Some time ago, a course I visited had final exams, and the time announced to the students in advance (several weeks earlier via email by the instructor) was 3 hours. Rather shortly after the students began to write (about 20 minutes), it was announced as a clarification that the room was booked for 3 hours, while the test itself would only take 2 hours.

I did not take part in this exam (I took the second one, which had similar conditions), but I'm sure the students were quite surprised. The exam itself was of average difficulty, had it been 3 hours, but very tough in only 2. This was reflected in the results: 90% failed, instead of the usual 30-50%, and the best grade was only a "B-".

I'm interested if this sort of thing is less unusual than I would think, or if there is a protocol how to deal with it as a student?

  • 3
    If the instructor planed the exam for 2 hours, then an extra hour would had not helped: a 3 hour exam would had have more questions and the time average per question wuld had been the same...
    – Nick S
    Jan 31, 2015 at 6:53
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    So, was the problem only that the time during the exam was announced wrongly, but corrected quickly afterwards? Why would this be something that a student needs to "deal" with? Even if the announcer have said it correctly at the beginning, the exam would still have been difficult.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 31, 2015 at 8:38
  • I was once in an exam we were told would be two hours, only to find that it actually lasted three hours. As @NickS suggests, the exam wasn't easier as there were just more questions than we expected.
    – Ubiquitous
    Jan 31, 2015 at 8:49
  • 1
    Also, can you clarify what you mean by "It was announced to the students in advance"? Was this on the course outline? Announced by the instructor in class? Or was this done by somebody else than the instructor (i.e. exam times post around campus,...).
    – Nick S
    Jan 31, 2015 at 17:41
  • 1
    To avoid this, in all the exams I have taken, the time of ending was written in big letters on the blackboard before starting.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 2, 2015 at 9:41

2 Answers 2


I would hope this is unusual because it's not very nice to the students. Students deserve to know in advance how much time will be given for the exam. And in my experience, they usually do know this quite far in advance.

It doesn't make sense to me that the figure mentioned in the instructor's e-mail would refer to how long the room was booked (which is not something that the students would care about) rather than how much time would be given for the exam.

Another thing that doesn't make sense to me is why, when the instructor realized that the students thought they would have three hours for the exam, he didn't just keep quiet and let them have the three hours.

However, I don't know what you mean by a "protocol how to deal with it." You could certainly let the instructor know that you are unhappy about this aspect of the exam. But is there something that you think the instructor should do at this point to improve the situation?

Also, what does it mean to say that 90% of the students failed the exam? It's not necessarily a bad thing if 90% of the students got a numerical score below 60% on the exam, but it would be a very bad thing if 90% of the students got an 'F' grade in the course.

  • Those things made no sense to me as well. I'm not sure what additional actions could be taken, it certainly depends on if the exam was originally planned for 2 or for 3 hours. --- The 90% referred to the percentage of 'F' grades. Usually, only about 30-50% of the students get an 'F' in this course.
    – mafu
    Feb 2, 2015 at 5:30
  • @mafu That's a lot of 'F' grades, so the administration might see it as a problem even without knowing about the confusion regarding the allowed time. But in any case, probably the most it would do is to strongly suggest that the instructor not give so many 'F' grades in the future. Feb 2, 2015 at 19:57

First, I think this is unusual, but I doubt that there is serious data about how common things like this are.

But the more important question seems to be: Can/Should I take action? What action?

This clearly depends: First, there may be a policy how the conditions of final exams have to be announced. At my university many "moduls" (i.e. courses) have a description where it is written "final exams according to the instructors announcements" and there is a general rule that this announcement has to happen in the first week of the course. Also there are general rule that say how long written exams can be. So if the announcement or the time constraints do not fit the actual conditions there could be room for an action to be taken.

What would happen if you (or a group of students) would file a complain to, e.g., the dean of student affairs (or somebody similar). I expect that the dean would talk to the instructor and asked what has happened. The instructor may answer respond that it was obvious that the exams time had to be shorter than the announced 3 hours and that he planned the exam for two hours. The dean may still be suspicious because of a high fail rate but this may also have other reasons. So in short: The instructor may get into mild to mediocre trouble but anything beyond that is unlikely. In an extreme case there could be a chance to rewrite the exam…

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