Consider a qualitative question on a physics exam such as, draw the path of an object's center of mass as it is dropped. I have included a graphic here:


Would it be considered cheating in practical terms if I were to make a mark in my pencil and drop it on my desk to observe its path? This is just one example of something that could be helpful on a mechanics exam.

In general, would a professor consider the act of carrying out a small physical experiment during an exam as cheating as long as it is with reason and does not interfere with other students? By experiment, I mean something of the nature of what I mentioned earlier; I am talking about something that can be done with the instruments you are allowed to have during the exam. I do not mean using lab equipment.

To clarify, I something like this would be to gain a physical intuition of a solution. For the example listed above, simply dropping your pencil can give you an intuition as to the path its center of mass takes. This isn't intended as a substitute for work for a more complicated solution.

I ask because I doubt and am currently unaware of any rule that prohibits this.

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    If the question is should it be considered cheating, then my opinion would be no. But my opinion counts for exactly nothing. The question of is it considered cheating can only be answered locally, probably by your professor. Don't assume that a permissive answer is correct for you and get penalized.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 21:49
  • Fine within reason, just use common sense.
    – Tom
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 15:10
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    Rather than being cheating (which the professor would frown upon) an answer obtained in a non-standard way but which evinces a genuine understanding of the question would probably impress most professors. Having said that, it is impossible to know how a particular professor would react in your particular case. Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 20:48
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    I am reminded of a story that anatomy prof friend told me about an exam question about "Which muscles are involved in such and such a movement" and watching students carry out that movement during the exam to work it out. Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 1:03
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    Let us hope you don't try to solve something about water flow through a fire hose ;))
    – Alchimista
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 11:51

6 Answers 6


No, this is perfectly fine. In physics, it is common to see students making odd motions as they think through the problem or apply rules like the right hand rule. The usual caveats apply: you must not be distracting or obnoxious, must not broadcast data that other students could use to cheat, and must follow all announced regulations.

Yes, like with anything else, there are a million corner cases and caveats and unreasonable proctors that we could have fun trying to anticipate -- but I suggest we find more productive ways to spend our mental energies.

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    I wouldn't go so far to call it perfectly fine. If the test asks students to show their work, it is unlikely that this "experimental data" is what the instructor has in mind. Further, one might well get accused of cheating for giving the right answer without showing any math. Indeed that might be the hidden motive of such a question about simulations; the student was busted giving answers they couldn't justify, so they make up a little story about doing a simulation. Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 22:41
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    The question was about whether it was cheating -- and indeed, from an ethical perspective, it is perfectly fine. The question was not whether one could do simulations instead of answering the stated question -- obviously the answer to this totally different question might be different.
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 22:56
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    +1 for the right hand rule. I even tell my students that I want to see them do it during the exams!
    – Adam
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 8:18
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    16 years and a PhD later, and I still do funny hand contortions to figure out vector orientations.
    – tpg2114
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 15:24
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    @tpg2114 sadly, I often do it with my left hand while I'm holding my pen with the right hand. Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 20:03

If there isn’t any rule that prohibits it, it isn’t cheating. It’s the university’s job to make the rules, and it’s your job to follow them - it’s as simple as that. A professor who complains because you solved a problem using a creative method that they didn’t think about should be more careful the next time they write an exam.

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    I think the first sentence is not strictly true...there are all sorts of ways to get in trouble that are not explicitly called out in any policy as being disallowed. Further, I don't think this answers the question - OP is not asking about formulating an answer in an unorthodox/creative way, but about the ethics of using allowed materials for purposes other than their intended use.
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 15:18
  • @cag51 OP asked if the “experiment” would be considered cheating, and I said it wouldn’t be. How is this not answering the question? And anyway, who is to say what the intended purpose of a pencil is? If a student finds it soothing to chew on the end of the pencil, is this the “intended purpose”? I’m sorry, but unless the exam specifically spells out what you are allowed and not allowed to do with your pencil, you can do anything you want with it (assuming it does not cause a disruption or illicitly communicate information to other students, or violate some other explicitly stated rule).
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 15:31
  • @cag51 as for my first sentence, perhaps my imagination is too limited so I can’t say for sure that you’re wrong, but if you think the sentence is not true, I challenge you to produce a counterexample. I think you will find it harder than you think. Remember that student codes of conduct already have very broad rules against dishonest behavior, so it’s not enough to come up with some specific new and creative way of cheating that doesn’t happen to have been foreseen by the professor.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 15:34
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    For the first sentence, I am thinking of professors who never formally define the rules - just because a professor never says either way whether an exam is open book, doesn't mean that students won't get in trouble when they open books. Or bringing a lens to an optics test when the professor doesn't specify "no materials except" -- university policies probably cover using phones / calculators / etc., but I doubt there's any rule forbidding lenses -- which does not in itself mean they are allowed. Moreover, I wouldn't advice students to jettison ethical reasoning and focus only on legalisms.
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 16:04
  • But yes, I guess your first sentence does answer the question, I retract that objection -- though it seems like your last sentence is answering a different question.
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 16:05

If it's qualitative there probably won't be a problem unless the rules of the exam explicitly prohibit it, similar to how some exams prohibit calculators.

That said if it's a quantitative problem you can expect to lose marks. I remember a math exam with a geometry problem which said something like, this length is A, this length is B, this is a circle, etc, what is this angle? A student who solved the problem by constructing the diagram and then measuring the angle would not get full marks.


Any scientist who would consider performing the very defining action of their art as cheating would actually be quite much of a contradiction...


Like with all variations of the question "is X considered cheating" the answer is that it comes down to what the professor in your current course decides, so check with them before the exam. There are no universally applied rules for exactly what qualifies as cheating and what doesn't.

That said, if you can carry out your simulation in a quiet way that doesn't disturb others, then I and (I think) most others would be totally fine with it. To me it falls under the same umbrella as using the right-hand rule, or rotating an eraser/book to check the effect of compound rotations. Basically, I don't have an issue with students creatively using items they're allowed to bring anyway. Now, if you start bringing lenses and prisms to a geometric optics exam so you can experiment with light rays, well, that's another story.

  • Nice answer, but this particular case seems so clear-cut that I wouldn't even say it's necessary to ask the professor (absent any exacerbating factors).
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 21:20
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    @cag51 You're probably correct 98% of the time or so (more than that if the exam is proctored by someone in physics), but I don't think asking can hurt.
    – Anyon
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 21:32
  • Your lenses example is actually kind of interesting because a large fraction of people wear eyeglasses... Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 21:40
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    Right, but what if you take off your eyeglasses and start using them for a lens experiment? Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 21:57
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    @NateEldredge so could you claim that you got your answer wrong because you have varifocals and so deserve the points anyway?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 21:59

If it's a closed book exam I consider it cheating to do physical experiments (unless specifically authorized) as you are consulting an external source. I also differentiate a physical experiment from turning your fingers to do three finger rule as you are not consulting the physical universe but doing an implicit mnemonic versus getting external info.

P.s. I realize this answer is contrary to the other forum responders, but you should think about my point. Sometimes you learn more from a contrary argument than from several repeats of the same argument.

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