94

I studied for three weeks straight for an exam because I was really anxious to pass it with a high grade, while everyone else didn’t study much. Now the problem is, I had access to the exam from the previous year because someone gave it to me. I don’t know where this person got this exam, but I think it was made public after he completed his exam. The thing is I don’t know if I was allowed to have them or not.

Now the exam is over and I didn’t receive my grade while everyone else received it. The average grade for the exam is approximately 50%. Now my professor wants me to see him in his office about the exam, but doesn’t tell me why. The only explanation I can think of would be cheating. My guess is that I scored way higher than everyone else and now I’m kind of panicking.

It’s also important to note that on the exam, half of the questions were very similar as the one from previous year and that no material was allowed during the exam, so I could not have looked at it while doing the exam. Also, I have a high GPA, so it’s not implausible for me to have good grades.

Do you think I could get in trouble for having access to past exams even if there’s no way someone could know I had access to them? And is it really considered cheating?


UPDATE: Thanks everyone for sharing their thoughts on the answer. I'm writing this answer to give some feedback. So I met with my professor this morning and I admitted having the exam from a previous year. I went with honesty, because I thought that it was the best way to go. The professor was happy about my honesty and he just asked me to elaborate some answer which I did. He saw that I knew my theory well and he didn't punish me further for it.

  • 111
    Use of past papers when preparing for exams was standard practice all through my schooling and degree courses. They were availablei in the university library. In any case good preparation is not cheating, unless you somehow got hold of this exam. – user207421 Mar 12 at 22:04
  • 22
    In the university where I was, everyone was using past exam papers, and the student's association built a website on which exam papers were scanned and uploaded, for future students to study. If you do not study, you are unlikely to achieve average score. I don't think it is healthy culture, though. – Violapterin Mar 13 at 7:56
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Mar 15 at 13:22
130

You haven't said whether you were actually accused or not. I'm assuming that you are just worried about what might happen in the meeting that hasn't happened yet.

The most honest way to proceed, though you may suffer for it, is to tell it exactly like it happened. You studied three weeks, you had access to old exam materials and used those to prepare. All you had in the exam was your memory and your skills. You had no knowledge of any question to be asked on this exam.

If the professor thinks you cheated, then s/he is very naive about how the world works. Student fraternities typically keep records of old exams and students study from them. If the professor uses old questions they should expect that those questions are available.

You might be asked for the source of the materials and you would be unwise to conceal them and might face larger issues if you try.

As the answer of Azor Ahai suggests, make sure that what you did isn't explicitly forbidden by available course materials. But I don't really see a way in which requirements could be stated that really disallow such a practice. It would be completely unenforceable. Doing well is not a crime. Studying hard is not a crime.

If your professor disagrees and wants to punish you, I'd suggest taking it to a department head or dean, again explaining exactly what you did and how.

If you suffer for honesty, then it is deeply unfair.

  • 43
    I would like to point out that while in some places exams are kept secret it still happens that students sit down after taking the exam and write down the question from their memory in order to hand on the exam nonetheless. Professors should be aware of that practice and not reuse questions. – Hannebambel Mar 13 at 2:22
  • 54
    @Hannebambel Or, as an old joke about Economics goes, they can keep last year's questions if they change the answers. – Reinstate Monica Mar 13 at 8:31
  • 2
    @Hannebambel I concur. I always could remember the questions of my exams for up to a week (sometimes more) after the exam in a way that I could write them down, not verbatim but close. I can't see an honest institution trying to forbid this way of "leaking" exam questions. – Nox Mar 13 at 9:28
  • 15
    My old Uni had a strict policy of secrecy regarding exams and even made you sign a waiver that you wouldn't reproduce any of the questions and would not allow you to re-view the exam after grading. We still had every single exam from the past 5 years to prepare because people would assign each other 2 questions each to memorize and then piece together the full exam anyways. It's a fool's errand to try and prevent. And if your questions can be beat by sheer memorization and no learning effect is achieved in doing so, revise your questions. – Magisch Mar 13 at 10:49
  • 5
    @Hannebambel Our mathematics professors used to reuse questions from the advanced non-mandatory exercise papers that they changed up each year. I don't think they minded because it rewarded the people who did more than the bare minimum study ;-) – DoctorPenguin Mar 13 at 11:02
22

I'm assuming from my experience with Canadian academia that this is a test that is taken in class, you turn it in at the end of the period, and then your professor either gives them back, graded, or allows you to come to their office and see your graded test.

Before you meet with the professor, you should find out whether your friend should have had a copy of the exam. Yes, if you saw a copy of an exam that was not released after the exam, it could be considered a form of cheating and you might get in trouble.

If it was released to the class (or is a take home exam everyone had a chance to see), then there is no issue.

To be clear, I sincerely doubt you will get in trouble here. What you did is reasonable and expected, but at the very least, you should be prepared to explain the situation and know where the test came from. Maybe the professor would like to know who is leaking their tests.

I have had classes where professors kept their tests well-hidden enough that if someone had a copy, I would immediately have suspected them of wrongdoing. Without more details, it's impossible to know how your situation fits in.

  • 31
    If an exam was given in a previous year you can assume that it was, in some sense, published. Wise professors should assume that the questions are known. It is foolish to assume otherwise. If students are sworn to secrecy on how they are tested, then it is students from prior years who have cheated. I can accept this if "exam that was not released" means only that it was never given previously, nor published in any venue in any form. – Buffy Mar 12 at 20:00
  • 6
    @Buffy I have had some professors who release their exams as a matter of course, and I have others who only let you see your exams in their office and you can't take it with you. Without more detail on the culture/field, we really have no idea what the expectations are for this student. I didn't mean to suggest the student knowingly cheated; but they should know what the expectations are before going into the meeting. I agree a prof who assumes their questions are 100% secret is a bit naive. – Azor Ahai Mar 12 at 20:26
  • 6
    -1 if I could since no cheating occurred (obtaining past exams that have already been used can't be cheating since anybody from the previous years can potentially leak them and it is a professor's duty to enforce justice by preventing cheating. In this case, the only way to ensure fairness is to release the exams publicly so that no one depends on his personal network). Designing new exam questions can be an daunting task but it is the prof's job to do so. It would also not be fair to profs who do their job correctly to use exclusively past exam questions. If it happened, the prof messed up. – Evariste Mar 12 at 21:05
  • 4
    @AzorAhai: If someone has a copy of an exam... you might well consider taking the copy as unethical. But reading the copy of a previous exame once it is out is not unethical (we can argue about exact circumstances), but in particular it is not cheating. – Daniel Mar 12 at 21:29
  • 11
    I disagree... Training with previous exams should not be considered cheating. There is NO certainty that even a single question matches between exams. Professors reusing questions is NOT the student's fault. We should not punish students for practicing well and using available resources. This is hard-earned success and not sneaky at all. Furthermore, after exams, I often wrote down the questions as far as I was able to remember them. I used this material to practice with other people who took the exams later on, e.g., in the next year. Also cheating? – J-Kun Mar 12 at 21:46
18

While the other answers provide good advice how to handle the situation in a polite and diplomatic manner, we should nevertheless get the actual questions straight:

Is having access to past exams cheating and, if yes, could it be proven just by a good grade?

(1) No, having access to past exams does not constitute by any means a case of cheating.

(2) No, an (unusually) good grade cannot be taken as a proof of cheating.

The following describes the legal situation in Germany, where cheating in an exam actually has a pretty narrow definition: It is constituted by unauthorised behaviour during the exam, such as taking unapproved material into the exam, talking or communicating with another student, and so on – the exact cases of unauthorised behaviour are defined by your institution. However, you have to be caught in flagranti or by clear proof of an action you did during that exam.

The situation may be different in other legal systems.

  • 13
    It isn't limited to what takes place during the exam. For example, consider the case of acquiring a copy of the current exam ahead of time. – user207421 Mar 13 at 1:57
  • 3
    @user207421: No, this technically (and legally) is not cheating. If you acquire the copy by illegal measures (e.g., paying someone to hack into your supervisors computer), this is a case for criminal law and treated as such. Point is that if – for whatever reason – the current exam was leaked before its actual date, it becomes invalid for the whole class. This supersedes any kind of cheating in that actual exam. – Daniel Mar 13 at 13:42
  • 2
    @Daniel: you're making an argument from law - what law? what jurisdiction? As far as I'm aware, where I am (in the UK), cheating and other academic misconduct is a matter for the academic institution concerned, which will have its own policies and disciplinary procedures that students are explicitly or implicitly signed up to. – Joe Lee-Moyet Mar 13 at 13:52
  • 1
    There's an example here of a university which suspended students for using a study-tool app which was loaded with past papers; insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2018/05/11/… – Valorum Mar 13 at 13:53
  • 1
    @JoeLee-Moyet: Very important point, thanks! I have added some context. However, I think that the general statement holds for any western system: While the institution defines what constitutes unauthorised behaviour, it has to follow general principles of law (e.g., principle of proportionality, principle of transparency, in dubio per reo). "Having access to old exams" and "got a good grade" would probably fail everywhere as constituting a case of cheating. – Daniel Mar 13 at 14:30
11

In the UK, the norm (insofar as one can say there is any norm -- each university has its own rules and procedures) is for past papers to be available, and for the onus to be on the examiner(s) to devise a new paper for each examination session. The exception might be if you had to sign something saying explicitly that you will keep the material you see/use confidential.

In the university where I did my undergraduate degree, the past papers were available as bound volumes in the library reference sections, and we were at liberty to photocopy or transcribe any part of these volumes. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, an official initiative was started by the university to also make the past papers available for download from the web. In addition, examiners' reports, giving general (anonymised) feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the cohort that sat the examination, were similarly available for perusal.

In short, past papers were not only considered fair game, but we were actively encouraged to look at them and use them for practice purposes. Our tutors would set mock examinations using past questions, and we would discuss in detail approaches, strengths, and weaknesses. Sometimes, tutors would re-use materials from year to year, but such re-use would never occur for anything that counts towards an official assessment, unless the material is a very generic starting-point, made known to the students at the beginning of the academic year, for a coursework assignment.

  • This is exactly the same in New Zealand. Some lecturers even gave out previous years answers as an aid. In some courses, some questions were reused, but not the whole exam. In some of the beginner courses (STAT101), in the past one or two lectures they even solved previous exams with the students so they can see the process. – Programmdude Mar 14 at 2:14
  • In Australia, they are generally bound and published and in a dedicated reading room of the library (for security - students use blades to steal the pages to spoil the studies of other students). – mckenzm Mar 14 at 5:34
8

When I worked at University our professor used to do this to ~10 people each semester. He usually picked some of the best results (just to be sure), but mostly people who handed in assignments way above their expected level.

He showed them one of their answers, and asked them to elaborate. If people could give some background information, their thinking process, etc, the whole thing took less than 5 minutes, and people just left with their graded assignment. People who cheated could usually not tell him anything except what they had written and he failed them.

So: If the exam had the same questions as last year, and you got the answers from your friend you might be in trouble. If you genuinely learned for the exam and the result represents your knowledge about the topic you should have nothing to worry about.

  • 4
    This seems rather unfair to those of us who aren't particularly verbal. I can do many things, and often write out a good explanation, but I'd be lost if I had to talk about them. – jamesqf Mar 13 at 16:50
2

Absolutely not. Any work that any professor does is something that can and should be studied. He's the professional and it is his responsibility to change the questions if he does not intend for them to be known in advance.

2

You just said that you think the exam was made public. Why would be using something that the teacher made public be considered cheating?

I had a teacher at the university whose exams were 80% a combination of old exams and 20% new questions. My university had a very strict rule where all teachers were required to make their past exams public. Most subjects even had them for download at the e-campus.

This guy once went into a public rant about how everyone passed his subject (this was unusual, as the rate of passing for most subjects was around 30%) and the unanimous response from the university was to put some effort on the exams.

If the exam is public and the teacher doesn't put any effort into making a new exam, why is you studying from the material considered cheating? Seems to me like your dilemma lies in the fact that the rest of the students didn't use the exam to study, and well, that's on them for not taking advantage of all the studying material.

2

When I was in college studying electrical engineering, professors regularly made the previous year's exam available at the local copy center for us to purchase as a study aid. Some would also offer extra help sessions where you could come in and discuss the exam with a TA, etc. One of my friends was in a frat and he would regularly show up with copies of the exam from several previous years. We would study all night, passing each exam around until all of us could do every question on every exam. Not only was this NOT cheating but a solid study tactic because many of the questions were similar to actual exam questions.

As some have stated, you should have looked into whether or not your friend was supposed to have the exam or not. Some professors collect them afterwards and don't allow the actual exam to be had outside of the class room. If that was the case, I don't think you cheated since you didn't have fore knowledge of the actual exam but one could argue that it was unethical. Either way, I would be honest with the professor if he asks about your study practices and how you achieved such a grade.

1

Depends on your testing regulations.

The ones at my university (and department) state that professors CAN NOT stop or punish you for 1) photographing it when examining it (i don't know the english word for this, but we can check our stuff for correction errors after the grades are published) and 2) distributing said photographs.

In Fact, some professors even share PDFs of the last exam, to make it fair for everyone.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.