ is difficult to obtain. – saccades Jan 31 '15 at 8:06
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    "I am sorry. Next year you willhave more time." – peterh says reinstate Monica Jan 31 '15 at 14:04
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    Why not just explain that all students were given the same amount of time to finish the exam? Why should this student be treated any differently? – jamesdlin Feb 2 '15 at 6:49
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While running out of time could be indicative that the exam is too long or difficult, it would appear that is not the case if most students managed to finish early. However, I would check their grades too, as finishing early can also occur when students do not know the material or struggle with it so much that they give up.

Assuming this student is an outlier, it could be worthwhile investigating why. Perhaps this particular student has unusual difficulties, health issues or some other reason for not managing to finish in time. It may be necessary to refer the student to appropriate student support services for advice and assistance. This includes study skills and/or exam-taking techniques.

Be firm, but fair; show kindness and understanding as warranted. Give the student the benefit of the doubt, initially, but look into the facts insofar as that is possible. Arrange a meeting with the student and point him/her in the direction of appropriate assistance, based on your investigations and what you learn during the meeting. Finally, be clear on what is the student's own responsibility. You are there to help, but not to carry people.

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    Being nice and telling the student about student services is the way to go. You could also help the student, or direct him/her to resources, on improving time management during exams. – StrongBad Jan 30 '15 at 11:13
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    Also ask/discuss with him why he needed so much time. It is possible he took an unexpected route. Eg. perhaps he demostrated all theorems and you expected him to simply apply them. Or misunderstood a question in such a way that the problem he solved was much more complex (it wouldn't be the first test with ambiguous questions). – Ángel Jan 30 '15 at 11:43
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    "It may be necessary to refer the student to appropriate student support services for advice and assistance. This includes study skills and/or exam-taking techniques." I did not know something like this is commonly available. – G. Bach Jan 30 '15 at 23:43
  • @G.Bach: It may depend on the country and institution. Perhaps it isn't commonly available in some countries. – J W Jan 31 '15 at 6:48
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    I record the time that each exam is turned in. When exams are graded, I compute the mean and median times for the A-B students. (I built this in to my grading spreadsheet years ago, so the only time it takes is entering the end time for each student.) That lets me say, with confidence and evidence, "The exam wasn't too long. Let's explore what the real problem is." – Bob Brown Oct 13 '16 at 10:21
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When I was a TA for a large artificial intelligence class, we frequently had this complaint from students. The reason was that, due to the nature of the class, many of the problems could be worked out eventually from first principles (or from the book or notes, since these were often open book as well) by somebody who didn't understand the material, but could only be worked out efficiently by a person who knew the material. We thus tended to end up with most students finishing well before allotted time, but a noticeably minority who did very bad work right up to the end, and felt "if they'd just had another hour or two" they could have done everything right.

Our response was to explain that the test was looking not just for the ability to solve the problems, but for facility with the problem-solving techniques. Thus, speed really did count! This was also borne out by the distributions: it really wasn't a problem for the stronger students.

I would thus recommend first looking at the distribution of the grades: if the strong students mostly finished early, then you probably have a weak student who was trying to work things out from first principles, hazy recollection, or source material (if you're open book). You can then explain something similar, that you are testing not just the ability to solve problems, but facility with the concepts, and if they are weak with the concepts, it is likely to show up in slow test-taking time.

Now, it is also possible that the student has a medical impairment, such as dyslexia, that genuinely means they cannot work quickly. If this is the case, then most universities have services that can help to evaluate them and plan appropriate accommodation, which can be communicated to you for application to future exams by the responsible personnel. Don't just take a Doctor's note, because an M.D. can only detect the existence of a condition, not calibrate an appropriate educational adjustment for it.

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    And of course if they do have such a condition, it needs to be reported before the exam, rather than as an excuse for doing poorly. – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 30 '15 at 14:01
  • @TobiasKildetoft Absolutely; I have edited to more clearly emphasize this fact. – jakebeal Jan 30 '15 at 14:55
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My usual response to this complaint is to agree that there is a problem, reassure the student that they are not alone, and to provide them with as many tools as possible to address the problem on future exams.

I strongly suggest working with (not just copying from) a study group, attending office hours and discussion sections, posting questions to Piazza, reading carefully through homework solutions, and most importantly, not being afraid to ask "stupid" questions. I try to probe for specific topics that the student is struggling with, and offer additional resources for those (usually prerequisite) topics. I suggest specific time-management strategies for the kinds of exams I write. (For example: Read the entire exam and understand every problem before consciously thinking about how to solve anything, much less writing anything. Never spend more than five minutes staring at the same problem; if you're stuck, jot down what you're thinking, turn the page, and come back later.) I offer to set up additional meetings with the student to go over their future homeworks before the submission deadline. (They almost never take me up on this offer.) I mention that there are well-oiled official channels for students to request additional time or other accommodations, but the request must be made well in advance. I suggest that if they decide to drop the class, that they continue attending lectures and discussions and submitting homework, as a dry run for their next attempt.

What I do not do is accept that student's "lack of time" as evidence that the exam was too difficult, that the student was treated unfairly, or that I should change that student's exam grade.

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The more I teach the more I realize humans in general either complain about something or blame someone for their lack of achievements. Here, you have the opportunity to teach this valuable lesson to the student. I would do the followings:

Notification: I would send an email to the student, and tell him/her to meet me at my office to discuss this issue.

Discussion: During the meeting, I would honestly show him/her, the overall statistical point, that shows, most students did well and he/she did not. Then, he/she has two choices that needs to make on his/her own about reality of life and studying at the university.

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Simply reply something like: "I believe that with respect to the test enough time was given and have not heard many similar complaints. Yet, if while grading the exams it will be visible that most of the students had trouble finishing the test in the given time I'll grade the exams properly."

This makes you seem understanding of his complaints yet basically tells him that if he is the only one who had problems with the time then the problem is his and not yours.

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    I don't think being the only one with a problem means that it is the student's and not the teacher's. Some people are speedier than others. – Ellen Spertus Feb 1 '15 at 1:41
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There are many excellent answers here which raise points I agree with. @JW correctly points out potential underlying alternate needs issues and the role of student support services. @jakebeal correctly points out that more complete understanding of the material permits the better students to move directly to an answer, and the purpose of some questions is to make that distinction between students. @JeffE shows his experience in being a supportive tutor. I relate to all these points as an experienced tutor with responsibility for students with alternate needs.

This question (and the answers) may be read in the future by students who feel aggrieved and new staff who may be less experienced, so I wanted to ensure an important part of academic/university processes was mentioned. Sometimes we are so familiar with our own internal mechanisms we forget to explain them to outsiders (like students). Less experienced staff may also have not become aware of the different ways students react to these situations.

Firstly, let me mention academic processes of quality and scrutiny. I do not have experience of the procedures in every continent, but in the UK, all examination processes are overseen and monitored by an external examiner. I myself am an external examiner for other institutions. Usually the exam questions, the marking scheme and the sample answers are submitted, scrutinised, and moderated by such an external examiner. This helps ensure comparable levels of quality and difficulty across the sector. A reputable department would have internal moderation and scrutiny processes in place to remove basic errors and typographic mistakes at an early stage, and should have some form of level checking in place (i.e. are the questions set at the right level). Many students are not aware of this and think the Professor just threw the paper together to torture them personally.

The next stage of scrutiny is during the marking and grade determination. It is good practice for answers that are qualitative in nature (and thus the grading is judgemental) for there to be a double-marking processes. Usually this might be by statistical sampling of scripts or it might be a full double-bind re-mark depending on the need. The final grades are then submitted to a board of examiners that makes the final decision based on the evidence available with the support of the external examiner. The full statistical information of the mark profiles and distributions would be available to the examination board ad these would indicate and papers that appeared to have too high or to low an average. There is often a mitigating circumstances panel (that meets in camera) and takes into account any submitted mitigation and alternate needs. The decision that results is a decision taken jointly by the combined examiners. It is thus, not an arbitrary and ephemeral decision of the on the part of the Professor as some students might imagine.

Failure to communicate effectively with students on the quality processes in place can result in adverse publicity as this media report might indicate. Also, if your department or institution does not have such quality processes in place you are not achieving best practice; but then I am departmental quality officer too!

The last part, for the less experienced, is knowing that different students respond in different ways to being challenged by learning experiences. See articles on The Theory of Mind and how this can affect Undergraduate Behavior ( Disruptive behaviour, avoidance of responsibility and theory of mind ) and theories of high conflict people.

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    It may interest you to know that the layers of scrutiny you describe do not exist in the US system. Exams are generally designed, written and graded (marked) solely by the course instructor. (In some cases these duties may be shared with other instructors or teaching assistants, but authority still rests with the instructor.) – Nate Eldredge Jan 31 '15 at 15:46
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    There are usually policies in place to prevent others from interfering in this process. Grades can in principle be overturned by higher university authorities, but this often requires a formal hearing and a showing that the grade was assigned in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. – Nate Eldredge Jan 31 '15 at 15:47
  • There can be exceptions for particularly high-stakes exams such as graduate qualifying exams. These are often written and/or graded by committee. – Nate Eldredge Jan 31 '15 at 15:50
  • @NateEldredge Yes. I have not mentioned appeal or complaint procedures, which are something else entirely. In the UK we have a Governmental Agency that sits above an institutional procedure for this: http://www.oiahe.org.uk/. – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Jan 31 '15 at 15:52
  • @NateEldredge: More or less the same is true about exams in Poland, as far as I know, though I have not heard of anyone attempting such an overturn in case of regular course exams. – tomasz Feb 1 '15 at 16:37
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I want to push back a little on the comments some have made about the relative value of solving the same problems at a faster/slower pace. I don't mean to say this is necessarily the case in OP's circumstance, but anyways.

Pacing can be hard to prepare for, especially going into the first exam of the semester; this can be exacerbated if you don't know how many questions there will be and you aren't working closely enough with other students to be aware of where you fall in the pack on pacing. In the absence of information which makes clear the pace at which you'll be expected to deliver correct answers and a way to know where you stand now, it's perfectly reasonable for a student who is able to complete all homework and practice materials without significant difficulty in an amount of time that doesn't feel onerous to assume they are prepared for the exam.

I'll give an extreme example of how this can go wrong: In a class where we had weekly vocabulary quizzes, our final included pairing a few hundred words and definitions. We were all prepared for this. But the semester of training we had matching words with definitions was relatively useless when we discovered all of the words were in a single bank, and all of the definitions in another. Knowing each word well enough to pair it with a definition on a short quiz wasn't anywhere close to knowing it well enough to sort out the correct pairings among many similar words and definitions. Even using flash cards and giving acceptable definitions--one of the primary ways we study vocabulary--was woefully insufficient preparation. The only way we could've possibly prepared to complete the task in the given time was knowing the full scope of what we'd be asked to do and the time we'd have to do it.

All of us make tradeoffs when it comes to how we allocate our time based on our goals--and we all inevitably make mistakes allocating our time when we're short on information.

I figure it's worth documenting here a few policy/design things you might be able to do to hedge against pacing issues in the future:

  • Allow any student extra time on an exam in exchange for a penalty (assuming your schedule allows).
  • Build tests which are hard to complete but allow a student to skip up to N unanswered questions; students who go over can either get bonus or simply dilute the per-question risk.
  • Include information useful for pacing or even explicit recommendations at the beginning or throughout the exam. While it's true that self-pacing is a worthwhile skill, pacing can be tricky if parts of the test vary substantively in the time they'll take. Imagine you flip through an exam, note there are 40 questions, estimate the pace you'll need to hold, and think you're doing well to hold just under the pace for 20 questions until you hit a block of 10 questions that take three times as long to complete.
  • Include pacing recommendations with any practice tests or study recommendations. Think not just, "be prepared to answer these types of questions", but, "in order to complete the exam, you should prepare to solve problems like the ones in this section at a pace of N minutes per question."
  • Intentionally scale up the amount of time you intend a test to take up over the semester, and clearly communicate this to students.
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Give them more time (within reason). Everyone doesn't work at the same pace. Unless you are specifically trying to test a pressure situation (in which case you have failed to apply that to the faster students) then time should not be the major factor. Allowing more time won't suddenly give the knowledge/skill you are trying to test if they don't have it. You might even find that with the extra headroom that student won't get flustered and finish quicker.

Apart from that, look at why they are having trouble and how you/they can work to improve it. It is a bit dissapointing that both the existing answers are about how to leave that student behind.

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    Everyone doesn't work at the same pace, but everyone doesn't get the same grade, either. – sapi Jan 30 '15 at 13:07
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    @JamesRyan Someone who takes twice as long to get the same number of correct answers has demonstrated a different level of skill and deserves a different grade. Teaching is separate from evaluation - identifying and scoring differences between similar students is the whole point of an evaluation process, not 'leaving that student behind'. – Peteris Jan 30 '15 at 14:56
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    convenient to forget that the teacher is also failing that student — [citation needed] My job is to provide students with the tools they need to master a body of material, and to give them respectful but brutally honest feedback on their mastery. My job is not to ensure that every student passes. In particular, sometimes the best way to teach a student is to give them an F. – JeffE Jan 30 '15 at 15:11
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    In principle, I tend to agree that I would rather test retention and understanding rather than speed. If there were a practical way to give exams with no time limit, I would consider it. Unfortunately in the real world, courses are scheduled for fixed time periods and so time limited exams are a reality. I think most people would agree that basic fairness requires us to enforce time limits equally for all students (barring medical issues and the like). So this is why I don't understand how it is feasible to "give them more time" as you suggest. – Nate Eldredge Jan 30 '15 at 15:25
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    If you have implemented policies in your own courses that address these concerns, I'd be interested to hear more details about what you did and how it went. – Nate Eldredge Jan 30 '15 at 15:26

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