Whenever I receive an exam paper, I usually stare at the cover page. I use the word "stare" instead of just "see" because the cover page is translucent and I could faintly see the page behind if my eyes focused on the paper. I am able to read part of the questions by doing so, although most of the words are still obscured by the text on the cover page.

The thing is, I'm not sure if this counts as cheating. By "staring", I obtain some knowledge of the questions before the paper begins (albeit only partially), which may be counted as unfair. However, this is done merely by looking at the question paper which all candidates do before the exam begins. It seems virtually impossible to detect and in some cases is unavoidable. I have seen no academic policies regarding this; most papers I receive only instruct candidates not to open the paper before the exam begins.

I don't know if I'm simply overthinking this or if it is a genuine ethical issue. I abide by all examination regulations, and never thought of this as "cheating" or disallowed until recently. I would definitely appreciate it if someone could help me out here - I've been fretting over this for days. Thanks in advance!

  • ask your instructor – aaaaaa Feb 3 at 5:20
  • Not an answer regarding your ethical question, but try to focus on a) the information and formal requirements usually written on the cover and b) on whatever your instructor might say or write down on the blackboard! The partial information can potentially confuse or alarm you. – M. Stern Feb 3 at 13:30
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    Your institution should use better quality paper! – Erwan Feb 3 at 14:03
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    Tempest in a teapot. If you can do this, so can everyone. Don't worry about it. Your eyes are made for seeing. If there is a problem it is caused by your prof providing temptations. However, if you are Superman with X-ray vision, it might constitute an unfair advantage. – Buffy Feb 3 at 19:24

I don't know if I'm simply overthinking this or if it is a genuine ethical issue.

You're overthinking this. You are complying with all instructions, and I presume are not even intentionally exploiting any loopholes. To the extent that simply looking at the cover page allows you to guess the subject of the first question, that is a defect (if it can even be called that) of the exam.

A good exercise to test for ethics is to consider what the reaction be if you were publicly known to have "stared at" the cover sheet. Can you imagine anyone at a disciplinary board doing anything other than laughing at the triviality of the "offense"?

Whether you should attempt to avoid seeing through the cover sheet or whether it is "fair game" is perhaps a more complex question -- however, I suggest you find more significant matters to spend your mental energies on.

  • What if I intentionally do it though? I did it believing it was not cheating and that it was technically allowed, but now I’m not so sure. – Alex Feb 3 at 5:06
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    "I suggest you find more significant matters to spend your mental energies on." This sentence alone should be an accepted answer. – darij grinberg Feb 4 at 0:56

Yeah, it's cheating.

Whether you slide the page or not is irrelevant. You are deliberately accessing extra information. It's not inadvertent since you stare hard and long to try to read through and get extra info early.

Might as well lean back in your chair to peek at cards. Or look at someone else's test while they take it. Doesn't matter if the steps to prevent it are not ironclad. You know you aren't supposed to look at the questions early. But you do it. You are starting the test early by looking at the questions early.

Blatant cheat. At VMI, they would drum you out (literally). Heck, trying to justify it would add equivocation on top.

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    There is a big difference between accidentally and unavoidably seeing a question, and taking an intentional and avoidable action such as staring. – Patricia Shanahan Feb 3 at 8:48
  • I think the difference is that if the prof knew you were staring at your neighbor's answers, she would fail you; if she knew you were "staring" at the cover page (in a non-obnoxious way), she wouldn't care. Of course, I don't know anything about VMI, maybe they would care there.... – cag51 Feb 4 at 18:03

It's a matter of spirit and letter of the instructions.

According to the letter of instructions, you are not supposed to open the first page before instructed. This, you follow.

According to the spirit of the instructions your prof wants to have a unique starting time for the exam across the students being examined. This, you violate (or try to) by intentionally trying to see what the questions are.

Now, if you chance to see something once, it is not your fault if you utilise this, as an exception. You can not unknow. But you are basically taking explicit advantage of the weakness in the exam - you essentially try to hack the system by prying through the sheet.

A good exercise to test for ethics is to ask what would happen if your technique becomes commonplace (for more information, see Kant's philosophy).

Of course, the response could be that the examiners really print one extra empty page to be placed between the cover sheet and the questions to prevent this. So, hundreds of extra empty sheets would be printed, just to prevent one of the many possible cheating strategies, yours.

Note that, once your strategy becomes commonplace, mere instructions not to peek will not help; you may be sufficiently "lawful" to follow explicit instructions, but others may not be - the intermediate sheet will become unavoidable.

Your hack has affected (here, in a wasteful way) how exams are being carried out in the future. Note that your hack has in no way demonstrated your ability to cope with the material.

It would be different if, for instance, you would just find an extreme shortcut to solve a problem.

Another, much more interesting ethical question would arise if, say, for an exam about cybersecurity, a candidate would break into the lecturer's secure computer and steal the answers - after all, they demonstrated proficiency in the topic of the lecture, even if not precisely according to the marking scheme.

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    Calling this a "cheating strategy" or "hacking the system" seems a bit much -- the gain obtained from seeing through the cover sheet is limited to the topic (not even the full text) of the first question -- this is a minimal gain, it is an opportunity available to all students (albeit not all at the same time), and it is entirely unlike hacking into the lecturer's computer. – cag51 Feb 3 at 22:40
  • @cag51 It's a strong word, but I use it on purpose. It is not very sophisticated or rewarding hacking, but OP says: "whenever I receive an exam paper, I usually stare at the cover page" - they intentionally and systematically try to subvert a weakness of the system (here the physical weakness of transparency of the first sheet) to gain an advantage. "Hacking" makes clear that there is a deliberate attempt at gaining information that is clearly not intended to be available to them. Of course, in the narrow technical sense, this is exaggerated, but I used it to emphasise the point. – Captain Emacs Feb 4 at 0:38
  • For it to be hacking, in any sense, OP would have to have some "neat trick" that a typical exam taker wouldn't have and a typical instructor couldn't be expected to guard against. For example, if the professor accidentally e-mailed him the exam in advance, he may have an ethical obligation (if not a statutory obligation) to not look or to inform the instructor. Looking at the cover page, or even "staring at" the cover page, doesn't rise to this level. But fine, I have my own answer with my own opinion, just wanted to state why I disagreed :-) – cag51 Feb 4 at 1:19
  • @cag51 Since your response below is more on the "laissez faire" side, it's not clear to me whether you disagree on the choice of word "hacking" or whether OP's trick is ok or not. The word "hacking" implies to you some sophistication; which is perfectly reasonable - however, in my view, hacking can be per se quite trivial (like some "magic tricks", once known), but a not entirely obvious technique to achieve additional access. If it is my general response you disagree with - well, OP asks the question because he sees ethical problems and I explain why he may be right. – Captain Emacs Feb 4 at 9:12
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    I only commented because to me your language ("cheating" and "hacking") and the analogy about computer hacking seemed way, way too much for this sort-of-okay, dubious-at-worst "trick", wondered whether you really thought such language was called for. Seems that you do, so okay.... Peace! – cag51 Feb 4 at 17:59

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