In some tests a question is critical, ie. answering that question incorrectly makes you fail the whole test, even if that's your only wrong answer. I tried serching for 'sudden death question' but it does not seem to be the right term. So is there a name for such all-losing questions?

  • 1
    Shibboleth is not quite the correct term, here, I think, although it might suffice.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:02
  • 3
    Speaking as a former teacher, this makes me cringe. It goes against everything I've ever learned or believed. It is unsound in pedagogic terms. It violates all the rules about how to properly create and assess learning objectives/ goals. In short, the word(s) you want are bad teacher.
    – cobaltduck
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:21

3 Answers 3


This is called a gating question. Think of the question as a gate to the rest of the test. If you don't get past the gate, the rest of the test doesn't matter. If you do, you still need to get past the rest of the test.

In the 20th century, one of the earliest and best-documented instances of a gating item occurs on the FAA pilot’s flight test. During the flight test, the prospective pilot is asked to demonstrate proficiency in a number of flight procedures, including pre-flight inspection, takeoff, navigation, flight maneuvers, and stalls. At the conclusion of the test, the pilot must do one last thing – land the plane. If the pilot cannot land the plane in three tries, the FAA examiner takes over the controls, lands the plane, and fails the pilot – no matter what level of proficiency the pilot has exhibited in the prior exercises. Landing the plane is a gating item. - Wallace Judd, Gating items, pare online, V14, No9, May 2009

  • This should be the right answer. But still, the concept sounds horrendous.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:15
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    @Lawrence Thanks Lawrence, and what an excellent reference paper you linked for evidence!
    – stevie
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:17
  • @BiscuitBoy Yes, but one can think of cases when such practices may be necessary...for example in a doctor's test or other critical fields where too much is at stake.
    – stevie
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:19
  • @BiscuitBoy Have a look at the examples in the linked paper. The idea makes sense, even if it might sound unnecessarily harsh out of context. One example given is in exams for vets - to put it crudely, if the candidate kills the animal during a procedure, the rest of their skills don't matter.
    – Lawrence
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:20
  • @Lawrence I only skimmed the definition from the linked research paper previously but now it makes sense after reading the examples, especially the ones involving Linux Sys Admin and Laproscopy. So +1. And sorry for jumping the gun.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:31

You can call those questions as "make or break"

Cause either total success or total ruin

[The Free Dictionary]

Although, I am not sure what type of examiner would administer such questions. Losing all the points for previous right answers just because you got one question wrong sounds terrible, at least for academic exams.

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    If it were a safety certification of some kind, and not an academic exam, it would make more sense. "You aren't allowed to co-pilot this plane unless you know all the landing & security procedures and 80% of the navigation and passenger relation procedures" sounds like it might be reasonable to me.
    – jejorda2
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:20
  • @jejorda2. Correct! I just hope no student has to ever face a gating questions in their final exams ;)
    – BiscuitBoy
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:34
  • I don't think the "make" part of that would be right here, because even if you get this question right you still have to pass the rest of the test. Jan 21, 2016 at 13:36
  • @PaulJohnson - Let's consider only that question. If I get it right, I make it to other questions where I at least get a shot to pass the exam. If I don't, I break any and all chances of clearing the exam. That's my logic behind this answer.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Jan 21, 2016 at 13:48
  • Hi, BisCuitBoy. Why don't you include pass-or-fail? It is not broadly used, but seems to fit in the context.
    – user140086
    Jan 21, 2016 at 15:39

While I do not know if it is regularly used in this context, you could say that the question is the sine qua non for passing.

An essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary: grammar and usage are the sine qua non of language teaching and learning

Oxford Dictionaries Online

The term is derived from Latin, and literally means without which, not [or nothing]. 1:

You also could say that it it the critical question

Having a decisive or crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence of something: temperature is a critical factor in successful fruit storage getting banks lending again was critical to any recovery

Oxford Dictionaries Online

Note that this term is often used for one of a number of important items, so the definite article is needed. In speech the article might be emphasized, as in This is the critical question (and in AmE, the would be pronounced thee).


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