I suspect a student misread an exam question worth 10 points (exam out of 120). Aside from this one student, the rest all understood the question and the average grade was 8.2/10 for this question. One student did something entirely different and got 0.

After staring at their answer for a while, I realize he / she had confused "map generalization" and "general purpose map". I suspect English is this student’s second language. Now, this question awards 3 or 4 times the points of a typical multiple choice question as it is of a higher level.

I do not like the thought of giving this student a zero on this question when it may be a language nuance issue. They are very close terms, the one I used and the one they misunderstood if for. This student has had issues all semester though with handing work in, attending class, completing assignments, etc., (hence, why this is important as it may have implications for their grade, major, graduation).

The student is on an important grade boundary and it could make a difference to their final grade even a difference to if they have to take the class again / can graduate on time / or even stay in the major.

My thoughts are one of:

  1. Give them another stab at it with more language context, ASAP.
  2. Give them some consolation points.
  3. Stick with the 0 for this question.
  4. Grade the question they answered and not the question asked.
  5. Give him / her the lowest grade anyone else got (or 1 lower) for this question.

The semester is over but I have a few days before grades are due.

What to do?


The Department Chair recommends removing this one question from this one student's exam and the Associate (sub) Dean applying the "rest of the exam average" to this one question. This is two ways of saying the same thing really as the outcome is identical. Either way you do it applies this one student's average grade for all the other questions to this one question. The Chair and Dean (both whom I highly regard) have no more information than this board aside from the student's name. So if the student averaged 70% on the other questions this would be identical to giving them a 7 out of 10 on this question (this 7 is close to what would happen). Hmmmm. This has not come up in all the answers or comments below.

What to do?

  • 29
    It looks like "map generalization" and "general purpose map" are terms of art in the subject you're teaching. Regardless of the student's facility with English in general, it is reasonable to expect the student to be able to know and use the terms of art in your subject as covered over the course of the term.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 17:19
  • 38
    Also, if I had a nickel for every time I wrote, "True, but not the answer to this question," on an exam, I would have taco money for the rest of the year.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 17:24
  • 13
    This student has had issues all semester though with handing work in, attending class, completing assignments, etc. — Then this is likely a bigger issue than a single exam question. These may be signs of ADD or another learning disability, rather than a language issue. You might suggest — gently — that they be evaluated by the relevant professionals on your campus.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:05
  • 9
    @BCLC I am absolutely not qualified to diagnose anyone, especially from a dozen words on the internet. ADD was just the first possibility that popped into my head.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 4:08
  • 3
    "What to do": Zero points. As I wrote in my answer, I don't think it was a misunderstanding at all, and giving points for this student's answer is, in effect, penalizing the other students, those who actually had learnt what map generalization means. "Hi, I passed the cartography course!" -- "Bah! I talked to this other student who also passed, and didn't even know what map generalization is, so clearly a passing grade from that course isn't worth anything." Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 9:13

13 Answers 13


At my institution the default way to handle this is (3 Stick with the 0 for this question). Essentially, every student is required to handle the teaching language well enough to be able to work on the test. In practice, many teachers will fall back to (2 Give them some consolation points) if giving 0 points seems too harsh. If (1 Give them another stab at it with more language context) is an actual option, that seems like a senseful way, too (e.g., in a short verbal exam). However, in practice this is often not possible in my courses, either because it would be very impractical or because the course regulations do not allow it.

Both, (4 Grade the question they answered and not the question asked) and (5 Give him / her the lowest grade anyone else got for this question), seem like relatively weird ways to handle this situation. With (5), you are essentially decoupling the grades for the student from what (s)he has actually written on the test. (4) breaks a fundamental exam concept, i.e., that the instructor chooses the question that the student should be answering, and not vice versa.

As for this:

The student is on an important grade boundary and it could make a difference to their final grade even a difference to if they have to take the class again / can graduate on time / or even stay in the major.

As bad as you may feel if "your" grade is the tip of the iceberg that leads to bad consequences for the student, you should be aware that it is the sum of bad performances that has gotten the student into troubles. Your grade is just the last in a series, and your grade is as much "at fault" as any other bad grade the student received. Hence, I feel you are not required to take the larger picture into account.

  • 1
    I feel the same way on the tip of the iceberg point. It shows the big difference in opinion on an issue such as this that you think 4 is weird yet another thinks it is the best answer. Good advice though. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 16:02
  • 25
    "I feel you are not required to take the larger picture into account". I would go further: you definitely should NOT take the larger picture into account. If you do, you are letting the grade you think they deserve influence the mark for the question, rather than using the individual question marks to determine the grade. Doing the former negates the point of having an exam. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 16:36
  • @user2390246 if the questions are essays, then the individual question marks are random variables. Remarking will result in a different grade. If the different grade is wildly different, then you are not a consistent marker (bad). If the different grade is close, then it does not matter which of the two grades you use except if the student is on a border. IMO if you can not consistently grade the exam on the same side of the border, you should give the student the benefit of your doubt.
    – emory
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 23:34
  • That's a fair point, and perhaps I was a bit strong. But I'm not sure it really applies in this particular situation, since we're not talking about random variation in grading, we're talking about a decision to award 0 marks on a question, which would be completely consistent if re-marked. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 11:56
  • 2
    I could mark it 100 times. Still zero. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 15:12

Obvious zero points. The student didn't misread the question, but just didn't know the term. He or she made a wild guess at what it meant, and guessed wrong.

I have been grading exams for a long time (since 1988 or so), and it is not uncommon for a student who doesn't recognize a term to guess its meaning, and get it more or less wrong. Map generalization means (as I just googled) decreasing the level of detail on a map so that it remains uncluttered when its scale is reduced. That is a technical term from cartography, and something that I had to look up. I assume that by "general purpose map" you just mean a map that isn't specifically designed for a certain purpose. I didn't have to google that, and if you have no idea what map generalization means, it is not an entirely unreasonable guess that it has something to do with general-purpose maps.

(This answer may sound a bit arrogant, but I do have many years' experience trying to figure out, from a few hard-to-read words scribbled on a paper, not just if the answer is right or wrong, but if the student has understood the subject or not. Also, the only reason I am posting here right now is to get away from the exams waiting to be graded.)

  • 1
    What if the confusion was in the other direction? I.e. general purpose read as map generalisation ... Would it be as obvious in that case? Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 22:37
  • 2
    @LamarLatrell: That would be more unusual, and the exact mechanism of the error wouldn't be as obvious. Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 9:02
  • 10
    It is of the nature of students that, if they cannot answer the question that was asked, they'll answer some other question and hope the professor doesn't notice. (I know this because I used to be a student.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 13:51
  • That's right, a general purpose map is a map designed for general reference (e.g. see edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/cur/socstud/frame_found_sr2/tns/tn-7.pdf ). The maps found in a random atlas or included in National Geographic magazine issues are usually general-purpose maps. Someone interested in learning about, say, Greenland could learn a little about a lot of things by reading such a map. Non-general purpose maps could include a surveying map used by real estate agents, a wind current map used by meteorologists, or a map showing airport waypoints and runway alignments used by pilots. Commented May 8, 2020 at 18:13

Stick with the grade deserved for the question. I don't understand the concepts you're referring to, but I suggest the possibility that if the student had attended class regularly, then the student might have been aware that "map generalization" and "general purpose map" are two different things. You should not be surprised that poor attendance can impact an understanding of a topic in interesting ways.


I think the central issue here is that the paper is graded consistently with the rest of the exams.

If you have been awarding points for things that are correct even if they don't necessarily address the question that was asked, then give this student the appropriate number of points. Otherwise, I think you should not.

I think it is a very slippery slope to try to guess why a student got something wrong. I don't want to live in a world where, say, an instructor makes judgements about which students have disabilities and/or are at a disadvantage, and treats students differently as a result. (I'm not saying you are such an instructor.)

Having compassion and advocating for students is, of course, good. I have "saved" two students from disastrous exam performances by talking with them privately and recommending they speak with Health Services and Disability Services. But I only gave them make-ups after the appropriate office at the University told me that such a make-up was warranted.


How do you do partial credit normally?

(Or if relevant, what is your institution's standard policy on partial credit?)

There's a number of different philosophies in assigning partial credit. One general approach is to take an absolute correct-or-not approach, either for the question as a whole or by parts.

Another is to treat an answer as a process, and give students credit for those parts of the answering process which they did correctly and take points off just for those steps where they made a mistake. That is, if they mess up an early step, they aren't penalized in subsequent steps which proceed correctly from incorrect results they've already been penalized for.

Different have their benefits and drawbacks, and their proponents. You need to figure out which philosophy you ascribe to and why. If you don't have an "official" partial credit policy (e.g. on your syllabus), think back on how you've approached awarding partial credit in other situations.

So how does this apply to this particular situation?

Answering the wrong question is similar to other mistakes made during solving the problem. But instead of getting partway through the solving and making an error, they made the mistake out of the gate. If you're an absolute correct-or-not person, things are clear: they get no credit, because nothing is correct.

But if you're the type of person who views answering as a process and gives credit for steps that are done correctly but from an incorrect starting point, then you should probably give the student partial credit. In the process of answering the question, the student made only one mistake - they misread the question. If your philosophy is that mistakes shouldn't cascade, then that mistake in reading shouldn't cascade to the rest of the answer.

That's not to say you can't take off a large number of points (or even all). How many is a judgement call and depends on how severe the misreading is. How important the distinction between the two for your class? Were there any red flags which should have told the student they were incorrect? Was the pedagogical point of the question the understanding of the term? Would swapping the two terms give a reasonable question? How severe would an answer to a different question be if the student were to have the correct meaning, but simply wrote the wrong term for it?

My main point is that you shouldn't necessarily think of this as "answering the wrong question", especially if you take an "answer as a process" type approach. Instead, you should view it as the student making a single mistake in the process - that of misreading the question. If you frame this as a "brain fart" type situation, you can fairly and consistently apply your established partial credit policy.

That is, if you're a process person, take points off for misreading the question, and then fairly grade the rest of the answer on an "assuming the question was written how the student interpreted it ..." basis.

  • 1
    Not really an option as they answered a different question so no parts are correct on my question. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 20:40
  • @user27239 I tried to clarify. It's more an issue of how you philosophically view partial credit, and you're grading results or process.
    – R.M.
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:48
  • @user27239 That comment right there would seem really to be key. The student answered a different question which can correlate to the student didn't answer THE question as written which results in the student got the answer wrong period. I guess I don't understand your issue after all.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 15:45
  • I try to give partial credit when the situation applies such as in this 10 point question (get it half right get half points sort of thing). Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 21:41

Do students have an opportunity to come to you if for any reason they don't agree with how their exam was rated? If they do that would be an excellent opportunity to find out what the student knows about the actual question, and then you can go from there. If you asked question A and he answered question B, then you would want to know if he actually knows the answer to A or not.

So if that is the case, then you can rate the question at zero point. If the student honestly believed they were answering the right question, he will come to complain about the rating, and then you see what happens. If he intentionally answered the wrong question because he didn't know the answer to the correct one then 0 points is correct and he likely won't come to complain.

  • 1
    It also happens that students don't show up for shyness, thinking it won't make a difference, or a dozen other unrelated reasons... but grades can't depend on second guessing those either.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 17:19

The point of grading an exam is to try to give you, the instructor, objective evidence of the skills developed / knowledge gained by the student in their course. In the end, you should give the grade that the student deserves; and the exam/homework/attendance etc are all factors that play into your evaluation.

Most of the time, students will complain bitterly about "unfair" grading if they feel that they did well against the objective criteria, and didn't get the grade they "deserved". It is very rare that a student will complain about unfairness for being given the benefit of the doubt.

The question you have to ask is this: is there an "injured party" if you decide to grade this one person leniently on this one question? Are you sending a future employer a false signal about this student's competence? Does passing this student mean you have to fail another? If the answer is "nobody is hurt", then your next question has to be "what is the right grade for this student?". The fact that you say "he/she" either means you want to cloak the identity (thinking that one might answer differently for a male or female student), or you genuinely don't know this student personally. I hope you do know your students personally, and that you are able to draw a reasonable conclusion about their competence based not only on their written work, but also on interactions in class and outside.

If the Department Chair thinks it's OK to not grade this question, and base the final grade of the student on their percentage score of the remaining questions, then that is a kind and generous solution; but make sure that doing so doesn't debase the effort of others - and that it doesn't falsely give an incompetent person an appearance of competence. Would the student benefit from taking the course again? From getting additional English help?

Personally I think too much emphasis is given to exams, and not enough to learning. Exams are often a poor measure of learning... which ultimately is the goal of an education.

  • I agree on the learning vs. exam comment in most ways but this is an exam that is given and it is not worth a huge portion of the final grade but in this case it matters to the final grade. Yes, I know the student very well but the gender does not matter so I do not use it in the question. It is irrelevant and English does not have a good gender neutral third person pronoun so I avoid stating he or she as an extra level of privacy for the student. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 23:24

Either -

A) give no points. Part of taking a class is learning what the terminology means.

B) Ask the student to come in and talk to you. Rephrase the question to the student and go through it orally. If the student demonstrates an understanding, then score that understanding appropriately. If not, then 0 was the correct score to begin with.


As a professor at a degree certifying institution, you have a responsibility as a gatekeeper.

Your compassion needs to consider more than one individual's plight; A bad representative injures reputation more than a good one improves it.

A question you need to decide: Is it fair to the rest of your students and the institution to help an inferior student pass?


It sounds like you would like to help the student since you do not want them to fall just short of an important grade boundary due to them having possibly misunderstood a question because of language issues. You have thought of a number of ways that all seem reasonable and have asked for additional advice. Your department chair and Dean both suggested the same solution that is not wholly inconsistent with your desired goals. That would be enough to sway me. I would just go with their suggestion. Then I would email them and say I took your advice, thank you very much.


If the grade boundary is at stake, one possibility is to give them a (short) viva on a few topics (something around 10-15 minutes) to break the tie. Of course, you should coordinate it with/get agreement from the program tutor (or whoever is responsible at your place for consistency of assessment).

  • 2
    You can't do that with only one student, you'd have to give everybody the same chance. And that way lays madness...
    – vonbrand
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 17:15
  • I think I agree. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 18:13
  • 1
    Giving everybody the same chance here does not address the OPs issue. To my understanding it is not problem competence of the student, but rather his incomplete competence with language. Others did not face this problem. Now,in past decades, you could assume that everybody could be expected to have the same competence with language. Today, with increasing mobility of students, language deficits needs to be taken into account. Unless you consider precise understanding of distinction of similar-sounding notions part of the learning outcomes to be assessed, in which case I would agree with you. Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 15:21

Bouncing off @R.M. 's answer, another way to award partial credit is to look for elements of the student's answer that actually would fit in to an answer to the actual question.

It's not clear in which direction the student's error was, but let's assume for the sake of example that the question asked the student to perform a Map Generalization on a map given in the question but the student actually drew a General Purpose Map derived from that map instead. Does any element of the student's General Purpose Map fit in with what a student would have done when performing a Map Generalization? If so, those elements or steps can count for partial credit.

If the error was the other way, ask yourself whether any element of the student's Map Generalization produces elements that would be found on or appropriate for a General Purpose Map. Assign partial credit for those elements. Deny, or possibly deduct, credit for any element that is not in keeping with General Purpose Maps, whether or not they represent proper Map Generalization best practices.

To make an analogy: Suppose a student was assigned a project of building a lighthouse out of brick but they actually built a jail instead. What did the student do right? They probably mixed their mortar correctly, or at least mostly correctly. They probably poured an appropriate foundation. They may have been able to take a plan and compute the correct number of bricks necessary to execute that plan (even if the plan they drew up was the wrong one). They set at least three bear traps in the building in keeping with Smith (2017)'s Best Practices in Brick Buildings Under the Hypertext Quantum Trans-Paradialectic and posted the No Smoking sign. They can get partial credit for all of those. What they do not get credit for are placement of the lamp, alignment of the lamp in conformance with applicable Coast Guard regulations, and filing Form 55-E with the Department of Lighthouses.


Grade the question they answered and not the question asked. But if this happened in part (a) of the question and then later part (d) leans on part (a), don't hand out additional benefit-of-the-doubt marks for part (d) even if you suspect the same misunderstanding is still at work. The chain of charitable interpretation has to break somewhere, otherwise everybody deserves an A. (Which is a philosophical point to be debated elsewhere.)

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