You Failed An Exam. Your Friend Aced It. Same Study Guide, Two Different Tests.

Posted by on Apr 2, 2013 in General | 17 comments

I’ll leave this caption to you. I just liked the picture :-) .

(Back to a student write-in question that came in on “You Failed Your Class” from my old Blogger site. Since we’re nearing the end of another school year, let’s tackle this one in case others are going through it, too…)

I have an issue that is really bothering me. My friend and I spent all day Tuesday in the library studying the same exact material for an exam on Wednesday (It was a practice test for our exam online). The only difference is Friend’s class is lecture style and mine is online.

Wednesday rolled around and Friend aced the test. I didn’t take mine later that evening but my friend said the test was identical to the practice test we were using to study. I go in later that evening to take my test and it is completely different then the practice test the prof issued us. The diagrams and pictures were of something that wasn’t even on the practice test. Needless to say I failed that exam and ended up with a D in the course…which I needed a C.

I can’t help but to feel upset and I think that is extremely unfair….what are my options and what would you advise doing?




Dear Student,

I would be very frustrated in a situation like this. I remember being mad when my score was different from another student’s score–yet I received fewer comments on my paper!

My response will only be based on my experience. There are a few variables to think about here: The online prof likely has the freedom to write a test that he/she sees fitting, unless there is a departmental exam that all profs must give. I am sure the expectation was not for the online test to completely mimic the study guide (because then the study guide would be the test, right?), but you expected the concepts to be similar.

I agree that it is unfair and unproductive to give students a study guide that doesn’t fit the test. I also believe that an online section of a course should closely mimic the on-campus section to maintain integrity. Now I’m not saying the content has to be exactly the same, but sometimes, online profs will make alterations to the curriculum that reduces the rigor (then everyone wants the online class) or they heap five times as much work on the online section to justify its existence in that medium. Sometimes, online versions of the same course are not monitored for consistency and quality. You’ll have to do some digging to find out what happened.

If you and your friend were given the exact same study materials (you didn’t copy them and share them, right? You were each given the same study guide?), I wonder if the prof was supposed to give some sort of common exam, but did not. On the other hand, if every single class had the same exam, there could be a security issue with students sharing content. I would take this up with your professor or ultimately a division/department chair (but hopefully not that far) to get to the bottom.

Another question: You now have a D in the course. Was the final worth enough to knock you down a letter grade? Or were you already struggling? No judgment on my end… believe me. The sciences were not strong for me. I’m only asking because you may have to speak to the rest of your grade standing when you confront this issue.

Make an appointment with your professor (or call) and say, “I am very concerned about my final exam. I studied with a friend who happens to be taking the same course face-to-face. I’m in your online course. We were given the exact same study materials.

I took my test and it didn’t look anything like the study guide. My friend did very well and said his/her test had the same concepts. I had a C in this course and that dropped to a D after the test. Can we please take a look at the test and the study materials and discuss why this happened? I don’t make it a habit to compare my grades, but my friend and I studied together to help each other. My friend did way better. I would appreciate any help so I can understand what happened.”

Two notes: First, be careful of miscommunicating and giving the prof the impression that you were trying to find out what was on the test. You don’t want to lose credibility. Second, profs often shut down when students compare their work to others. I would hardly ever encourage bringing up another student’s grades; this is one of those special circumstances where you have no choice.

Prepare yourself for different reactions from your prof, ranging from accommodating to defensive. Remember, your real argument is why the test was so vastly different than the study guide–not that your friend had a better test or grade. Also, figure out what outcome you seek. Do you want the prof to give you a new test? (This probably won’t happen). Or do something else about your grade? Your prof may simply say that he/she has the right to test in the way they see fit. This would be true. Unless a department compiles assessment results (many do), prof-created tests are rarely scrutinized.

If you want to pursue the issue further, you could say to the professor, “Testing on completely unrelated concepts had a very negative impact on my grade. Under the circumstances, I would like a division/department chair to get involved.”

Just be prepared that when you take this step, you have to be able to show that a large part of that test (50% or more) was on material not covered in the study guide. At the least, if a study guide is being handed out to all students taking the course, but the tests are wildly different, someone should know about it. Otherwise, your complaint won’t be the first.

I wish you luck and hope you’ll report back and let me know what you find out.


Has anyone else encountered this phenomenon? What are your recommendations?


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  1. This is a good reminder about how different professors are, even when teaching the same course.

    I remember a time when I was doing poorly on tests in a particular class. I would study very hard, but found that much of what I studied wasn’t on the test.

    Well, it turns out those getting the top grades were going to the study sessions held by the TA. This professor set things up so that you had to go to those sessions and they pretty much gave you all the answers you needed. For her, class particpation was what she wanted to reward and gave us reasons to show up.

    As a book learner used to working on my own, I was a little slow to catch on. I did end up passing the course after a rough patch.

    That story doesn’t really match with this student’s experience though. I think this is a time when you have to talk to the professor about what happened. Your points above are explanation enough on why.

    • Hi, Susan,

      I could totally see this happening–if a student is being fed the answers, of course they are going to do better! It sounds very similar to when you have a large faculty pool, part-time and full-time, and everyone is testing differently on a common exam: Some are using open-book, some are testing traditionally, and some are “feeding” answers. You have crazy-different results and students are the victims of that.

      I was a horrible test taker, myself. I think I suffered from test anxiety and I did not do well with rote tests or standardized tests, just in general.

      I appreciate you sharing that story. Ugh… the discrepancies!!!!

  2. Ellen,

    I love your attitude and common sense reasoning.

    I went back and re-read the question from the student. I was unable to verify that the professor was different for each class. It certainly could be interpreted as the same professor for both classes.

    If they were the same professor, it could be possible that they changed the tests to prevent cheating. It would not be totally unexpected for a teacher to do that. I have had teachers that would change their tests for each class (or at the least change a few of the questions).

    Also, if it were the same professor, you could believe that someone actually got caught cheating in the day class by giving answers to the night class (either that day or in a past class). I would think most professors would consider changing the test then.

    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    • Hi, Aaron,

      I agree with you–they could have been the same professor. I would definitely alter the test in that case to discourage cheating, too (actually, I barely ever test, and if I do, I make it worth very, very little). The bigger issue for me is if the practice instrument had nothing to do with the assessment. This is a wider spread problem and it happens to students all the time. Faculty sometimes don’t take their own practice tests to see if they match up with the actual test that they are giving. Otherwise, giving some sort of practice material is really worthless. I’ve had a few pointed comments on Twitter that this student shouldn’t have even been relying on the practice material.

      These are all tough situations. My hope is that whatever the outcome, the student at least went to the professor to discuss it.

      Thanks, as always, for giving your feedback!!!!


  3. Hi all,

    My concern is a bit different from that in above discussions,mine concerns referencing the work.

    I am from one of the developing countries of sub-Saharan Africa (Rwanda), I study online MA program in a certain British University ( Manchester Metropolitan University). It is very had for me to succeed in any course because of referencing the work and plagiarism. Anyone would please help me what I can do to succeed, I do all my best but I tend to pass almost all my modules after re-submissions.

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