I'm not sure if I'm overthinking this.

Recently I had an assignment that is intended to be completed individually in which I cannot understand one of the questions at all. Lectures didn't help as the question assumed we have known some mathematical concepts before this class.

So I searched online for solutions because I realized that I would have learned nothing by keep looking at the question myself. And not surprisingly I found a solution.

I read through it, understood the solution, and wrote in my own words on the assignment paper. However since it is a simple proof my solution is essentially the same, so I cited the webpage and explained that I have written this proof after reading through the solution.

I know this does not constitute plagiarism. What could I have done better in this situation?

  • 6
    "I cannot understand one of the questions at all" Normally, this is when you contact the lecturer (by email or at office hours). Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 4:25
  • 1
    Perhaps check out and read up on the prerequistes for that course - sounds like you are missing one or two...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 6:43
  • "Is referencing my neighbor acceptable when completing exams?"
    – Uwe
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 9:02

3 Answers 3


This depends on the rules of the course and has no general answer. For some courses and for some assignments within them, this would be expected. In others, forbidden. Only the instructor can give you guidance.

But, you did the right thing in citing it. You were honest. Also, you learned something, which was the point of the assignment. But perhaps you didn't learn the right thing, which may have been the point: working through to a solution on your own.

The rules of a course should be clear. It is a problem when they aren't. But if challenged on this, just stress your honesty in citing your source. And follow the rules as you then understand them. But, sadly, instructors sometimes have unspoken expectations.

If I were your professor, and had neglected to make the ground rules clear, I'd accept your work, given the citation, but also caution you about future work if I'd rather you came to me instead of external sources. A professor can sometimes give a minimal hint to get a student over a block, but still allow for deeper learning to occur than can be done when searching out solutions. But I would also have to publish the ground rules.


This is something you should ask the instructor in person. Especially if the instructor is a reasonable person, they will want to know that you had no chance to complete the assignment. Ideally you tell them before (some profs have office hours), or at the latest when you hand in the assignment. Tell them what you did. Then they may decide to accept, reject it, remove the assignment (from your question, it seems a lot of people did not have the needed knowledge?) or tell you, in the words of Solar Mike, "Perhaps check out and read up on the prerequistes for that course - sounds like you are missing one or two...". This is however best handled in a oral conversation -- the prof may have some questions to you, may not immediately understand what is going on etc Ethically, you did the best you could, you were honest and tried to learn as much as possible.

Let me also say that this is not so uncommon -- in my studies, most lectures had no syllabus - some profs had really no idea what was our knowledge and some were not interested to know it. Some didn't care if we copied homework, some would remove impossible assignments, some would just say "bad luck" when the homework was impossible -- there is really no general answer. (You might give a better answer since you can probably judge a little bit how reasonable the prof seems.)


But what would be your response as an instructor if a student did this?

I can't speak for other academics, but I would have no problem with this. Unless there is an instruction in the assignment to the contrary, I do not think it is reasonable to expect the student to refrain from looking at outside materials. (Indeed, one would usually regard it as desirable that the student would be proactive in searching for relevant materials.) The fact that you cited your source, and wrote the proof in your own form, seems fine to me.

...what could I have done better in this situation?

There is nothing else you need to do in the assignment itself. The only other thing you need to do here is to follow-up by getting some more help from your lecturer, to ensure that you have a broader understanding of the material. There is a big difference between being able to read a proof and understand it (and then contemporaneously replicate it) and being able to understand the material well enough to prove something without first looking at another proof. You can get away with the former when you are doing the assignment, but the final exam is where the rubber meets the road.

The only concern I would have if I were your course lecturer in this situation, is to make sure you are taking steps to achieve a level of proficiency that will allow you to take on questions in your exam, where you do not have access to worked answers to the question you are looking at. I would recommend that you go and see your lecturer to get some help to get you up to this level of proficiency.

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