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I wrote an exam a couple of months ago and I recently received an email accusing me of academic misconduct. I had just finished my first year of university and this is the first time that I am receiving a letter of this kind.

One of the long answers that I had written matched an answer that was posted online on a homework solutions website.

Now due to Covid-19, this exam was an online open-book exam, I had interpreted the open book exam to mean that we could have our notes and our lecture slides with us. The weeks leading to the exam, I had searched up practice questions online and had written and solved them out on paper to have with me during the exam just in case a similar question came up.

Sure enough one of the practice questions that I had was very similar to the one on the exam. Thus, I had an easy time answering it and pretty much reused what I had written on my notes. I don't think that's cheating if I only looked at my notes on an open book exam. Also, the exam had a lot of math calculations and conclusion statements to go with it. Most questions like this have similar steps/conclusions.

I had contacted a student advocate to help me with my case and I'm supposed to write an opening statement to present to a meeting with the dean of the department.

The evidence against me seems very strong. If I am found guilty, I would get an F on the class and be suspended from taking courses for the months of May-August. But, I am already in the process of finishing 4-5 classes this summer. I am distressed that all of my money and hard work would all be wasted.

Is my evidence sufficient? What other evidence could I use to prove that I didn't commit academic misconduct? What should I write on my opening statement?

Clarifications:

  • I sifted through his emails regarding the final, and this was what he had written: "Open-Book final exam. Despite the final exam being open-book you still need to be well prepared otherwise- you will not have enough time to finish the exam if you spend a lot of time looking through your notes." No other explanations were provided. Perhaps it was my fault that I didn't ask for clarifications and just assumed.
  • My notes and the solutions were very similar, but the conclusion was different. I had tried to solve the problem on my own, but referenced the solution when I got stuck.
  • 14
    This problem can be easily settled without resorting to lawyers and legal cases. And that would be in everybody's best interest. A short discussion with the professor would probably be enough. – Louic Jun 18 at 8:19
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    What exactly are you accused of? Using internet resources during the exam (cheating), or presenting someone else's answer as your own (plagiarism)? It seems to me you may have a valid defence against the first, but not so much the latter. – marcelm Jun 18 at 10:36
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    There's a lot of discussion/debate here as to whether or not what OP did should be considered misconduct or not. The fact is, that the faculty has flagged this as misconduct and the question is specifically looking for help on how to formally respond to that, not on the appropriateness of what they did. – David258 Jun 18 at 11:24
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    @David258 It is useful to have a idea of what happened in order to write a good answer. Whether what OP did constitutes misconduct or not can change the recommended course of action. – Alexandre Aubrey Jun 18 at 14:22
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    When and if you feel okay and when you are done with this case, do update your question with what happened afterwards. It would be great to see how this ends up. – justhalf Jun 19 at 10:36

13 Answers 13

116

In a comment, you write that the professor had written in an email regarding the exam:

you will not have enough time to finish the exam if you spend a lot of time looking through your notes

This email is absolutely key. Quote the full email in your statement (including the date and timestamp), and highlight this sentence. It immediately implies that you were assumed and allowed to use notes.

The next point is that the professor apparently did not place any restrictions on what could be in your notes. (Did they?) Point this out.

The next exhibit should be that is was apparently easy to find practice questions that turned out to be similar to questions on the exam.

Nobody can hold it against you if you used the internet in researching what might come up in the exam, and in preparing your notes. (Yes, it would be better to reformulate your notes in your own words. Do this next time. You learn more that way.)

That should already be enough of an argument to rebut the accusation. Here is the structure of the argument I would propose:

  1. You were allowed to use notes. Quote the email.
  2. No restrictions on the notes were given.
  3. You worked practice questions from various sources, e.g., from the internet. Quote the practice question, include if possible the link and a screenshot.
  4. For one practice question, you used an answer you found online and put this in your notes. Again, include the link to the answer and a screenshot. Possibly include a copy of your notes.
  5. One question on the exam was very similar to this practice question. Quote the question on the exam, perhaps highlight the similarities.
  6. Therefore, it is not surprising that your answer matches something found in the internet.

Write this up in a short succinct way. Use paragraph breaks between the arguments. Don't ramble. Make this a short document of two pages at most.

If there is any sanity at your school, this accusation will be dropped immediately, and the professor will get some friendly advice about what to expect if they use questions on the exam that match questions that diligent students might find online while preparing.

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    Some people just like to watch the world burn. The only thing I would add is 2 pages might be too long. I wouldn't suggest much more than the 5 points you list above, of about the same length. 1 page max instead of 2. Idk if I'd accept this over current top answer, but I think both need to be done hand in hand by OP – TCooper Jun 18 at 23:49
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    I'd add that "you will not have enough time to finish the exam if you spend a lot of time looking through your notes" also means that you cannot fully check where what you have in your notes originally came from. In and of itself, it is unproblematic to copy someone else's proof verbatim into one's personal notes for learning – you're generally not republishing those and not tracking all sources saves a lot of time. The exam situation changes this, but also does not leave enough time to identify what was your own work and what you only worked through. – nobody Jun 19 at 9:58
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    The reference to “the practice question that the professor had given” is not quite right—the professor didn’t hand out practice exams, rather the student says “I had searched up practice questions online.” Doesn’t change this answer, though it perhaps does make it harder for the professor to avoid this situation. – KRyan Jun 19 at 15:32
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    This: the burden of formulating sensible exam questions that allow to measure the student's performance under the conditions the professer set themselves is on the professor and must not be shifted to the student. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 19 at 18:07
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    Good answer, in particular +1 for your last paragraph. If the examiner is too lazy to write a unique question that the students likely haven't seen before whilst revising, what the heck do they expect? – Noldorin Jun 19 at 22:58
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Explain what you did and your study process. If you have notes from your study they will help. Insist, insist, that you did no wrong. That is about all you can do. If you are punished for having studied effectively then your system is broken and it will be difficult to correct.

If you are given a punishment and have the opportunity to escalate it, then do so. If it comes to it, demand a re-exam, even an oral one.

I studied math by solving a lot of problems beyond what was required. It gave the insight that turned me into a mathematician.

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    @Jeff, you are, of course, accusing the OP of lying here. – Buffy Jun 17 at 16:16
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    @Jeff: What is so obvious about it? Sometimes I find elegant solutions to math problems which I could completely word-for-word reproduce the next day. – user111388 Jun 17 at 16:21
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    Agree 100% with @Buffy. Assuming the question is a true account of what happened, the student did nothing wrong. It’s been very frustrating to see a recent flood of similar stories of students unjustly accused of cheating. See here for relevant context. – Dan Romik Jun 17 at 17:05
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    +1 to demand a re-exam, especially an oral one. I teach maths, and honestly, if you're confident that you worked enough for this and are ready to prove it by solving problems, any decent teacher will realize it in an oral exam in a matter of minutes. Also +1 for sharing your notes and a list of classic problems you prepared for before the exam. Having knowledge of all the classic problems in a field is also 'proof' that you've been studying and preparing. As well, if you usually have good results, don't hesitate to mention them. Good students don't need to cheat. – m.raynal Jun 18 at 9:39
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    @Buffy: The OP’s account doesn’t mention direct copying — but they received the formal allegation, and they say “the evidence against me is very strong”, so it’s clear that at least the instructor thought the answer matched to a degree that looked like plagiarism; and (probably) the OP accepts it looks a bit like that. So, while I like your answer and think it’s a good start, there is something more here to defend. I don’t suggest OP is lying explicitly or deliberately, but I think their account may be unintentionally misleading by omission or by slightly downplaying what they did. – PLL Jun 18 at 10:26
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Buffy’s answer gives an excellent main approach, but there’s an important point they don’t address, which you need to understand and resolve. There is a mismatch in your question, between how you describe what you did, and how you describe the “evidence against you”. You need to resolve this mismatch in your defense to the university — otherwise it will seriously undermine your position.

You describe what you did as:

I had searched up practice questions online and had written and solved them out on paper to have with me during the exam just incase a similar question came up. Sure enough one of the practice questions that I had was very similar to the one on the exam. Thus, I had an easy time answering it and pretty much reused what I had written on my notes.

I.e. you say you found a practice question online, solved it yourself, and re-used that solution from your notes (adapted to the actual exam question). You don’t mention how you used any answers you found online. But you describe the outcome as:

One of the long answers that I had written matched an answer that was posted online on a homework solutions website.

A “matching” answer shouldn’t be flagged as potential plagiarism unless it matches very closely — much more closely than would happen just by being an answer to the same question, or even from studying an answer and then remembering the gist of it later.

So the key point is: how much did you use this answer from the site, not just the questions? Roughly splitting it up by cases:

  • (A) You didn’t read the answer at all — you just worked on the same question. If your answer really does match the online answer very closely, then this case seems pretty implausible — so be prepared for the university to question this story hard, and be ready to justify how you came up with this answer. In particular, don’t describe it this way (like you did here) if what really happened is more like (B) or (C).

  • (B) While studying the practice question, you read the given answer and incorporated what you learned from it into your notes (and then directly adapted your notes into your exam answer). This is acceptable under most standard interpretations of open book, so certainly acceptable unless the professor gave policies stating otherwise. On the other hand, it still seems a little surprising that your answer would match so closely as to get flagged as plagiarism, if this is what you did.

  • (C) While studying, you copied down most or all of the given answer, and then during the exam, you adapted it directly from this copy. This is rather more borderline than case (B), under most “open book” policies — e.g. my “open book” policies include something like “do not seek or take answers from external sources”, so using an answer that you previously copied from an external source is clearly a bit dubious. You still have a reasonable case, but it needs different handling.

Essentially, in any case, you have to convince the authorities of two things:

  1. What you say you did was legitimate, or at least, you reasonably believed it was.

  2. You really did what you say you did.

In case (A) or (B), it’s clear that what you claim you did should be accepted as legitimate (unless the professor had specifically given policies to the contrary); but you may need more justification to convince the university that you really did what you claim, depending on how closely your answer matches the online one. (If your answer doesn’t match the online one so closely, then this should be easy, though — in that case whoever made the initial allegation was badly over-reaching.)

In case (C), there’s no difficulty accepting that you did what you say you did. But you should accept that — in hindsight — what you did was more borderline, and present your case as “I thought it was acceptable, because we didn’t receive clear policies” rather than “It was acceptable”.

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  • 7
    "Not seeking or taking answers from external sources" is hard to understand if one's own notes can (obviously) incorporate such things. Does something become "non-external" if one has written it out oneself? Is it legal to look at the source while writing such notes? How often? And so on. I think the whole situation is very, very murky... and needs to be addressed pandemic and post-pandemic, but has no easy solutions that match traditional, willfully naive conceptions of how students are to interact with all the available information in the world... based on pre-internet times? – paul garrett Jun 18 at 21:01
  • @paulgarrett: Agreed, this is a very difficult issue — there’s a continuous spectrum from things that are “obviously reasonable” to “obviously cheating”, and I’ve never seen any policy that succeeded in drawing a completely clear and unambiguous line, without debatable corner cases like the ones you mention. But this is a problem rule-makers have accepted as inevitable for centuries, and I think the classic solution is the right one: It’s better to spell out good principles as clearly as one can, and then deal with edge-cases individually, respectfully, and assuming good faith [cont’d], – PLL Jun 18 at 22:37
  • rather than abandoning good principles because they can’t be made absolutely objective. Most of the other solutions I’ve seen proposed come down to either using forms of assessment that are more objective to police and grade, but are less meaningful in how they assess student learning/competence, or else abandoning assessment entirely. – PLL Jun 18 at 22:39
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    ... further, as in my own experience, I tended to read widely (even if superficially), and saw lots of things... which informed my treatment of "exercises". Some of the instructors declared that "reading anything else" was against the rules. Then, and now, this seems to me complete nonsense. Why would anyone want their students not to see things?!?!? Wasn't "learning stuff" the real object... not "control"? – paul garrett Jun 18 at 22:40
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    Agree with the analysis but I would add emphasis that the OP needs to proceed with either case A, B, or C based on what actually happened. I understand that this analysis is from a third-person point of view, but it had better be made clear about not advocating lying. – THN Jun 19 at 20:10
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due to Covid-19 this exam was an online open book exam, I had interpreted the open book exam to mean that we could have our notes and our lecture slides with us.

To me this is the key point. Was this a correct assumption on your part? i.e. did the professor really intend open book open notes, or did they intend open book closed notes?

If they intended open book open notes, then you did absolutely nothing wrong. He/she intended for you to able to use notes, you used your notes. It was a coincidence that you found this problem online while studying before the exam. Explain it this way.

Now, if he/she had intended open book but closed notes, well then unfortunately you did do something wrong. BUT, I would argue that this is at least partly the instructor's fault. He/she should have been clear that "open book" does not imply "open notes". I am always very clear in my exams about what is and is not allowed. Explain that you had assumed that notes would be okay because the instructor did not say otherwise. Explain that you recognize now that you should have asked for clarification on what was allowed instead of just assuming that notes would be okay. Argue that because it was unintentional, and that you answered all of the other questions yourself, a grade of an F on the whole exam is too harsh of a punishment and try to get them to change it to something else (like maybe just a reduced grade for that problem not the whole exam), or allow you to re-take the exam.

If you don't know what was intended, you may want to ask.

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    What matters is not what the professor intended. What matters is what rules they actually laid out in writing. OP cannot be expected to read the professor’s mind or even to necessarily think of asking for clarification if the professor’s intent is not crystal clear. – Dan Romik Jun 17 at 17:08
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    What they "intend" is immaterial. What they actually say is the only thing that matters. Secret rules are not permissible in a just society. – Buffy Jun 17 at 17:38
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    Again, the OP did nothing wrong. I would actually praise their study process. To admit error when none occurred and say it was "unintended" is dishonest if you've done nothing wrong. There is no need of any apology. – Buffy Jun 17 at 18:02
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    OP's comment shows that open notes was (a bit indirectly) mentioned in the professor's email. Therefore, 1) copying a solution from your notes to the exam sheet during the test is not against the rules, and 2) copying a solution from the interent to your notes during your study period is not against the rules anyway - because there are no rules on what you can have in your notes. – juod Jun 17 at 21:53
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    I'd also like to emphasize that this seems to be a math problem - and undergrad level math proofs rarely have many possible solutions or "creative" ways to show your understanding. Even if it is not a proof, there tend to be standard and more efficient ways to solve math problems, and inventing novel approaches simply cannot be expected in this context. – juod Jun 17 at 21:58
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First and foremost, discuss this with your student advocate. They will know the specifics of your university's policies. And they will know how wise it is for example, to fight the charge directly vs. admitting to unintentionally violating a policy (if that turns out to be what you did).

Second, unless your student advocate advises against it, be fully open and honest about your intent to sit the exam honestly. Say everything to them that you said to us. Make it clear that you had no intent to cheat, and believed you were following the rules as presented.

Third, bring evidence of your intent, such as your hopefully copious notes from which you appear to have derived your answer.

It is likely that you violated an academic or ethical rule, if nothing else by using a significant part of someone else's work without attribution. If you copied someone else's answer to your notes, then copied from your notes to the exam without crediting the source, you have effectively copied the source. That's not OK.

If you and your student advocate believe that is what happened, then likely your best bet is to hope that you will be let off somewhat easily for a first offense with evidence that it was an unintentional violation. In any event, you may need to be looking for the most favorable of several poor options. And this will be a heck of a life lesson.

Good luck.

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If you have time before you have to respond, you should seek the advice of your university's Ombudsperson.

An Ombudsperson is an advisor that you can consult about your situation. Most universities have them, and they're independent and confidential. They're designed to act as advocates for the student, and they're usually expected to be familiar with your university's policies and procedures. Your Ombudsperson will be able to inform you of your rights, responsibilities, and often can offer advice.

If you're not sure if your university has a position like this, try searching "[University Name] Ombudsman". Most universities do have such an office.

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One aspect of the situation, also commented-upon considerably, is the idea that it's somehow wrong to have already worked-out or understood so many examples that examples on an exam are already known and understood.

This reminds me of some of my "colleagues" asserting that our grad-level written prelims should never ask questions that've been asked within the last 10 years or so. Um, well, doesn't that communicate to students that there's no sane guide to what to study? I've always counter-argued that this is non-sensical and actually counter to our collective goals.

In my grad course in which "grades matter", I tell the people up front that any reasonable, worthwhile question has (apart from trivial details) been asked and answered many times before, and is surely on-line. In particular, I recommend that people think for themselves, in order to be able to appreciate a solution (if they get stuck) that someone else has put on-line. And, after all, aren't we allowed to benefit, and reduce our labor, by the work of the many people before us?

In particular, I tell them that on "exams" that I give, they should work so that any supposedly reasonable question I ask them is "already seen", and they remember rather than problem-solving-in-limited-time.

But, yes, some people have not caught up to all this, and will punish students who are behaving otherwise reasonably. And the institutions have not necessarily caught up, either...

So, unfortunately, I have no good action-oriented advice, except to keep in mind the unreasonableness of the situation, and not feel guilty, privately, for behaving reasonably.

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    I may add that as an undergrad (back in not-so-much-internet times) we had a series of exams where we were encouraged to work through the collected exam questions of the last x years - knowing that the questions for us would come from the same pool of questions (not open book, though). The examiner was of the opinion that even trying learning the answers by heart would not matter or hurt our education since working though large amounts of problems one will ultimately recognize (learn) the principle behind the mechanisms (organic chemistry) - it basically cannot be avoided. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 19 at 15:55
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX The name for that sort of learning is "learning by rote". Different people have different opinions on its usefulness. – nick012000 Jun 20 at 5:41
  • @nick012000: Not sure whether rote learning is really what is meant here because the idea here is to arrive at true understanding of principles by way of doing these examples (I always understood rote learning to refer to "brainless" memorization). However, we did have the impression of being required to meaninglessly memorize large amounts of facts. When we complained ("If we'd have liked to learn phone books by heart, we'd have gone for medicine rather than chemistry") a TA told us that a) he can assure us that there are principles that can be understood behind those collections of facts... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 20 at 12:22
  • ... but unfortunately, noone has yet arrived at good ways to express these in language (or formulas) so we cannot be taught them with explanations the way we're used to from, say, physical chemistry where we can derive results. Instead, for those areas, chemistry didactics has to fall back on everyone having their own brain sort out large amounts of facts. Said examiner was arguing that this is what the brain will do, he said, one cannot help to gain understanding when working through loads of examples. He also said that it is much less work for almost everyone to go for understanding first... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 20 at 12:28
  • ... where explanations (e.g. reaction mechanisms) are available - buf students who won't do that will still arrive at an OK level of understanding by solving, say, 5 years of exams. I may add that we knew that every single point in the curriculum would be tested, so leaving gaps and hoping for luck was not a sensible strategy: the course had 1.5 h of exam almost every week, so over the semester about 20 h of exam. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 20 at 12:34
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Unfortunately for you, they do have a case. There is a big difference between taking notes while learning a subject, and keeping a database with answers to possible exam questions. Whether this database is on paper, on the computer, or on the internet makes no difference.

All you can do is:

  • honestly explain what happened (like you did to us in your question),
  • emphasise that you did not mean to cheat,
  • explain that you have learned from it, and
  • convince them that you will do things differently next time.

It might help if you can also show that:

  • you understand the subject that was examined, and
  • you answered all other questions yourself.

If it was my decision to make I would let you get away with a warning and keep an extra eye on you during the next exam.

But whatever the outcome is, the main thing you should do is learn from this experience: try to study to learn and fully understand the subject instead of study to pass exams.

To answer another of your worries: your money and hard work would not be wasted because you learned a lot about the subjects you studied, as well as a valuable lesson. You may not like this answer, but I wish you good luck and hope that the committee will understand the situation and be lenient.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jun 22 at 14:20
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Read and understand the policy of your department

This answer is in addition to the other good answers posted here. You've already clearly articulated your own position and explained the actions you took and the motivation for them.

The next part is pure bureaucracy, what is the process for responding to the accusation? Is there a panel you can appeal to? Who should you address about how current circumstances and lack or face-to-face discussions will affect the outcome of your appeal?

These are things which will all be specific to your institution that we can't answer here, but will ultimately have the biggest bearing on the outcome. In the meantime, you should continue your studies for other courses the best you can on the presumption that you will be able to continue those courses in one form or another.

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If your answer was based on your own notes--even if they were developed in part by doing practice problems from a third-party website--I think you have a strong case.

However, there are a couple of factors that would work against you:

  1. If the website you used was explicitly forbidden elsewhere in the course policies, e.g. in previous emails or the syllabus.
  2. If the question/answer was a 'trap,' i.e. there was no correct answer or the solution posted on the third-party website was inaccurate or nonsensical in such a way that students would never arrive at it independently.

These are the factors that appear to be working against students caught cheating at Princeton during the covid-related transition to online exams: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2020/05/princeton-teaching-assistant-math-department-slader-mat202-academic-integrity-cheating-covid

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0

The OP's best course of action in the meeting with the Dean mentioned in the OP would be, in my opinion, to rely on ambiguity of instructions on what was and was not permitted and present the answer as an honest mistake with no malicious intent. The OP could/ should accept own share of responsibility and not try to shift the blame or feign ignorance, but try to convince on grounds of integrity.

This appoach remains problematic and am not sure if it will be effective. The Dean/ department has no reason to be convinced by such an explanation, even if it is true.

An answer very similar to an online source does not demonstrate own knowledge and learning, which is the ultimate point of any examination. This creates a self-evident problem in marking, even if cheating is not assumed: the marker cannot tell if the student has indeed absorbed the taught material. Even for a purely mathematical exercise with only one solution, there are ways to differentiate from a third scource. Use different notation. Add calculations or remove them where the are not necessary. Change the narrative of the answer, if possible. Add detailed explanations and comments between steps. For such a high degree of similarity, the OP took none of those steps. Every marker of mathematics-based answers knows that all correct solutions are very similar, but different degrees of understanding can still be identified. The OP is not in a position to factually demonstrate own understanding. At best, it is a lapse of judgement and at worst it is lazy copying, with all shades in between for the department to decide.

A final point is that the OP copying and using the online solution to own notes is irrelevant. The same problem of own understanding can be identified if the answer was included and copied verbatim from the module material (which was perfectly fine to use). The OP would not have added anything to both cases, and in addition by showing showing the notes the OP simply admits that the solution was copied and used almost identically, with one intermediate step that added nothing.

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    I don't think it's a good idea to start with arguing on ambiguity, as this will admit you based your answer on the existing answer (and not only in concepts but in verbiage). – eckes Jun 18 at 18:07
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    Sorry to -1, but the burden of formulating good exam questions should IMHO be on the examiner. A student in an exam should not have to worry about anything but answering correctly, demanding that they in addition reformulate solutions in order to avoid potential similarity is IMHO nonsense, also because in many fields there are standard formulations, and it is professional best practice to follow them. The reasons include that the risk of making honest mistakes increases otherwise. R = k⋅q instead of F = m⋅a is not going to help anyone. Least of all the student and the TA who corrects the exam – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 19 at 16:19
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX Reformulating solutions would not have been necessary if the student had not used a website solution. If you have any better solution than the "nonsense" I suggest to prevent such a situation on behalf of the student, I am happy to hear it. – user117109 Jun 19 at 16:58
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    ... book & notes Math exam where one question was exactly the same as one of the worked examples we had in the excercises before. I'm pretty sure this was intentional: the prof wanted it to be known that this may happen in order to make students prepare sufficiently thouroughly to recognize the worked examples. The reasoning behind such a strategy (which another prof explicitly told us) is that most people cannot help but learn at least a bit from spending a considerable amount of time with the lecture notes. With this background, one cannot even argue that the student should reformulate when – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 19 at 17:18
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX I asked something very specific: how, as a student, you avoid being in a situation such as that of the OP. None of what you wrote is even remotely relevant to either my question or my answer. I am covered by that. – user117109 Jun 19 at 18:04
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It seems to me that you were copying a solution from another source without citing it (given the length of the solution and what you wrote "matches"). Whether you did this indirectly via your "notes" does not matter. In academia this is called plagiarism and should obviously be reason enough to fail an exam.

I would advise you not to try the "rules didn't say plagiarism is cheating" route. I think your defense could be that you were confused by the "open book" rule, see your mistake and will do better next time. In return the university might not apply those harsh rules to you.

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-2

I believe the school has a Student Affairs Unit or Guidance and Counselling Section. Every student deserves a fair hearing. Writing a letter directly to the Head of the Institution (Vice Chancellor or Provost) can also accelerate your being heard.

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  • Why would you believe that? – user111388 Jun 20 at 10:56

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