I have been an invigilator for several exams for large classes. I am not formally affiliated with the classes.

One thing I routinely notice is that, despite warnings, there will always be some students who will very quickly and brazenly flip through the entire exam (booklet) and look at the questions before the exam starts. Some will do this very quickly to get a sense of the type of questions (no more than 10 seconds).

What should be the appropriate response to this type of behaviour? The dilemma for me is, I don't want to expel a student for a less than 10 second glance at an exam, but I have been very annoyed by this type of brazen behaviour (even when I was an undergrad), which clearly constitutes cheating.

Can someone please provide advice as to what to do for this minor type of cheating behaviour?

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    Really? Is it cheating to look at an exam 10 seconds it starts? It might be annoying or whatever, but I don't think it would make a difference for the student. – user4052054 Oct 13 at 15:35
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    @TEK Whatever is allowed, these students are taking additional time on top of it. – Barmar Oct 13 at 17:38
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    @TEK If you have 200 students taking the exact some students will receive the text 2-5 minutes before the others. It would be fair only if you follow a strict order to give the exam text and follow the same order when getting the completed exam (so who gets the text 2-5 minutes before effectively has to hand it out 2-5 minutes before). IMHO with that amound of time you cannot really do anything. The only "use case" would be dividing the exercises between a group of cooperating cheaters but hopefully if you can see them turning the paper you can also see them cheat later... – Bakuriu Oct 13 at 21:36
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    @Forgottenscience If that makes any difference for the exam, then there's a major problem. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 14 at 11:28
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    @MassimoOrtolano Some exam papers are 2 hours or 1.5 hours. If I gain 5 minutes extra thinking time that is equal to about 5% extra time in total for the shorter exam of the two. If this translates reasonably to the final grade, that could bump me up a grade. This is in my mind not an irrelevant advantage from cheating. – Forgottenscience Oct 14 at 14:35

14 Answers 14

I don't know what an "invigilator" is exactly, but I presume that you merely watch the students to make sure they don't cheat, distribute exams and paper, and take the filled exams at the end, more or less.

As such it isn't your role to decide on any kind of punishment for cheating. There are probably procedures in place to report cheating. Do it. What happens next isn't up to you. If there are no formal procedures, take the name of the student and inform whoever is in charge (the professor in charge of the course for example).

Unless you have explicitly been told that it is okay, I would recommend being extra careful about expelling students. Students are afforded due process. If it is ever found out that peeking at the exam isn't something worth getting a zero on the exam or if the student is not found guilty, then having expelled them is something that will be terribly hard to correct. In my university the rule is to expel students only if their behavior causes trouble for the other students or in cases of person substitution (someone is taking the exam in the student's place). And even then, it's not the role of the proctor to decide this -- you have to get approval from the university president's office.

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    "invigilator" = the US "proctor". – PKG Oct 13 at 18:18
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    Exactly. The invigilator's job is to enforce the rules, not make them. The asker shouldn't be invigilating without knowing what the rules and procedures are. – David Richerby Oct 14 at 17:41

If it really makes a difference, you could put each exam in a sealed manila envelope. When you announce that the students can begin, then they can tear open the envelope and remove the exam.

Lots of standardized tests use this approach.

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    This is more of a suggestion for the exam preparer than the exam proctor, but it's a good one. I've also used mailing labels to “seal” the exam shut. It doesn't prevent someone totally from peeking at the questions, but it does stop them from idly flipping through the booklet. – Matthew Leingang Oct 14 at 9:02
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    Do you really want to spend your time putting a hundred exam papers into envelopes and seal them? – Massimo Ortolano Oct 14 at 9:30
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    @NateEldredge Please, anyone can certainly ask their students to help them out in such a task but, again, do you want to spend valuable students' time to do such a menial task? For something that, if really needed, just means that the exam is badly designed? I wouldn't ask to perform such a useless task to my students, would you? – Massimo Ortolano Oct 14 at 18:18
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    @MassimoOrtolano: I don't want to have an argument with you about whether this indicates bad exam design or not. But in my department, for instance, we have work study students who are hired to help out in the office for X hours per week with whatever needs to be done, menial or not. Typically there is less than X hours of work for them to do, so adding something like this would not be a big deal. – Nate Eldredge Oct 14 at 18:25
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    @NateEldredge We have similar arrangements too. But my point is: if I wanna waste my and students' time, I'd rather have a beer with them ;-) And the relationship between bad exam design and cheating, real or perceived, is important — something that I already stressed elsewhere. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 14 at 18:33

Penalize those that do it with the consequences for cheating - once you actually DO something then the rest will tend to stop...

At the moment while you let it go or "condone it" through your inaction then they will continue...

Expulsion is not the only punishment, a later exam with a “replacement fee” or an exam in the following semester are all valid sanctions used in different institutions.

  • What do you mean by a later exam with a replacement fee? – littleO Oct 15 at 6:13
  • @littleO a replacement exam one that can be day, one week or one month later as specified by the faculty involved, to be taken by the student after payment of a late fee to cover preparing said exam, the invigilation and marking... If you don't like the idea of a later exam, then the student can do the exam in the next cycle / semester... – Solar Mike Oct 15 at 6:26
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    A replacement exam should "cost" more than a fee, otherwise it simply disadvantages those who can't pay to delay the exam. A 10% penalty or the like. It's similar to "No Parking: $50 Fine". That's not no parking, that's $50 paid parking. – TemporalWolf Oct 15 at 20:33

As Najib Idrissi says, since you are "not formally affiliated" with the course, you presumably don't have the authority on your own to decide what happens to these students. But you can discuss it with those who do have the authority - either the course instructors, or whatever person or committee handles exam cheating - point out that this occurs regularly, and ask for guidance on how it should be handled. You can offer suggestions for punishments or other countermeasures.

As one possibility, the punishment for opening the exam early could be for the student to lose five minutes (or some other appropriate length of time) at the end of the exam - their exam would be collected early. This would more than negate any benefit of the cheating, while not being excessively punitive.

After a punishment has been agreed, then when you pass out the exams, give a warning: "Do not pick up or open the exam until I give the word. If you do, you will [whatever punishment has been agreed]." Also make sure the cover of the booklet bears a similar written warning.

If there are cameras in the exam room, you can mention this as well.

Another thought is to create some sort of physical barrier. Put the exam inside a large sealed envelope, or put sticky seals around the edges to keep the booklet closed, or even paperclips. Innocent students will be reminded not to accidentally open the exam early; students who are tempted will have an additional psychological barrier; and students who insist on cheating will be more conspicuous.

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    The term "invigilator" suggests a British university. In this case, exams are usually governed by the university's rules and procedures and it's not usually up to individual instructors to make their own rules. – David Richerby Oct 14 at 17:44
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    @DavidRicherby: Then I suppose "ask for guidance" applies; you will find out what the university's rules say to do about this. The further suggestions could be offered to those who make or revise the rules. – Nate Eldredge Oct 14 at 18:11

I worry about some of the "solutions" suggested here. Do they make the problem worse? If you have a punishment process in place, but can only catch a few of the perpetrators, have you gained or lost something in fairness. I seriously doubt that ten seconds jump start is going to be significant unless the quiz only takes three minutes to complete.

But the larger question is why would such a "strategy" benefit the student in the first place? Is the exam so long that it is nearly impossible for everyone other than slackers to complete it in time? If that is the case, just shortening it a bit will solve the problem without issue. On the other hand, an exam that long will also disadvantage some of your best students if they are more methodical.

At the level of discrimination of most grading systems, it isn't necessary to test every idea in the class to learn who knows everything and who is in trouble generally. If you test the most important ideas then students who do well can be expected to know the less important things. Similarly for students who can't respond to the big ideas.

Make it reasonable and the problem basically goes away. My advice to the professor, not the OP here, is to be a teacher, not a grader. Too many folks confuse the two.

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    So, basically, your first paragraph is saying that we should disband the police because they can't catch all criminals and it's unfair to only catch some of them? – David Richerby Oct 14 at 17:43
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    @DavidRicherby, if we grade somewhat competitively (i.e. on a curve) then it actually rewards the cheaters more when they "get away with it". I think your analogy is insulting. – Buffy Oct 14 at 19:45
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    @Buffy as opposed to the same situation where this isn't enforced, where the cheaters gain, honest people lose out, and the only difference is that there are more successful cheaters? – Studoku Oct 14 at 19:51
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    @Studoku, and others. Please. My suggestion is not to let them cheat, but to change the situation so that cheating is moot and ineffective in any case. Please try to understand that. Make the problem go away. Remove the incentive. Become a teacher, not a grader. If you have a foolish system, change it. Structural change is certainly better than ineffective surveillance. – Buffy Oct 14 at 19:54
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    I don't expect that the people doing this do it because they expect a significant advantage, but because they expect to get away with it and ten seconds is better than nothing. – Misha Lavrov Oct 14 at 22:16

This shouldn't be a problem as good exams are designed such that a student who has mastered the topic well, can finish it well within the deadline. A rule of thumb I try to stick to when making exams is that a 3 hour exam should be doable in less than 90 minutes if the subject is straightforward to you. This means that the 3 hour deadline is only relevant for students who lack proper preparation for the exam, but they are unlikely to do well anyway. So, any unfairness caused by some students peeking at the exam questions a few seconds before the exam starts, should be totally irrelevant.

  • I once had a professor who took exactly the opposite approach -- their exams were notoriously too long to finish in the allotted time. There was always a suggestion at the top to skim through the exam and select questions to work on that reflected your strengths, and skip questions you were less prepared for. – arp Oct 15 at 14:06
  • @arp, I guess this will depend on the subject. In my field (physics), an exam only indirectly tests the skills of a student. Failing to pass the exam is evidence that a student didn't master the topic, but you can pass the exam without having the skills that you should have after having studied the topic. The exam questions must be doable within a couple of hours, while the future Ph.D. student would, hopefully, be able to take on big projects. – Count Iblis Oct 15 at 14:57
  • So, what you want is for your students to study the topic, tackle the interesting problems that usually would be too time consuming for an exam question. So, you work with a system that lets the students practice with such difficult and interesting problems, and you tell the students that the exam problems will be easier, if they stick to your program, they will find the exam to be very easy. The alternative would boil down to making the exam more challenging, which would steer students toward practicing exam-like questions instead of learning the topic properly. – Count Iblis Oct 15 at 15:00

You are the invigilator, not the exam board, so should not be taking major action without backing from the department.

Your department should have a policy on this; if not ask them to clarify.

I suggest two things:

  • Take a note of all transgressions and report them to the exam board.
  • Tell the candidates that you will be doing exactly that.

This is similar to the guy who won't yield his paper at the end of the exam. He's taking 1 or 4 minutes more time scratching out an answer than everyone else. Even if the advantage is slight, it's still unfair and angers other students. I dealt with this as follows:

  1. Very clearly announce at the beginning that writing after time is called is cheating.

  2. Very clearly announce that after I leave the room, no exam will be accepted. (When I was younger, I had a couple cases of students who, after 5 minutes still refused to hand me the paper. So I left and they chased me across campus, claiming that they hadn't heard me. Pah.)

  3. When time is called, it's "You have 60 seconds to have the exam in my hand, and then I'm leaving."

I think if you're clear up front, and rigidly enforce your rules, the students will learn very quickly not to monkey with you. So I'm suggesting that you:

  1. Make it clear before handing out the booklets that peeking is cheating.

  2. Make it clear that if you see someone peeking, you will take their booklet away and re-seat them in the front because they can't be trusted not to cheat and you want to be able to watch them. (The time taken to re-seat makes up for the extra time they stole at the beginning.)

  3. Execute without fail.

In small classes, one can afford to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. But this large lecture sections, there have to be clear rules absolutely enforced. If there are any cracks whatsoever, the most dishonest students will find them and run through them.

You could adopt the system used in Cambridge (UK) when I was an undergrad there. Candidates waited outside the exam room before the exam. The "time allowed" started from when the doors to the room were unlocked.

The seating plan was pre-arranged and alphabetical, so only dumb students wasted a long time finding their own seat!

These were "old-school" three-hour end-of-year exams, not short tests, so the small time penalty for being assigned the desk furthest from the door was not important anyway.

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    That certainly wasn't the procedure when I was an undergrad at Cambridge in the late 1990s. It's also manifestly unfair: a class of a few hundred students could take several minutes to file into the room. All the exams I did in Cambridge had the test paper on the desk when we entered the room. I don't remember if we were allowed to look at it before the official start time but there was definitely an announcement made that the exam had begun and we could start (reading and) writing. – David Richerby Oct 14 at 17:48
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    I wouldn't refer to students as "dumb". They could have trouble finding their seats because they're dyslexic, nervous, etc. It's also not a good way for professors to think about their students. In 20 years as a professor, I've never heard a student referred to as "dumb", although students are occasionally referred to as unmotivated, difficult, or in the wrong major. – Ellen Spertus Oct 15 at 16:02
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    @DavidRicherby It also wasn't the procedure when I was an undergrad at Cambridge in the late 1970s. I suppose it might work with some of the smaller Triposes, but not for Natural Sciences etc. – Martin Bonner Oct 15 at 16:04
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    @MartinBonner I read Computer Science: there were only about 80 undergrads in each year, so I think we qualified as "smaller" and we still didn't do this. – David Richerby Oct 15 at 16:06
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    @EllenSpertus: I very much like your comment and I second it warmly. – Giuseppe Negro Oct 16 at 16:19

In my opinion, you are overthinking the issue. It is normal that the students want to look at the exam as soon as they have it in their hands. They spent weeks or months preparing it, they are anxious. Penalizing them for a peek is excessive.

My advice is to save your energy to counter more serious forms of cheating.

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    Down voting. Anything that gives a benefit to students who do not follow the rules should be discouraged. – arp Oct 15 at 14:13
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    @arp: I disagree, but thank you for your opinion. – Giuseppe Negro Oct 15 at 14:24
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    I definitely agree with this, even though it's probably not a popular point of view. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 15 at 19:02

A minor infraction that gives the cheater a small advantage over an hour exam should receive an appropriate reduction in grading, along with a warning that any further infractions will not be tolerated. Reducing their overall score by something like 10% seems appropriate.

Equipping each invigilator with a self-inked rubber stamp makes the process quiet, quick and clear:

10% off - final chance

  • Hi folks. I'm new to this community, and confused as to why my answer was down-voted so quickly. I'm guessing my answer is either low quality or there is some other issue, but I can't see how. Can someone please enlighten me? – Tyson Oct 14 at 23:22
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    The community has a near-zero sense of humor. And they disagree you, academical cheating is considered far worser in their eyes. This quick down was probably motivated by the big picture. I suggested an edit to make it smaller, please accept it. – peterh Oct 14 at 23:26
  • @peterh Thanks for your comment, I've reduced the image size. – Tyson Oct 14 at 23:29
  • I like this idea - in the past have had to write on the cover sheet similar info... This would be much easier... And, yes, it does depend on the policies in force (or not) at one's institution.... – Solar Mike Oct 15 at 8:20
  • @NajibIdrissi: I upvoted it because it was really easy to find. (I actually found it while the image was still scrolled offscreen.) – Joshua Oct 15 at 20:12

Another strategy which could be used to prevent peeking is to let the students begin as soon as they get the booklet. You would distribute the booklets and collect the answers in the same order, to make sure the actual time each student spends on the exam is roughly the same.

You would have to clearly explain the rules before you start distributing the questions, so that students don't lose time waiting when they are allowed to begin, or don't stop early when they still have time.

The effect is roughly the same as when the exam is distributed in sealed envelopes, only without the hassle of preparing the envelopes.

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    I notice that in this community there is a tendency to prefer Draconian measures against the slightest form of student's cheating. Any answer, such as this one, that proposes a form of compromise is inexorably down voted. I think that the community's point of view is totally unrealistic and inapplicable. I wonder how many of the down voters have some actual teaching experience. – Giuseppe Negro Oct 16 at 15:37
  • @GiuseppeNegro Well I believe the original poster reads all the answers regardless of their score (I know I do when I ask a question) and has the ability to identify useful suggestions regardless of votes. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 17 at 8:17

Are you also the one who enforces when they need to put their pencils down and turn in the exam after the time is up? If so I would suggest just mentally taking a note of which students looked at the exam first and make sure that they are the ones you go "visit" first to ask them to finish and turn in their exams – assuming that they take the entire duration, because if they don't and finish 10 minutes early, then I fail to see how "starting" 10 seconds early would give them any advantage, in which case I wouldn't try to do anything about it.

  • @David richerby it's not making up a punishment if its collecting the exam once the allotted time has passed - or rather it wouldn't even matter at all if the exam wasn't timed – user2813274 Oct 15 at 18:27
  • Oh, I think I misread your answer. I thought you were proposing to collect these students' exams 10mins early but you're actually saying that if they have already finished 10mins early, their cheating made no difference. I'll delete my comment and make a trivial edit to your answer so I can undo my downvote. – David Richerby Oct 15 at 18:35

Simply give them a score penalty.

  • Without touching the merits of such an approach, I don't think a proctor is actually able to do what you suggest. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 17 at 8:32

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