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  What Makes An Examination Fair?


The Senate policy Evaluation of Undergraduate Academic Performance - Departmental Responsibility reads: "The department (or faculty where applicable) shall devise procedures to ensure that evaluative methods are academically rigourous and as equitable as possible." These two themes, rigour and equity, go hand in hand through every phase of the examination process. They are two sides of one coin. Without fairness, you lack rigour. And vice versa.

Students have many ideas about what is or is not fair about exams. For the most part, student ideas of fairness are consistent with the ideas expressed in university policy. Disagreement arises over the detail: everyone agrees an exam should focus on the course material, but people differ about what counts as course material.

Examinations have a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how much each student has learned compared to fellow students in the same course or learning situation. One way of looking at fairness and rigour is to ask: how can exams most effectively fulfil their purpose?

In what follows I have tried to reflect the ongoing dialogue I hear in my office between university policy and practice, and student comment. This discussion will not settle every disagreement between students and instructors, but it may help to clarify some of the questions.

A word of caution: this document is the Ombudsperson's interpretation of university policy, and of student and faculty opinion. It is not an official University document. Students and faculty members should always consult policy before making a decision. Authoritative interpretations of academic policy are those made by faculty, Department chairs and Deans.

Examination content

The course outline policy specifies that a written course outline must be provided for each course, and must contain "a general description of course content." There is no policy which states that examinations and evaluations are to be based on that course content - probably because that is assumed.

How should the exam relate to course content? Unless warned to the contrary, students expect exam content

  • to reflect material taught in class, and covered in notes, textbooks and other assigned readings, labs, or tutorials
  • to use and rely on skills which have been taught or practised in the course, such as writing, critical thinking, problem solving
  • to be consistent with the emphasis on topics in the course as a whole
  • to not include material from unexpected sources, such as a course at a previous level or a skill which was not practised or taught

Level of difficulty

University policy states: "At the beginning of each course, the Department will provide a statement of the methods of evaluation that will be used in assessing performance."

Students expect that the problems or questions on an exam should not be more difficult than, or different in form or type from those they have tackled in the course.

Typically, students expect to know beforehand about the format of an exam; its length; how much it is worth in terms of the final course grade; and how much of the course content will be tested. Level of difficulty is not something they will necessarily know beforehand, though many instructors provide sample or typical questions to help students feel prepared.


Students have definite opinions about how long exams should be. A very long exam which almost no one can complete is not usually felt to be fair, for several reasons:

  • being forced to rush interferes with a student's ability to demonstrate what has been learned, making the exam result a less accurate measure of student learning;
  • very long exams oblige students to forego things they may value, such as good handwriting, careful rereading and editing of answers, and taking time to think things through;
  • a hurried piece of work is rarely a piece of work in which anyone takes pride;
  • rushing makes some students panic, or feel frustrated or angry, so they are disadvantaged relative to other students.

Some exams seem intended to be too long for anyone to finish. Normally students are forewarned when this is so. They do appreciate being forewarned.


University policy permits exams to take many different formats - open book, essay, short answer, multiple choice, bell ringer, oral and so on. In fact, I know of no rule against any particular form of exam. However, limited university resources often dictate that exams will be structured to permit the use of scantron or other machine readable answer sheets.

Human beings differ in how they learn. They differ, too, in how they perform in different kinds of exam situations. Many find multiple choice exams very challenging and prefer writing essays; others feel just the opposite.

Students obliged to sit exams in a format they find difficult will often complain that they were not able to really demonstrate what they learned in the course. They feel this is unfair. They are right - it really is a problem. But it is not a problem with an easy or obvious solution. Some faculty members use a variety of exam formats or evaluative approaches in a course, so that different styles of learning are encouraged. Many courses have quiz, paper-writing and exam requirements; and many exams have sections requiring different sorts of answers.

Two additional things can assist the individual student. The first is advance knowledge of the type of questions on an exam, so the student is forewarned and can study appropriately; the second is for each student to become aware of his or her learning style, and address weaknesses by attending sessions put on by the Learning Skills Office and undertaking individual remediation.

Advance information about an exam

Students feel strongly that information about the material for which they are responsible and the format of questions they can expect should be available well in advance. Other things students appreciate knowing are whether they will have any choice about which questions to answer, and how many questions there will be.

In accordance with the requirement that evaluative methods be "as equitable as possible" information should be made available to all students - if the course has more than one section, it must be given to each section. While it is the responsibility of a student who misses class to find out what was missed, instructors can help by repeating announcements of important information or by including it in written materials like the course outline.

Sometimes information circulates informally among students. This can happen with past exams. In such cases, some students have access to the information and others do not. Faculty confronted with this situation after the fact will feel frustrated, since it is very difficult to assess to what extent the informal information advantaged some and disadvantaged others. Regardless of any evidence and regardless of the opinion of faculty on the matter, students believe that this situation is unfair to those who did not have access to the information.

Students feel very resentful when what they believe they were told to expect on an exam does not happen. Providing information which is scrupulously accurate can help avoid this problem.


Validity: An exam should permit students who have learned the material well or achieved a high level of skill to do better than those who have learned poorly. A concern with validity often lies behind some common student complaints about marking practices. For example, the lack of part marks on some examinations can mean that a student who has no idea how to solve a problem will get zero and so will the student who has mastered the methodology but makes one careless error. Students will argue that this is unfair. However, it is important to look at the overall evaluation system in a course before pronouncing any particular part of it unfair.

English language competency: "To foster competence in the use of the English language within their own discipline, all instructors will take proficiency in English into account in the assignment of grades." (Calendar, Course Structure policy). Notwithstanding this policy, just as a fair exam is one which focuses on the course material, a fair marking scheme is one which awards a majority of the marks for knowledge of the course material. If there are penalties for spelling and grammar mistakes, they should be reasonable.

High failure rate: After a particularly difficult exam with a high number of failures, students may complain that the exam was unfair. The truth is, it is difficult to set a perfect exam. Exams may turn out to be much harder or much easier than the instructor expected. When that happens, the exam results are not always a good indication of what students have learned. In that sense, they may indeed be unfair, but it is important to remember that it is not a deliberate unfairness. It is something instructors usually want to fix, just as much as students want to see it fixed. The question is, how to fix it, and when? Instructors often prefer to wait until all the other grades in the course have been determined, rather than make adjustments midstream. This can be frustrating for students, but it is not necessarily unfair.

Consistency: The Senate policy, Evaluation of Undergraduate Academic Performance, states: "As a guideline, departments (or faculties where applicable) shall take appropriate action to ensure that for all sections of a multi-sectioned course,

  • (a) course requirements and grading procedures are equivalent;
  • (b) grades assigned reflect achievement accurately."

Grades are the currency of a student's academic life. Grades determine whether students advance in a program, who gets scholarships, who is on the dean's honors list, who gets into which professional or graduate program. This means grading needs to be consistent within groups. Recently a Senate Subcommittee reviewed grading patterns across programs and faculties and proposed mechanisms for helping to ensure more consistency across disciplines.

Students do not complain when grades are raised in the interests of consistency, but they do complain when grades are lowered. A student whose grade is lowered feels something that was earned has been taken away. Policy requires that departments do whatever is necessary to ensure that grades are fair and consistent. Lowering grades is sometimes unavoidable, and no more unfair than raising grades.

Departmental responsibility: A rogue course is a course which does not fit the grading pattern of other courses in a discipline. The deviation may be due to the specific subject matter, but the values of the individual instructor sometimes play a role. Some instructors take pride in the fact that they rarely give high grades. Others reward very specific skills.

At Western, grading is the responsibility of departments, which delegate that responsibility to instructors. Before a set of grades is accepted, it must be approved by both the department and the dean's office. An instructor may be asked to explain anomolies: why there are no grades below or above a certain level, why the failure rate is so high or so low, and so on. A department may investigate inconsistencies and has both the power and the responsibility to make grade adjustments if convinced that the anomolies are not justified.

Subjectivity: Students often fear that they will be graded unfairly because the marking system in a particular course is "subjective." The Course Structure policy in the Calendar states: "Wherever possible, departments (or faculties) will ensure that final grades in their courses are derived largely from documented evidence demonstrating academic achievement, i.e., written or practical examinations, essays, reports, problem assignments." It is helpful to remember that the "objective" grading of multiple choice and other exams is not really more objective than the grading of essays. Both formats involve the judgment and discretion of the instructor. In the "objective" exam, that judgment and discretion are used to construct the questions. In the "subjective" (essay) exam, the judgment and discretion are more evident in the grading.

See the guide entitled Grade Appeals and Other Requests for Relief, available from the office website, or view other guides for more information.

Access to Examinations

Students have a right to see and review their exams. See the policy Retention of Examination Papers and Records in the Calendar. A student may also feel entitled to some feedback. The policy entitled Evaluation of Undergraduate Academic Performance specifies: "As a guideline for departments (or faculties where applicable) instructors will be required to return assignments to students as promptly as possible with reasonable explanations of the instructor's assessment of the assignment." It should be noted that 'reasonable explanation' is not defined. It should also be noted that there is no guideline regarding a reasonable explanation for the grade given on an exam. Notwithstanding, many faculty do provide explanations when asked.


The instructor and the University have a responsibility to organize examinations in a way which makes cheating difficult. Students have a responsibility not to cheat. Students need to be aware that cheating is not tolerated, and that some of the following measures may be in place in their exams and courses:

  • different versions of the exam (for example, same questions, different order and numbering) may be used randomly or row by row;
  • exam rooms may be set up so that different courses write in alternate rows;
  • instructors may photocopy a student paper before giving it back; a student who modifies an answer and resubmits an exam in hopes of earning extra marks will be accused of cheating and be subject to penalties;
  • students suspected of cheating previously in the course (on an assignment or lab report, for example) may be watched more closely by proctors; and
  • a computer program may be used to identify student exam papers with similar answer patterns; this evidence may be used to support an allegation of cheating.

The list above is not conclusive. Faculty are constantly devising new systems to deter cheating.

See the relevant policies in the Calendar, and the guide entitled Cheating, Plagiarism and Other Scholastic Offences, available from the Office of the Ombudsperson or on the on the office website.

Special exams

Special exams are defined in the Calendar, in the policy Special/Supplemental Examinations. A number of questions regularly come up in regard to special exams.

If a student misses a regular exam for a good reason (documented medical or compassionate reason, or conflict with religious observance), is that student entitled to a special exam? Policy would suggest there is such an entitlement: "A student is entitled to be examined in courses in which registration is maintained, subject to the following limitations...." (Examinations Policy, Calendar). However, the policy does not actually state that a student is entitled to write every exam and test in a course, and, in practice, the precise remedy for a missed exam or test is determined by the instructor and the department. Some alternative remedies include: increasing the weight of the final exam or of some other component in the course (if the missed exam was not a final); prorating the final grade; or aegrotat standing (if the missed exam was a final and the student is not going to be fit to write exams for some time). A student has a right to appeal the instructor's decision to the department, and the department's decision to the Dean. The Dean's decision is final.

If there is to be a special exam, or a make-up, does it have to be the same as the exam it is replacing? No, it does not have to be the same; however, the policy on making sure that "evaluative methods are academically rigourous and as equitable as possible" implies that the special exam should be comparable to the regular exam. There is no rule saying that the format of the two exams must be the same, but both should cover the same course material and be of similar difficulty. A student who believes a special exam is not comparable to the regular exam it replaced may appeal on those grounds.

When may a special exam be scheduled? The policy states that special exams are normally written "no later than one month after the end of the examination period involved." The intent of this limitation (at least in part) is to discourage departments and instructors from having a student write the exam with the next class, i.e., the following term or year. Most special exams are written much sooner, as soon as is practical. If student and instructor cannot agree on a time, the student may appeal to the chair and to the Dean.

A student who fails to contact the instructor to schedule a special exam as soon as possible is likely to have the permission for the special exam withdrawn.

What if a special exam cannot be written at the agreed-upon time? The student may request a deferral prior to the scheduled time. The instructor, department and Dean's Office will need evidence that the deferral is necessary for reasons clearly beyond the control of the student. A student who does not contact the instructor or Dean's Office before the scheduled time, or who cannot provide a compelling reason for being unable to write the exam is unlikely to be granted permission to write. Instructors, departments and Dean's Offices have refused repeated requests for deferral on a variety of grounds.

Can the grade on a special exam be appealed? Yes, a special exam is no different from a regular exam in this regard. When a student agrees to accept a special exam which is different in some way from the exam it is replacing, the student may want to consider whether the difference affects the opportunity for appeal. For example, an oral exam may seem like an expedient replacement; however, it is much harder to appeal the grade on an oral exam.

Lost exams

Occasionally exams get lost, despite the safeguards and procedures instructors and departments follow to ensure this will not happen. When an exam does get lost, the only remedy for the student may be to write another exam. The replacement exam must be comparable to the original exam, and the student may appeal an exam believed to be not comparable, in the same way as any other student writing a special exam.

Disruptions during an exam

Students subjected to disruptions while writing exams often feel that a grade adjustment is appropriate. However, instructors may feel that since every student suffered the disruption, no adjustment is necessary. The instructor can look at the set of grades and make a judgment about whether that grade set reflects the disruption, and adjust the grade if appropriate.

Notwithstanding, disruptions may affect students differently. An individual student who feels a disruption had a serious and demonstrable impact on performance may appeal on those grounds.


A student who writes an exam despite being ill or otherwise incapacitated will often do poorly. University policy provides no remedy in this situation. Notwithstanding, when there is reason to believe that the student could not foresee the impact of the illness or other problem, instructors or departments may, at their discretion, provide a remedy.

My best advice to a student who is ill or incapacitated is this: if you choose to write the exam, be prepared to accept the result. An appeal after the fact is unlikely to succeed.

What if a student becomes ill during the course of an exam? As soon as that happens, the illness should be reported to the proctor or the instructor. A student with illness around or during a final exam must also provide medical documentation to the Dean's Office. Many instructors will require documentation for illness affecting evaluations during a course.

Some students become very stressed around exams and are ill repeatedly, and repeatedly must reschedule exams. This pattern is very problematic for the University. Decision makers are aware that exams are stressful for virtually every student, and feel it is unfair to accommodate one stressed student and not another. Before providing a remedy for a student whose problem is, at least in part, exam-related stress, decision makers need to be reassured that the situation of the particular student is exceptional. Only a detailed doctor's or counsellor's letter covering the specific, relevant dates can provide that reassurance.

Academic Accommodations

The policy, Academic Accommodation for Students with Disabilities, details the principles and procedures, as well as the responsibilities of faculty, students and Services for Students with Disabilities, for determining appropriate academic accommodation.

Permission to write an examination under somewhat different conditions is a common form of academic accommodation. The intent is always to provide a fair opportunity for the student with a disability - not to provide an unfair advantage. Typical accommodations include writing alone in a separate room; writing an exam using an assistive device or a computer; being granted extra time to write the exam; being granted breaks or time-outs in order to rest or take necessary medication. Students with disabilities must use Services for Students with Disabilities in order to request academic accommodations. For more extensive discussion of academic accommodation, see The Ombudsperson's Guide for Students with Disabilities.

Students with temporary problems (for example, a fractured wrist) may be granted accommodations by instructors without registering with SSD. A student denied needed temporary accommodation may appeal to the department chair and to the Dean.

Students with temporary problems, either compassionate or health related, often request an exam deferral because the problem has prevented them from studying. These requests do not fall as clearly within university policy as requests to defer because one is unable to write an exam on a given day. When the evidence is very clear, however, these requests will normally be granted.


A number of people reviewed this document in draft and made helpful suggestions, including Peter Auksi, Ted Hewitt, Joyce MacKinnon, Derek McLachlin, Anita Pouliot, and Rob Tiffin. Your comments would be welcome - simply contact the Ombudsperson, WSS3135, 519-661-3573, or email ombuds@uwo.ca. Note: An earlier version of this text appeared in Western News on March 26, 1992.

Office of the Ombudsperson Publications

All Office of the Ombudsperson publications are copyright but may be reproduced by or adapted by other ombuds offices and educational institutions. Please advise us, as a courtesy, of any such uses outside Western University.

06/99 (Frances Bauer wrote the original text.) Updated 05/2006.