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In an advanced university course on computer science and problem solving, one of my fellow students asked for a solution to a home exam on one of the Stack Exchange sites. The question he asked is taken directly from the exam without modification also stating that this is practice question for the upcoming exam. He got the solution. There was more than one question.

The professor always creates questions that are unique. It clearly states that questions on the exam must only be directed to the professor himself.

Now for the moral dilemma. I feel very uneasy about reporting although knowing that it will hurt future students and in the long term the status of the school. Will it affect me? Most likely not.

I would like input on how others would reason about this.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail Jan 14 '18 at 22:18
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    How do you know it was asked by the cheater and not someone else? – user1936752 Jan 21 '18 at 7:54

11 Answers 11

248

Let's be clear here. From your description, the student clearly cheated by violating the take-home exam's stated policy that (quoting from your comment on @user2768's answer) "it is prohibited to ask anyone for an answer". Thus, your question reduces to the generic question of "should I report a fellow student who cheated?", to which the answer is "yes", as discussed endlessly on many previous questions on this site, e.g.:

Is it okay to report classmates cheating on exams?

Is it reasonable to report another student for cheating when it has no impact on me?

When is it acceptable to report classmates who cheat on an exam?

Should I report cheating to my professor? If so, how?

One can debate (as some here are doing) the viability of take-home exams as an assessment tool, since such exams create relatively easy opportunities for cheating, but that is besides the point. The student cheated, and should be reported. The "moral dilemma" you are referring to is a completely bogus one created by the outdated cultural conditioning that exists in many societies according to which "ratting people out" for bad behavior is morally wrong -- see my analysis of this issue in this answer.

Edit: I noticed that you wrote in a comment that “his account is filled with questions related to assignments in different courses”. Thus, he is not just a cheater, he is a serial cheater, which makes the case for reporting him much stronger. I suggest saving evidence of his cheating (screenshots etc) before reporting to prevent him from hiding his wrongdoing by deleting the questions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – StrongBad Jan 15 '18 at 21:42
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    @PyRulez any 10k user can see deleted content on Stack Exchange, so all you really need is to keep links, and if it gets deleted, ask on Meta if screenshots are accurate. Most likely, moderators would confirm, if someone explains why he is asking. – Mołot Jan 18 '18 at 12:16
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    @PyRulez and Molot good points, but frankly this whole discussion about evidence and how to protect against a “forged screenshots” claim by the student is a little bit ridiculous. Universities are not criminal justice courts, and do not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to punish someone for academic misconduct. As someone who was a member of my campus’s judicial board and participated in hearings for students accused of misconduct, I can assure you that creenshots will be more than enough to establish the student’s guilt at the necessary level of certainty. – Dan Romik Jan 18 '18 at 14:06
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    @DanRomik What if the user claims its not their account though? That would be rather plausible. – PyRulez Jan 18 '18 at 19:34
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    @PyRulez they could just check to see if that student gave answers from the posting. If there are a lot of questions (like the OP said) the statistical likelihood that they would answer so much of their work in the same way by chance would be very low. – user78960 Jan 21 '18 at 17:27
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If you are confident that the instructor will be discreet about the identity of the informant (you), then it can't hurt to let the instructor know.

But your concern seems to be more about the exam design and the course grading scheme than about whether your classmate played fair or not.

Therefore I'd suggest that you inform the director of graduate studies in your department instead. I'd usually feel more confident about someone at that level being discreet, and also that's the person who could provide support to the instructor for improving the exam design and the grading scheme in future semesters.

I'd suggest making an appointment to tell the administrator in person rather than sending an email. (You can request the appointment either with the secretary or by emailing the administrator. If anyone asks you what it's about, say it's a confidential matter.)

The meeting can be brief, but do close the door.

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    I'd say you need some further confidence as well: you need someone who can be trusted to be a good and fair judge. IMHO the case that someone cheated is OKish, but the case that the to-be-accused student cheated is actually rather weak. Now, given we have an instructor who hands out homework with rules that rather invite this kind of trouble - is that instructor likely to be a good judge here? – cbeleites Jan 14 '18 at 21:56
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    @cbeleites - My first paragraph means: If you aren't confident the instructor will be discreet, don't inform the instructor. // When I said give the info to the director of graduate studies, I meant, let him/her know the Q was posted at SE. (Frankly, I think it would be difficult to prove an academic misconduct case against the student whose name was used to post on SE. The student with that name could say (truthfully or not, who am I to say?) that someone else posted under that name. I really see nothing unethical about providing the information to the graduate director... – aparente001 Jan 15 '18 at 5:36
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    Even 30 years after the fall of communism we have a very strong memory of people denunciating their peers. Even if we were just small children. Snitches are hugely unpopular. It wasn't just communist, the nazis and even the old Austrian police used snitches a lot (see Brettschneider in Good Soldier Schweik). That's why we have so many names for these people, just take those mention by Karel Kryl in one single song: chlupatej, čmuchal, bonzák, tajnej, práskač, fízl, udavač, špehoun, špicl, špeh, donašeč, konfident, informant, slídil. I don't want the students to snitch on their schoolmates. – Vladimir F Jan 17 '18 at 14:22
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    @VladimirF - If the instructor doesn't want the students to snitch on their schoolmates, but you want a high level of academic integrity, then I guess that puts greater onus on the instructor to cheat-proof the course design, properly support student success (to reduce motivation for cheating), and check (or at least spot-check, but in a thorough way) for cheating. – aparente001 Jan 17 '18 at 14:28
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    But ultimately, Vladimir, I think the problem resides more in the what happens after the information is provided than in the snitching itself. You find snitching repugnant, because of cultural and historical context. Perhaps it is hard for you to imagine an educational institution where administrators can be trusted to make good decisions with the information they are given about problems that have arisen. See academia.stackexchange.com/a/98226/32436. But if you do not believe in the integrity of your department, you have a very big problem. – aparente001 Jan 17 '18 at 14:30
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You have the third option, one of anonymous reporting. Create a brand new account, like z54nk7 at gmail and use it solely for this job. Use a public network, like Starbucks while reporting. You are not breaking any law, you only make sure your anonymity is granted. While this is less credible, it will surely trigger the curiosity of the instructor, which will compare the received homework with the question on stack exchange.

You insulate yourself from possible retaliation (it may happen that the student in cause is the nephew of the Provost for example) while you still keep your odds of getting a good grade because of distribution bending of grades. Depending on the extent of the inquiry the student may even be expelled, given that all his/her homework will be under scrutiny. It may be also that nothing will happen, given that the instructor is busy with other things (for example, own business or he/she is overwhelmed with other classes/homework).

  • I like this answer, you're doing what is morally right while fully insulting yourself from possible harm. I might use a VPN (or TOR) in addition to being on public wifi, but maybe that's being paranoid. – Wowfunhappy Jan 16 '18 at 19:53
  • My answer is that It is morally right to make steps towards exposing the fraud, as opposite to do nothing. Consider the insulation part an advice from somebody who have observed many things during his life. The level of anonymity I've described is proportionate with the capabilities of the involved actors (the instructor and eventually the university). – user83564 Jan 17 '18 at 13:53
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I would not make a « home exam » worth any grading points : there is no control on who does the work - it could be anybody and their uncle or aunt...

That way, even if they get it solved on stack exchange or the geek down the street they are the ones who suffer as they may not be able to adapt that to a new problem as they did not solve it with their own thought processes.

Edit, as it belongs in here: You could still have a quiet word with the faculty and say that some students had it solved externally - what they decide to do is up to them...

I do think they will be between a rock and a hard place - some students not happy if they do nothing and some students unhappy if they change the grading at this point in time (that is, if they can / could change at this late stage)...

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Jan 17 '18 at 20:32
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You should generally report violations of the honor code. In addition to the very good reasons provided by others here, most universities and colleges include as part of their honor code that all violations are to be reported if discovered - regardless of whether they affect the person reporting or not.

Even simple honor codes require disclosure, I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this examination, nor have I concealed any violations of the Honor Code. Simply by knowing about it and choosing not to reveal it puts you at risk of violating the honor code.

If you are still concerned and indecisive, seek assistance from your honor council. Almost every university has a group that you can consult with for questions like this. They will very quickly be able to guide you to what your school requires of you in this situation.

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A solution to this that is not in the existing answers would be to email the class (and professor) with a brief description and a link to the stack exchange thread. From a burner email if necessary.

This removes the advantage from whichever student posted the question, without needing to accurately identify said student. And from all the others who innocently ran across the discussion.

It also draws some attention to the flaws of this method of assessment.

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I'd like to throw in the opinion that the moral dilemma "accept ongoing cheating without doing anything" vs. "reporting the student" is a false dichotomy as there are other options besides reporting "the" student.

And I'd like to point out that gut feeling that there is some difficulty in answering the question (dilemma) is exactly right: IMHO it is a dilemma, and options and their consequences need to be considered carefully.


Before diving into the case, let me say: @kingledion nicely commented that honesty and trust are important cultural values - with which I totally agree. But I'd like to point out that this works here both ways: reporting other people (justly) undermines trust. The more so, as you may still be reporting the wrong person, see below. So this undermining of trust happens even if you honestly believe to report the right culprit - plus: all others do not have firsthand knowledge of your honesty.
Even worse, a culture that unquestioningly/unconditionally encourages people to report wrongdoers also allows or even encourages dishonest people to report other people just from spite - including people who did not do wrong. (This is a type of abuse of power; keep in mind that innocent people who are denounced do suffer, even if they happen to be able to clear themselves)

So not only not discouraging cheating, but also reporting a particular student comes at a cost for your society.


I put "the" student in quotation marks because from what I've read in this thread so far, you do not know that that particular student has cheated: Keep in mind that it is very easy to open an account on stackexchange and type in someone else's name to be displayed. And even if a student brags about having cheated, you need to weigh the possibility that they just wanted to sound cool without actually having cheated (false claim).

To be clear: yes, it may be more probable that the student you think of did cheat than that they did not cheat. But you do not have sure knowledge of that, just a suspicion. And if you want that there should be official consequences for the student, solid proof is needed (at least, that is as it should be).

So let me suggest two more options besides "doing nothing" and "reporting the student to the authorities" that tackle the two problems we've identified here:

  1. Someone is cheating and this should stop
  2. Homework rules could be improved (reducing not only the probability of cheating, but also that of future students find themselves in the same dilemma you are in, and/or that of a general atmosphere of distrust and denouncements)

About

  1. You could quietly talk to the student you suspect. I think of asking them whether they know that someone opened an SX account with more or less their name displayed where homework-no-asking questions are actually asked - because according to what you explained here that is actually all you know.
    This would give them a fair chance of deciding how to appropriately handle the situation (fair particularly as we've realized now there is a non-negligible risk of wrongly accusing here: a student whose name is misused this way surely has a right to know that this is going on)
    My very personal opinion (feel free to differ - but please think about it) here is that the more likely your authorities are to jump to the conclusion that the denounced student is guilty, and the more serious the consequences of a false accusation are and the more difficult it is for someone falsely accused to defend themselves (How do you prove that you do not own a particular stackexchange account?), the more important it is to make sure noone is falsely accused in the first place. Also take into account that even if the accused can comparably easily clear themselves of the suspicion, that until this is publicly clear depending on the possible consequences they will suffer (Make the thought experiment: what would you who never even considered cheating do and feel if you were falsely accused).

    As a side benefit, this would give you experience in excercising civil courage. And in practical subsidiarity as in: do not escalate/hand over difficulties to "higher authorities" that you can solve yourself.

    OTOH, if the atmosphere is already so distrustful that you don't dare to mention the cheating because you fear you'd be denounced in turn: then I'd agree that talking to the suspect is not the way to go. But then neither should (hopefully!) the instructor listen to any reports about cheating students, and a totally different strategy would be needed to change things.

  2. As I said above, I do see a distinct cost to the denouncement in itself. However, assuming you can do your "duty" against cheating e.g. by directly talking to the student in question, you can think whether your duty against problem 2 may be done without undermining trust as well.

    • let the instructor know in their end-of-course evaluation that you deem the homework situation suboptimal due to possible cheating and denouncements by asking someone else/on the internet: e.g. that you personally would have preferred if marks areearned only on proper exams
    • if there is no such evaluation, you can talk to the instructor after all marks are given.

If you came to me (faculty) with the "case" as described, I would explain to you that there is no proof against the student (see above), that from your description and a look at stackexchange alone you cannot judge who is dishonest here (the accused student or some [unknown] other student abusing their name) - and much less can I: in addition to the two possibilities you point out, I have to consider the possibility that you are falsely accusing a student you dislike.

I'd then probably ask you what you'd like me to do in this situation.

I'd probably talk to the accused student in private and certainly without letting you know that this is going to happen (see possibility 3) - telling them there's a rumour they cheat and a possibility that someone is abusing their name on the internet (making sure they don't learn your name, neither).

[Side note: in school, a fellow student who was copying from me was once caught. When collecting the exam, the teacher told them (making sure I could hear it): "Next time try yourself, OK?" - which I think was far more efficient wrt. avoiding future cheating than any kind of big fuss and fail mark for both of us.]

I'd think how to discourage this type of cheating in grade-relevant exams.
But then, I grew up in a university culture where grade-relevant marks could not be earned by homework that could be done by someone else (so I'm quite familiar with this type of thought). To the extent that the important exams were oral. Written exams often were "bring all books you like" [if you didn't understand the course contents, you anyways won't be able to extract sufficient amounts of relevant information during the exam].
Homework may earn you a very few points (as an incentive to not completely disregard the homework) but never even half the points to bare passing.


Finally, let me put the "do I have to report some wrongdoing" feeling into some context: over here (Germany), there is no duty to report a crime that has already happened for normal citizens - and there are only rather restricted duties if you learn that a major crime is planned (even in case of a planned murder, you don't have to report that to the police if you report it to the intended victim or [successfully!] prevent it yourself) - though you can report lots of things, and some suspicions you can even report anonymously.

A while ago I read a newspaper article about the local ("county") veterinarian office. They said that probably about 1/3 of the reported cases of cruelty against animals are not concern about animal wellbeing but clear spite against the accused owner. Which causes all kinds of trouble. Not only for the accused and for vet officers who have less time for the real cases, but also because it sows distrust in the neighbourhood. (And another third of the cases was estimated to be honest but unneeded and quite incorrigible concerns [think "those ducklings are in danger of drowning - no you lazy officer, don't try to tell me they are not. I know they are in danger. You need to get going and DO something."])

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    I would also expect you to ask the student whose name appears on the post whether it was them who posted it. If they say yes, demand an explanation. If they say no, continue to investigate, and if you find further evidence that it really was them, proceed with a case against them, with an extra "count" of lying to the professor. – Nate Eldredge Jan 14 '18 at 22:18
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    I agree with your analysis of the problem with reporting a specific student. However, I would solve that dilemma by reporting the SE question to the faculty member. As @NateEldredge says, the answer available there could then be compared to submitted exams, so anyone who was clearly taking advantage of the SE answers could be identified. – 1006a Jan 14 '18 at 22:36
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    We don't yet know if this has actually happened, but it seems very likely that it will. OP should make sure that the professor is aware of the SE post, so that he can compare it against the exams turned in (otherwise, how will he know to look for it?). This isn't an accusation at all, merely sharing important information. – Nate Eldredge Jan 14 '18 at 23:06
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    This answer is unhelpful. Your objection to reporting suspected cheating would apply to any suspicion (“a feeling or thought that something is possible, likely, or true”) that cannot be substantiated by the suspecter with 100% certainty, so by your logic no one should ever report any suspicion of a crime or misconduct to the authorities. That’s clearly ridiculous. On a related note: @NateEldredge, “beyond a shadow of doubt” isn’t a standard that’s used by any judicial system anywhere. Even criminal courts only require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to send people to prison for many years. – Dan Romik Jan 15 '18 at 5:33
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    A problem with the suggested steps: If you talk to a student about his cheating and then report that to the professor (because of his reaction), the student definitely knows who is responsible and most likely holds you responsible if he fails the course. – Josef Jan 15 '18 at 13:26
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I truly doubt that a student that has no clue would be able to prepare a good solution even with stackoverflow help. There is a lot of bad advice on this site as well it is highly unlikely for a capable person to write a complete solution for somebody.

If your professor has this practice, maybe you can trust a little bit that he knows what he is doing and see the end results.

Maybe your fellow student has created a solution but tries to check for better ideas. This can be good for his development.

Now 50% may sound a lot for an assignment that you can cheat on. But I'd say, if one can craft a perfect solution based on ideas from others, that certainly deserves the minimal passing grade... at least according to my book.

It is a good idea to ask your professor about permitted sources you can use (as suggested in other answers). I think you will be much better though if you focus on your personal development and professionalism. The point is to learn the skills and develop yourself. You will be always good if you do. If you want to rely on your diploma and you are worried that people get higher grades than deserved - good luck helping this.

I'm not saying to never report anything. In this situation though, it appears more likely that the professor takes into account the cheating possibilities.

1

There is another question behind: Who is being actually cheated?

The key role of the course is not to get a tick mark but to learn something form the lecturer. If they thinks you learn enough to pass, they give you the mark.

In case you are solving assigned problems by yourself you are practising the problem solving and you are strengthening all the skills needed to solve given problem. You are practising in a safe sandbox on problems designed to teach you with a lecturer to your hand. Once outside you are about to solve problems expected to work, no matter how, and usually with confidential data/details.

In case you are "solving" assigned problems by copy-pasting the question on the internets and copy-pasting results as your work you are not learning anything new. You are not practising anything either. You are cheating on yourself! Once outside, you are about to solve real problems with real responsibilities. Really not the place to learn!

Now to your moral dillemma:

I feel very uneasy about reporting although knowing that it will hurt future students and in the long term the status of the school.

No, it won't hurt any student present or future. Except the cheating ones. Actually it may help them. Not everyone knows about this site and mentioning it in the course rules may attract new users. Also the lecturer may start using it as a source for inspiration and may refer that some hints may be found here. The lecturer may start their own account here and humiliating the cheater by "This code seems familiar to me and I wonder why. Oh yes, I posted it on StackOverflow yesterday."

To affect a school's status this cheating must be systematical for years to show some connection of underskilled staff and their alma mater. Or they must cause a very serious flaw to be recognised with the school. My alma mater suffers from this, but it was caused by a long term bribery on dean's level at a different faculty.

Will it affect me?

It depends on the lecturer. They may ignore your report and mark you as a stool pigeon or they take it seriously. It also depends on your wording how you present your claims, motives and worries. There is one advantage for you: A lot of people get annoyed or angry when they realise that the waste time designing a task - it must have a solution - then reading and marking the solution while the other side's work was done in 8 keystrokes.

Maybe you can start with something like

I am actively using StackOverflow to find hints/approaches that helps me with solving problems you have assigned me and/or to find another challenges to solve and I have found some of your questions asked and answered there and I think you should know about it.

-1

Context:

An advanced university course on computer science and problem solving is (partly) evaluated on the basis of a home exam that accounts for 50% of the marks.

Issue:

A student used Stack Exchange to answer questions during the home exam.

Moral dilemma:

I feel very uneasy about reporting this issue, because this will hurt future students and the school, but it won't affect me.

First, it is unclear what you have to report. Presumably, you are suggesting that using Stack Exchange during a home exam is not permitted. But, surely students are permitted to use resources available to them during a home exam? Perhaps you should seek guidance from the course leader on what is and what isn't permitted.

Secondly, I don't see how this will hurt future students nor the school. Regarding the latter, perhaps you're concerned that the existence of cheating will harm the school's image? I think this is doubtful, due to the isolated nature of (alleged) misconduct and the existence of such misconduct in many schools. (Incidentally, if it does hurt the school, then it hurts you, since you're affiliated with the school.)


EDIT: This answer seems controversial, in the sense that it was upvoted to ~2, downvoted to -6, and is currently on an upward trend (-3 at the time of editing). Please do share your thoughts in the comments.

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    I'm not against the fact that the student browse stack exchange. I'm perfectly fine with that part and google or any literature. It is the fact that asking for an answer that is on the exam is for me equivalent to outsourcing the test. Although as stated before the whole premise that you evaluate 50% of a course based on home exam is flawed. – plato Jan 13 '18 at 14:24
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    It is a "problem solving" course, Stack Overflow is how you solve problems. Whether the student cheated is open to interpretation. The instructor surely expects students to look-up material (Stack Exchange is a modern way to look-up material), otherwise a home exam is inappropriate. As I suggested, you could perhaps ask the instructor what is and what isn't permitted. If reference material, the Internet, ... is forbidden, then the instructor should perhaps conduct the exam in a controlled environment. – user2768 Jan 13 '18 at 14:40
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    As stated it is prohibited to ask anyone for an answer. If your problem solving is about asking in SO fine. I do not consider it problem solving presenting someone else work. It solves your problem passing the exam. But as stated before and as you say. It should be conducted in a controlled environment. – plato Jan 13 '18 at 14:58
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    There is a big difference between using SE to research a topic and using SE to feed you the answer to a specific academic exam question. – Thomas Carlisle Jan 14 '18 at 13:58
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    @ThomasCarlisle I don't mind whether you down-voted, that's what SE is about. Unfortunately, those that have haven't said why, which is a shame, because their valuable perspectives are lost. – user2768 Jan 15 '18 at 8:39
-2

Has SE been used to learn? If your fellow student posted several questions and got good answers which he then used to learn then all is fine. He just used SE as a learning resource. Much as he could have used a book, which I am assuming is fine for a take-home assignment.

If he just copy-pasted the answer without learning then he has not acquired the knowledge which would give him a passing grade.

You can't know if your fellow student copied and pasted or got a good learning experience just from seeing him post a question in SE. Thus you have two options:

  • Question your fellow student to check if he deserves a passing grade and if that is not the case report him.
  • Let your teacher do his job. Have a bit of faith in him.

I would advice to go with the second option. 1st option is there just to show how bad an option it is.

This answer is in contradiction to the OP's statement:

It clearly states that questions on the exam must only be directed to the professor himself.

This is so because that requirement is unethical. There is only one criteria which matters when evaluating a student : Has the student acquired the knowledge that is the subject matter of the course?

"Can the student solve this problem without using Stack Exchange?" is not a valid criteria for grading. Usage of such kind of criteria is often the result of lack or competence, student massification and/or lack of resources. A competent teacher with enough resources should be able to evaluate his students without artificial restrictions.

It might be the case that the teacher is doing his best with what little resources he has, maybe he is not the one at fault. But regardless of who are the cause of these artificially restricted exams you are in no moral obligation to follow such artificial restrictions.

  • Don't make assumptions in direct contradiction to the instructions for the assignment. OP clearly says that the professor explicitly told the students that he was the only one they were allowed to ask questions about the exam. – Ben Voigt Jan 22 '18 at 0:27
  • @BenVoigt I disagree with artificial restrictions on exams. I consider them not worthy of any respect at all. Just because a teacher states something does not mean you have to agree or follow it blindly. – Jose Antonio Dura Olmos Jan 23 '18 at 18:50

protected by ff524 Jan 17 '18 at 20:33

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