The Final Exam

by David Armstrong

It had been a grueling semester in Statistics 101, and Tommy dreaded the final exam. He had studied and worked hard through the entire course, and the struggle had been real. He knew, however, that his chances of passing the class were about as good as a snowball’s chance on a flat-top grill where he flipped burgers every day after school.

He skipped breakfast this morning because he was afraid he couldn’t keep it down. Nervousness about the final exam in Stats set him on edge. He walked from his dorm across campus to the testing center like a man climbing the thirteen steps to the gallows.

At the entrance to the testing center, he scanned his student ID card and followed the directions to room 115. He took a seat at a desk near the middle of the room. Within a few moments, he was surrounded by fellow students. They all looked as glum and hopeless as he felt.

The proctor entered the room with a sheaf of papers in his hand—the final exam papers. He stood at the front of the room with a wide smile. “Welcome to the final exam for Stat 101. Some of you, especially those sitting on the front row, have eagerly anticipated this opportunity to demonstrate your skills and knowledge gained over the preceding semester. Most of you, however, have looked forward to this moment with mixed feelings—fear and panic. Nevertheless, whether you feel like you excelled or struggled through this course, you are here now, and I promise that if you pay close attention to the instructions on the exam papers I am about to hand out, you will succeed in passing this course.”

With solemn formality, the proctor walked up the down the aisles, placing a stapled packet of papers face down on each desk. Standing again at the front of the room, he announced, “On my signal, you may turn over the test papers in front of you. You will have exactly sixty minutes to answer the questions. I urge you to read the instructions at the top of the first page very carefully before beginning the test.” The professor pulled the cell phone from his pocket, opened the timer app, set the time to 60 minutes, and pressed the Start button. “You may begin.”

Tommy turned over his packet and glanced at the first page of questions. He read question number 1 and immediately knew he was in trouble. He did not understand a thing about the question. It was hopeless. He didn’t need sixty minutes. He should put his name and student ID number on the top of the page and turn it in blank.

As he moved his pencil to the upper corner of the page to enter his name and ID, he noticed a short paragraph of instructions at the top of the paper. “It is extremely important that you read through the entire test packet before beginning the first question. Your ability to pass this test depends entirely on following this procedure.”

What’s the point? Tommy thought. He’d already read the first question, and he was sure the rest would be just as obtuse. Resigned to his fate, he wrote his name and ID in the designated spots at the top of the page. He was about to stand up and take the unanswered packet to the front of the room when he heard a gasp from a student behind him. He turned to see what was the matter. The young man stared dumbfounded at the last page of the test packet. A moment later, a nervous giggle erupted from a girl across the room. She also had the test opened to the last page.

Tommy slowly leafed through the papers in front of him. A quick scan of the parade of questions confirmed what he had already surmised at the outset. It was hopeless.

But then he turned to the last page. “What the …” exploded from his lips. Before him lay the answer key to the entire test. Flummoxed, he thumbed his way through the question pages again and matched the answers from the last page to the questions. Although he couldn’t have come up with the answers on his own, the answers from the key page appeared to be reasonably correct for the corresponding questions.

“This has to be a joke,” Tommy muttered. He raised his hand to get the proctor’s attention.

“Yes, young man. Is there a problem?” the man said.

“I think so,” Tommy said. “There’s been a mistake. The answer sheet to the test is right here on the last page.”

Heads nodded all around him. The rustling of papers echoed through the room as other students turned to the last page to find the same thing.

“You are correct,” the proctor said. “The answers are all there for you to use.”

Tommy scratched his head. “But that doesn’t make sense. How is this test supposed to be fair if everyone has all the answers?”

The proctor smiled. “The test isn’t meant to be fair. The professor of this course is so anxious that everyone who wants to pass his course can do so that he has ensured success by handing out the answers with the test. No one has to fail unless they want to.”

A young woman sitting in one of the front desks raised her hand. “Do we have to use the answer sheet?”

“No,” replied the proctor. “But no one has ever passed this exam without using the answer sheet for at least a few of the questions. I will suggest, however, that you at least try to answer the questions before going to the answer key in the back. That’s why you have pencils with erasers on them. Give each question your best try. Then check the answer sheet. If you need to change your answer, use the eraser to correct it. There are no deductions for erasures and corrections.”

The proctor looked over the class with a kindly smile. “Is everyone clear on the instructions now?”

Tommy nodded along with everyone else in the room.

“Very good. I will reset the timer, and you may begin again. Good luck to you all.”

Photo by Andy Barbour on

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