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Physics students given maths students' exams: »I thought it was just me that was stupid or something«

An exam in science theory for physics at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) descended into chaos as students were given the wrong set of exam questions. After a confusing process, the exam was finally cancelled.

What should have been a normal exam in science theory for physics students turned into something more chaotic on Wednesday 6 April.

Students could already sense that not everything was as carefully planned as it should be on their way into the exam room. To get to the allocated room and the one-hour digital multiple-choice exam, they had to pass another exam room full of concentrated examinees. They were asked to walk two-by-two as they passed the room, to minimize interruption.

»This was the first inkling we had that this could seem a bit chaotic,« says Christian Rasmussen, who is studying third-year physics.

When the students were in front of their screens, it stated ‘VtMat’ instead of ‘VtFys’ on the digital front page of the exam. Some students asked the exam proctors if they had not made a mistake, but they were assured that everything was just fine.

The exam started well for Christian Rasmussen. The first question was about a subject that they had received teaching in.

»But then things suddenly started getting a little harder. The questions started to revolve around mathematical philosophers and financial models. And I just thought that it was me that was stupid, because I found it difficult to answer,« he says.

Chaotic scene

It was not until another student, who Christian Rasmussen considers to be »one of the smart ones«, raised their hand after five minutes, that Christian Rasmussen started to understand why he was having so much trouble with the material. He said to the proctors that the exam could not possibly be the right one. At the same time, students noticed that the exam only had 20 questions – and not the 22 they had been led to expect.

The exam proctors continued to reassure them that this was the right exam, but the students insisted, and the exam was paused.

It was a new form of examination for us, and we were prepared for this – but things were just not in order.

Physics student Christian Rasmussen

»It was complete chaos when the exam proctors finally left. It was a new form of examination for us, and we were prepared for this – but things were just not in order, according to Christian Rasmussen.

The test is the second part of an exam in theory of science. The first part, a 48-hour test, was held the week before, and was the first time the multiple choice portion of the exam has been held since the pandemic.

»Twenty minutes into the exam, the proctors came in and said that the exam would continue, and that we just had to put a blank on the questions we could not respond to.«

The students did so, but the atmosphere was still tense in the now quiet examination room, and after approximately 40 minutes, the exam proctors came in with a new announcement.

»They said that the exam was cancelled and that we would be given a new date,« says Christian Rasmussen.

Human error

Now the students are concerned about how the error will affect their holidays, teaching and study programmes.

»What if the new exam is on top of another exam? Should I have to then postpone my whole degree programme? We’re getting these strict messages about placing these courses in a way, so that they do not clash. So it’s not good if they end up having to slam two exams on top of each other because of this error.«

The students have so far received a message via the study portal Absalon, where Professor Hans Peter Halvorson, who is responsible for the course, writes that it was ultimately his responsibility to ensure that »the correct exam was administered under the correct conditions.«

»I sincerely apologise for the experience you went through,« he writes and describes that he will ensure that new rules will be added to the procedure so that »mistakes like this will not be repeated.«

Mikkel Willum Johansen, who is head of section at the Department of Science Education and the responsible organiser for the science theory of mathematics course, says that it was a human error.

»The mistake was ours. We are deeply sorry about this, and apologize to all of those who have been affected. It is the first time we’ve used this digital exam system, so there have been some procedures we didn’t know that well. Something went wrong, and we acted as quickly as we could to solve the problem.«

He explains that he has spent the day creating a new exam for the mathematics students, and that he had already held meetings with the deputy head of department for teaching to discuss how they can change the procedure so that it does not happen again.

According to Mikkel Willum Johansen, the new exam for the physics students will be on 21 April, and students who are unable to do the exam on this date will be offered an exam on a different date.

The University Post was not able to get into contact with Professor Hans Peter Halvorson, course responsible for the physics course, before the deadline.