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 Feb 3, 2019 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, 2019 at 13:30
  • 14
    Your institution should use better quality paper!
    – Erwan
    Feb 3, 2019 at 14:03
  • 4
    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, 2019 at 19:24
  • On the other side of this, I've occasionally seen exam answer booklets with defects that stop the structures intended to protect the student's anonymity during marking from working. Nov 29, 2022 at 17:18

5 Answers 5


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, 2019 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. Feb 4, 2019 at 0:56
  • 1
    Didn’t realise the discussion for this still continued after February. Anyway, I have to mark this answer as correct because I consulted with the examination board who confirmed that it is not considered cheating.
    – Alex
    Apr 18, 2019 at 14:12

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.

  • 3
    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, 2019 at 22:40
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    @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. Feb 4, 2019 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, 2019 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. Feb 4, 2019 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, 2019 at 17:59

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.

  • 6
    There is a big difference between accidentally and unavoidably seeing a question, and taking an intentional and avoidable action such as staring. Feb 3, 2019 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, 2019 at 18:03

Of course it is cheating. Just because you physically can do something does not mean that it is allowed. Because that's all there is to it, right? Your question is, "I can do this, therefore I think it is not cheating, is it?"

Now let's dissect your question.

By "staring", I obtain some knowledge of the questions before the paper begins (albeit only partially), which may be counted as unfair.

You should have stopped there. You are sugarcoating this. It is unfair. Have you thought about students with visual impairments? Or have you just thought about yourself?

However, this is done merely by looking at the question paper which all candidates do before the exam begins.

So? Even if the technique for cheating is simple, it's still cheating. Even if everyone is technically able to do it, it's still cheating. If I give my students an assignment to do at home, they are all technically able to go online and plagiarize something.

It seems virtually impossible to detect and in some cases is unavoidable.

Are ethics determined by whether you can get caught? Can I commit murder if I am 100% sure that I will not get caught? A surgeon can easily "slip" and kill someone, without anyone knowing better if they are good, and there is no way to avoid it. Do surgeons have a license to kill?

This is a bullshit excuse. You're better than this.

(And since I know the kind of people who frequent this website: no, I am not comparing cheating to murder. I am giving an example that proves that, obviously, "I won't get caught" does not let you off the hook, ethically.)

I have seen no academic policies regarding this; most papers I receive only instruct candidates not to open the paper before the exam begins.

It is almost certain that your university has a global policy that says cheating is forbidden. They do not need to list every single way that a student could cheat for this particular way to be forbidden. What counts is the end result. Have you purposefully obtained an unfair advantage? Yes. Therefore it's cheating. End of story.

Imagine if the policy written on the paper had been to keep your phone in your pocket, not explicitly "the use of your phone is forbidden", for some reason. Imagine you had an old-fashioned phone with a physical keyboard and a phone that vibrated in Morse code to read out SMS you receive. Do you think you could successfully argue that you have not violated the policy if you start sending questions to an outside party? After all, you have followed the policy to the letter, and everybody could technically do it...

But it's still wrong! And it falls under the global policy about cheating. What's written on the exam paper is just a reminder about a particular aspect of this global cheating policy. It doesn't mean that anything unwritten is fair game.

I've been fretting over this for days.

Perhaps this could have been an alarm signal for you. Continue to fret over this. And try to think if you are committing other unethical acts. You're a university student, not a child anymore. You're supposed to know right from wrong. Act like it, or one day, you will find yourself on the wrong end of the law. Having a "gotcha" attitude is a surefire recipe for trouble.

And for the other answer who suggested that the disciplinary board will laugh at the triviality of the offense: do you live your life only considering what you will be punished for? Shame on you.

  • RE the last paragraph -- the point is not that OP could get away with it, the point is that the offense is too TRIVIAL for anyone to waste time with. If it is an offense at all, which I doubt. I honestly can't believe we're still discussing this nonsense concern.
    – cag51
    Mar 17, 2019 at 19:18
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    By the way, profanity is not allowed on SE sites.
    – cag51
    Mar 17, 2019 at 19:19

Having set exam paper, marked them, invigilated exams and run a large graduate school at a prestigious uni I can confidently say:

Don't worry about it.

If you prepared for the exam, like, at all, then whatever you might be able to glean through the (cheap-*ss thin, apparently) paper will be pretty much what you were already expecting.

Having said that... I did in fact worry a bit about matters such as this, and so we put a lot of text on the cover sheet (this text we called the rubric, that might be a UK thing) making sure that any leak through was scrambled.

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