A friend of mine who is a CS grad student at a US university took a class in which the students were given an extra hour on a two-hour exam. The trouble is that this offer was made in the last five minutes when the professor realized the students were not able to finish answering all questions.

I am personally against this kind of offerings because it feels like they do more harm than good and reflects poorly on the professor's planning. Students plan their approach to solving a test based on the available time and often speed up in the last hour or 45 minutes to complete as much as possible. This certainly degrades the quality of the answers. Now when there is a sudden offer of extra time, many students will be confused on how to make use of this time. Ultimately, it will come down to the students who have better time management skills rather than those who really know better answers.

So, the question is: Is the practice fair and if not what a student can do about it?

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    Do you mean that an individual student was given an extra hour or that every student was given an extra hour? The former is manifestly unfair. The latter would be "fair" if certain conditions were met. Commented May 1, 2015 at 2:33
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    One source of unfairness is that the professor is taking up students' time which is not the professor's to take. What if some students had plans for after the exam? Another class? An important meeting? This is just unprofessional.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 2:53
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    "Ultimately, it will come down to the students who have better time management skills" - I'd argue it could even mean an advantage for students who have worse time management skills. Those with good time management skills might have realized just how brief the answers actually need to be in order to more or less make it through the exam in time. Commented May 1, 2015 at 6:49
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    In any case, if someone would want to complain, they should start by checking whether the university in question allows such extensions at all. My university requires that the total available time, the total achievable score, and the guaranteed minimum score to pass be printed on the exam cover sheet, and the available time is also nailed down in the syllabus for each course. (But then, professors are rarely ever present during written exams here, anyway, and thus could not make such last minute amendments to the exam conditions.) Commented May 1, 2015 at 6:57
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    Are students who complete the test early allowed to leave? In that case, it would be even more unfair.
    – o0'.
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 14:06

7 Answers 7


As I've mentioned elsewhere on this site, students often seem to think in terms of "fairness", but upon sufficiently intense scrutiny the concept is so fuzzily defined that it may well be that the only "fair" grading scheme is to give all students the same grade...an outcome which would certainly be unacceptable to many students. Moreover:

Ultimately, it will come down to the students who have better time management skills rather than those who really know better answers.

Any way of administrating a course favors students with certain incidental skills over others. Giving a prearranged, timed exam favors students with sufficiently good time management skills over students with very poor ones. And not only that, the students who live "on-campus" are advantaged over commuter students. Students who have a watch can look at it, whereas others need to twist around in their seats to look at the clock in the back of the room [if there is one], and so forth.

Every seasoned instructor I know would agree that most exams test subject-unspecific study skills as well as "real knowledge". Not to be too much of a downer, but the idea that a student has a well-defined "real knowledge" is a convenient reification, something that modern academic culture must believe in approximately in order to function but which it is dangerous to take too seriously.

The real issue is to design the exam experience so as to test a reasonable set of skills, weighted in a reasonable way. There is no universal way to do this: it is better to be as explicit as possible about what skill set you want your exams to test and look to see if they do what you wanted.

Anyway, a better question is: is this a good practice? I think the answer is no, at least in many situations. Here are two obvious issues:

  • An announcement which occurs five minutes before the end of an exam may come too late for students who have already left the exam.

  • Unless the cohort of students taking the exam has the identical academic schedule [this is prohibitively unlikely in many graduate programs at American universities], it is very unlikely that every student will actually be able to stay for the extra hour.

I would describe the above two issues as concerning "fairness". Any student who did not get the extra hour for either reason would have a very legitimate complaint.

I am personally against this kind of offerings because it feels like they do more harm than good and reflects poorly on the professor's planning.

I agree that it reflects poorly on the professor's planning. Whether it will do more harm than good to the students' performance depends on the exam and the students. I agree that many or most students would find the experience of learning that they have 50% more time at the very end of an exam stressful, and many would be resentful that they would have used their time differently had they known this information at the beginning of the exam.

In summary: unfair? Yes, if certain things happen, otherwise maybe not. A good practice? No, I don't think so. It sounds like a rather inexperienced / sloppy instructor to me, honestly.

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    Even if all the students can stay, awarding an extra hour at the end is unfair because it affects students differently according to arbitrary choices they made earlier on. Consider a student who decided to write full answers to a fraction of the questions versus a student who decided to write sketchy answers to all the questions. The first student gets much more advantage from the extra hour than the second one does. Commented May 1, 2015 at 8:17
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    I don't agree that it affects students who have already left. If a student finishes a two-hour exam in an hour and thinks there's nothing more they can do in the second hour and leaves, what difference does it make that they could have had a third hour? Commented May 1, 2015 at 10:07
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    @starsplusplus What about a student who thinks, after an hour and 45, "I can't make any worthwhile improvement in the last fifteen minutes so I'll leave now." If they knew that they actually had an hour and fifteen minutes, they might have decided to stay. Commented May 1, 2015 at 12:39
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    @starplusplus: Your reasoning is not very convincing to me. When you take an exam, the implicit premise is that you should be able to do it in the time allotted. So if the only way I see to do a problem is to do a calculation that will take much more time than I have remaining, it is reasonable to assume that I'm missing something and not start a calculation that I know I won't have time to finish. Writing an exam which takes 50% too long is really writing an exam with a kind of mistake, and mistakes in the exam should be announced to students before anyone finishes. Commented May 1, 2015 at 15:32
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    @Aaron Hall: "being a former student who used every second allocated to an exam to redundantly review each and every answer, I have no sympathy for those who left early to play video games (or even study for a different exam." You are not accepting the premise of the question, which is that the instructor felt that there was not enough time for the exam to be completed, let alone redundantly reviewed. The assumption that graduate students who leave a too-difficult exam slightly early will be playing video games seems rather uncharitable. Commented May 1, 2015 at 15:43

My main concern would be whether all students really had the opportunity to take a extra hour. What about students who had something scheduled immediately following the regular exam time, such as another exam? This would certainly be unfair to them.

However, if the schedule was such that all students were available for the extra hour, this situation, although it's not ideal, is not one I would characterize as unfair, and I don't think a student would get very far trying to do anything about it. All students had the same opportunities. Any test is naturally going to have different impacts on students depending on their learning habits and test strategies, so saying it disproportionately helped or harmed students depending on their knowledge or strategies is not a sufficient objection.

You are right in a sense that it reflects the professor's poor planning. Ideally the exam would have been designed such that most students could finish in the originally allotted time. However, many students don't realize that this is much easier said than done. As a professor, occasionally your estimate of an exam's difficulty or length is way off, and you have to do damage control. There are only imperfect solutions to this, and adding extra time, if possible, is among them. I'd say this is a judgment call for the professor, who should take this issue into account when assigning course grades.

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    To me, this is the only objection to consider.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 16:11

This kind of extension is unfair, even if given to all students and even if all students are able to spend an extra hour in the room. It is unfair because it affects students differently based on an arbitrary criterion.

Suppose that Alice and Bob could have written perfect answers to the two-hour exam in three hours and they both realised that right at the start. Knowing she only had two hours, Alice decided to write perfect answers to two thirds of the questions, whereas Bob decided to answer all the questions but in a sketchy way that would score about two-thirds of the marks. When it is announced that there is a surprise extra hour, Alice can just use that time to write perfect answers to the last third of the exam but it is essentially impossible for Bob to rewrite his sketchy answers into full answers.

So, based on an essentially arbitrary decision they made at the start of the exam, two students who would have both scored 100% if allowed three hours from the start end up scoring 100% and, say, 75%. That is not fair.

It's also very unlikely that all the students can stay the extra hour. And what do you do about that student who has another exam starting an hour after your exam finishes? He has to do choose between disadvantaging himself in your exam by leaving early or disadvantaging himself in the other exam by not having a break before it and not being able to eat lunch.

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    I think your scenario with Alice and Bob is somewhat contrived. Being able to write a perfect exam given 50% more time is pretty rare to begin with. How do we know that Bob can't spend the extra time touching up his answers? Why is the decision made at the beginning of the exam "arbitrary"? Whenever you make an exam you make choices which are better for some students and worse for others. But this is pretty minor; there are plenty of other reasons why this seems like a bad practice. Commented May 1, 2015 at 12:45
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    @PeteL.Clark I assumed perfection to make the numbers easier: the argument goes through for any pair of students of roughly equal ability where one responds to the time constraint by choosing quality and the other by choosing quantity. I agree that any exam is unfair but my point is that the time limit extension increases unfairness. It would be hard for Bob to touch up his answers because touching up isn't necessarily just adding more material (and even that might be difficult if he didn't leave enough space) but may involve deleting material and replacing it wholesale. Commented May 1, 2015 at 13:06
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    Thanks. We certainly agree that this should not be done. In my answer (and in general) I try to make a distinction between "One can view this as being unfair to X" and "That would be actionably unfair, so we can't do it; or, having done it, we must fix it." I view designing an exam so that one reasonable test-taking strategy turns out to work better than another as a bad practice rather than something actionably unfair. E.g. if I were a department head, I would roll my eyes at the instructor but probably not intervene. This too is very subjective, of course. Commented May 1, 2015 at 13:26
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    This is by far the best answer here. Whereas Alice and Bob in this example represent extremes of behaviour, the reality is that the majority of students will fall somewhere in between the behaviour of Alice and the behaviour of Bob; and will therefore be advantaged or disadvantaged to varying degrees by the unexpected extension. This is the very definition of unfair. Commented May 2, 2015 at 22:44
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    In particular, one of the smartest ways of handling an exam is to work out how much time to spend on each question, and planning accordingly - don't spend 90 minutes on a question that's worth 25% of a 2 hour exam. However, this unfair extension would hugely advantage a student who did plan their time poorly and did spend far too much time on one single question. Commented May 2, 2015 at 22:46

As already hinted at in the other answers, timed written exams¹ (and every other examination method) are inherently incapable of fully fairly assessing the qualities of interest in a student, as they will always also assess exam-writing skills, psychological robustness, time-management skills and similar. This does however not mean that one should not try to make them as fair as possible.

An important part of this includes having fixed conditions for the exam and informing every student about them beforehand, so they know what they are up to. Changing these conditions without a good reason¹ can avoidably increase the importance of skills that are not of interest. Moreover, it is likely to favour those who have exam-relevant skills anyway (and thus have an unfair advantage through the choice of the examination mode anyway, if you so wish). For example:

  • Many students mentally prepare themselves for the exact exam conditions and changing them favours students who can adapt. The latter are mostly students who are not nervous about exams and thus advantaged anyway.
  • There are several strategies to go through an exam, for example: Trying to attribute equal time to each task, risking leaving tasks half-finished; taking the easy tasks first; taking the more difficult tasks first and so on. Ideally (i.e., for an exam that is well adjusted to the given time), all these strategies are equally good in outcome; in a regular real situation, some of them are favourable, but at least you can decide the best strategy depending on your skills and psychology; radically changing the rules during the exam may strongly favour one strategy and thus give an advantage to those students who chose it (more or less at random).

Perhaps the above comes more clear with a different, more drastic example:
When I studied, one of the central and most difficult exams was looking like this: ⅔ of the points were attributed to Topic A; ⅓ of the points were attributed to Topic B; ½ of the points were required to pass; there were no grades. Given this situation, there were several viable, but entirely different strategies to approach this exam, e.g.:

  • If you were good in Topic A, you could entirely focus on it and try to pass the exam without ever addressing Topic B.
  • If you were good in Topic B, you could focus on Topic B and then try to obtain the rest of the points from easy tasks on Topic A.

When I took this exam, the tasks for Topic A were ridiculously difficult (but in such a way that you would not notice until after investing some time into the task), while the tasks for Topic B were rather easy². As a result, only one person or so would have passed the exam with the above conditions and the passing threshold was lowered to ¼ of the points. Due to the latter, the exam became passable by means of topic B alone and in fact many students passed by overly focussing on topic B, i.e., by pursuing a strategy that could be regarded as bad under the original conditions. Students who focussed on Topic A were strongly disadvantaged though. Moreover, even if you were equally good in both topics, you were randomly advantaged if you started with topic B, since most tasks of topic A were mostly a waste of time (but you could not tell without doing them).

Of course the situation described above is different from yours, but I hope that it illustrates how a strong change to the exam conditions can introduce additional, avoidable unfairness. In your example, I particularly see the following problem: Students who alloted an equal portion of the original time to each task are disadvantaged from those who only worked on selected tasks. The latter can just use the additional time to continue with the remaining tasks, while the former have to revisit their existing solutions, which is more error-prone and takes more time as they have to work themselves into the task again and correct existing stuff. Arguably, adjusting the grading scheme would have been the more fair solution.

So, to sum it up, I would regard the change that you described to be unfair in the sense that it poses an avoidable increase to the importance of non-relevant skills and luck. However, you should keep in mind that any other way of damage control with a badly posed exam would have the same effect and the most fair solution would have been not to change anything (probably resulting in disproportionately bad grades or failing rates). As stated in a comment by O. R. Mapper, some universities do not allow for such changes, probably for exactly that reason. At my university, this is usually addressed by not fixing the grading scheme, so students know beforehand how damage control is going to happen (though even this may lead to unfairness in extreme situations such as my example).

¹ For example an external cause such as an unforseen and unavoidable major noise disturbance.
² To give you an idea: Despite being far more concise, the sample solutions for Topic A were ten times as long as those for Topic B.


I presume, a fair exam is an exam that does not violate student's legitimate expectations.

An important expectation is that the same rules apply to everybody. On the one hand, the extension violates this expectation. As other have pointed out:

  1. It privileges students with bad time management
  2. It privileges students who are able to actually stay longer (and have no following appointments etc.)

On the other hand, it is also a legitimate expectation that an exam not be excessively difficult, that is, it should be doable as long the students have understood the material. If students fail the exam, then because they have been badly prepared, not because the exam was badly planned (for example by being too extensive).

If the professor realizes too late that the exam is too extensive, she is caught in a dilemma. Both granting and not granting the time-extension is unfair. Off the top of my head, I can think of two ways around this:

  1. Schedule another session with all students to finish the exam (although there's still the time-management issue)
  2. Be more lenient when grading the exam (this is probably the best solution)
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    The primary issue of scheduling another session is probably rather that students then know the exam and can use the time until the other session to prepare solutions for exactly the tasks they are missing. Commented May 2, 2015 at 13:05

The rules for a test as well as projects should be made before the test and not changed during the test. That being said, time limits on tests should only hold a portion of the tests overall value and the primary value should be placed on the answer. If the grader feels the test was poorly constructed, adjustment should be made during the grading process to assign the grade on the quality of the answer. And re-test if necessary. Education is first about learning, where punctuality is a desire of the wealthy. Edison took his time on the light bulb or he likely would have finished on time and we'd still be in the dark more than we are today.

As I don't have a good enough reputation I'll comment on Professor Clark's comment here in my edit. I was once told "You can write the history of the world on a postage stamp. To do a descent job of it would likely take as long." Unless there is unlimited time or the grade is based solely on the quality of answer, the allotted time for a test governs the quality of the answer. By changing the time available to turn in the test at any given time after the test has begun, the instructor hasn't really changed the original test, rather he/she has created a second test and the combined tests should be graded accordingly. For the most part, our brains are stupid like computers, they work simply on available inputs. As inputs change, they do their best to re-factor. I don't believe many instructors, other than those in theatre, instruct on improvisation, which would be adjustments to inputs similar to an extension of time for a test. Maybe there is more value there - Teaching how to improvise!


I'm surprised so many people think that's fundamentally unfair; I've had professors add time to a test on several occasions that seemed to make the test more fair.

Example: one of my physics professors (in a Thermodynamics class) always scheduled our midterms (3 of them) for 7-9 pm on Thursday nights to make sure it didn't interfere with class schedules. He once added an hour to the end of a test because we were slower than he expected, and he did so with only a few minutes left. His reasoning was that he made us set aside two hours to guarantee that we could finish it if we studied hard enough, but he didn't care if we needed extra time to prove we could figure the material out -- the test was about what we knew and could solve, not how quickly we could do it. So if you couldn't stay the extra time, it wasn't his problem -- you would've done fine if you'd studied as much as he recommended, and you knew in advance what topics the test was covering. Basically, it was your own fault if you did poorly in the initial two hours, and not his problem if you needed more time but had to leave. In that case, it absolutely was a case of the class not studying enough -- we readily admitted it -- and it was up to the individual whether they wanted to use the time to review their work, finish/improve partial answers, or start problems they hadn't yet gotten to (or leave without using the extra time).

As for everyone complaining about people who'd already left: either they were already done with the test and satisfied with their answers (if I don't want to use my last ten minutes, why would I use an extra hour?) or they had no idea what they were doing so they gave up and left early. Either way, it's not the prof's fault. Example: another physics professor (in a Quantum Mechanics class) made a typo on a midterm once, making the problem unsolvable. Nobody pointed this out to him until we had twenty minutes left on a two-hour test, by which time several people had already left. He told us what the question should have been, and gave us an extra half-hour to make up for time we may have wasted on his mistake. Someone asked what he would do for the students who left early, and he responded that either they: figured out the typo for themselves, solved the problem, and left (unlikely); applied very incorrect math to wrongly solve the problem, thus demonstrating they had no idea what they were doing anyway; or they gave up early, in which case it wasn't his fault that they chose to forfeit their remaining time (and who would give up early if they thought they knew the material?). In no situation was it his problem that they weren't there to benefit from another student identifying the typo, so he wasn't going to give them more time. If they didn't have time to stay, it wasn't his fault -- as in the previous example, students who knew the material well enough never should've needed that much time to begin with.

I do see a problem in non-STEM fields, or on short-answer/essay tests. That would be unfair since it would give some students more time to proofread and otherwise analyze their answers when there never should've been a time management issue in the first place. But when the test is all about do you understand these math/science concepts well enough to apply them?, extending the time allowed for an exam can be very fair.

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    The problem with the asker’s situation as well as with your example is that the extension is added last minute. Why does the professor in the first example not state beforehand that the exam is intended for two hours, but everybody is free to use four hours? This way everybody can plan their “exam strategy” accordingly and nobody is disadvantaged for chosing a strategy that is only bad in light of the extension. How would you feel, if you left five minutes early, because the time did not suffice to start a new task or revisit your existing solutions, and one minute later the time was extended?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 20:23
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    "or they gave up early, in which case it wasn't his fault" - they gave up early precisely because of the mistake committed by said professor. It seems like a rather poor excuse, or way of denying responsibility for one's work, to claim it's not one's fault in such a case. A reasonably self-critical student will not necessarily judge the exam by their own presumed knowledge ("I always know better, the task must be wrong!"), but rather judge their own knowledge by the exam ("This task seems unsolvable to me, so apparently I did not prepare as well as I had thought. I have to give up."). Commented May 1, 2015 at 20:30
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    the test was about what we knew and could solve, not how quickly we could do it — This is a false dichotomy. A fairly important measure of how well you know something is how quickly you can apply it on demand.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 21:45
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    No, I'm sorry, it's not fair. Why should you get a three-hour exam when I have to leave after two-and-a-bit hours to catch my last bus home and when Bob over there has to be home by 9:30 so his partner can go to her job without leaving their young child home alone? Commented May 1, 2015 at 21:47
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    @Wrzlprmft Yes, especially under stress.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 2:25

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