I was going through the files on canvas of my course, then I saw a file called like Examination_(coursename)_2021 and was like "it's probably the practice". I opened it and it seemed like the actual exam, so I sent a message to course group like is this the actual exam? It seems like it is and they asked me to share it with them, which I did. Then I started thinking I should tell my professor that I have access to the questions. I also checked if other people in my class could find the file which they did. So now I'm kind of lost, obviously, I want to do well on the exam but also I don't feel good about it. Although the exam is tomorrow and it is an open book exam, I feel like I should tell my professor just because now my mind isn't focused on the exam at all, I feel I am morally obligated to tell them. Though I would have to tell everyone in my group that I told the professor which I don't think they would be happy about because I asked them if I should tell the professor and they already said no. Another reason I'm worried is that the professor might be able to see when I first viewed the questions, which was a day before, I'm just so lost about what I should do.


I think I will tell my professor. However, now I don't know if I should tell the people in my class or just keep it anonymous. I'm worried that if I don't tell my class, some people will only have prepared for the questions and not for the actual course. I definitely regret sharing the exam with the people in my class now, it would've been much easier to have told my professor, if I hadn't shared the questions with the people in my class.

Edit 2: So I did send an email yesterday and apparently, it was just a past exam from another year. So it's all good. I just completed the actual exam today and feel quite good about it. Thank you to everyone who helped give advice!!

  • 18
    Telling the professor is the ethical approach here. Not telling them might be against your university's honor code.
    – user9482
    May 26, 2021 at 12:48
  • 22
    If your username here is your real name, be a bit cautious about asking questions that might cause issues if seen by others.
    – Buffy
    May 26, 2021 at 13:04
  • 4
    @Buffy Yeah, I made a fake name, no worries. May 26, 2021 at 13:06
  • 7
    @TomineBerkly if you're worried about your classmates only preparing for the questions, maybe you could request your professor to make an announcement to the class that he will be removing the paper? This way the class will know that the prof is aware about his mistake, and it could preserve your anonymity as well.
    – justauser
    May 26, 2021 at 13:11
  • 1
    Even without considering the ethical part (which should be the important one anyway) going through with a rule violation where 50 people know that you are guilty, there is written proof, and where the violation itself is easy to discover is usually not a smart move.
    – wimi
    May 28, 2021 at 9:13

5 Answers 5


Tell your professor. I don't know whether Canvas keeps logs such as you describe, but it doesn't make any difference. Your feeling of moral obligation is correct. You are obligated to tell your professor.

Here is some general advice. Author John D. MacDonald has one of his characters say, approximately, "In the case of any ethical decision, the thing you least want to do is probably the right choice." (Quoted from memory, which is why it's approximate. I think Benedict De Spinoza wrote something similar.)

  • 16
    Canvas does indeed keep a file access log for each student that is readily visible for the instructor! May 26, 2021 at 13:41
  • 4
    Excellent quote, so true. May 26, 2021 at 15:54
  • 12
    +1 for the quote. Another one that comes to mind is “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching” (due to C.S. Lewis apparently)
    – Dan Romik
    May 26, 2021 at 19:36
  • 5
    @CaptainEmacs: that sort of principle would prevent you from making highly ethical, but commonly frowned upon or illegal choices. Public opinion is not a very good ethical guideline, IMO. The quote in the answer I would also add a couple of asterisks for, but this one I strongly disagree with.
    – tomasz
    May 27, 2021 at 13:47
  • 3
    I don't know if it's a well known aphorism, but "if it feels like cheating, it probably is".
    – Barmar
    May 27, 2021 at 14:23

It is your unequivocal ethical duty to let the professor know about discovering the exam file. If you knowingly take an exam whose contents you know in advance even though you are not supposed to know them, then you are guilty of cheating, plain and simple. There isn’t any way to make such an action appear morally justified.

Second, your professor also has an ethical duty to act in a way that minimizes the damage from this incident. They must rewrite the exam. And they must announce to the class that the exam has been rewritten so as not to leave students with the false idea that they know the contents of the exam, leading them to not prepare well for a genuine exam. (Some might argue that that would be their problem if they chose not to prepare; however, deliberately leaving them with such an idea is a form of entrapment in my opinion, and itself unethical). So in your email to the professor it might be reasonable to express your concern about the classmates not being told, and suggest that the professor make such an announcement. It should be the professor who announces it, not you, to avoid jeopardizing your relationships with your classmates.

  • 5
    Frankly, I do not think it'd be entrapment, not even in a figurative sense. If the cheaters get entangled in their own cheating and false self-confidence, and fall foul of the exam, they brought it upon themselves; it's not like things have been specifically set up to bait and catch them - it's their own trap that catches them. However, I still agree the professor needs to inform the students about the newly set exam, if only to reassure the honest students that the cards are now freshly shuffled. May 26, 2021 at 22:56
  • 2
    @CaptainEmacs well, it was the professor’s negligence in allowing the students public access to the exam file a day early. So it is at least an accidental form of the entrapment. Moreover, if the professor becomes aware of it and then wilfully neglects to inform the students that the file they saw will not be given as the exam, the professor is at the very least allowing the attempted “crime” to proceed when they could be trying to prevent it. I don’t know whether it should be called entrapment or not, but it’s behavior that is unbecoming of a professor, and IMO unethical.
    – Dan Romik
    May 26, 2021 at 23:26
  • 2
    Note: OP has mentioned that they used a fake name as their username May 27, 2021 at 3:50
  • 2
    We can't entirely discount the possibility that it's a seen exam by design and OP just missed the memo. May 27, 2021 at 11:41
  • 1
    @trlkly I don’t really understand your argument. An open book exam is in general very different than a seen exam, and an exam that was originally planned as an open book exam and inadvertently got turned into a seen exam because the file leaked is different yet, and almost certainly useless as an assessment tool.
    – Dan Romik
    May 29, 2021 at 10:30

Two things to add to the excellent answer of Bob:

Not only should you tell the prof, but you are in the right to request anonymity.

Your fellow students will likely not be happy and, be aware, that, despite you doing the right thing, there is a high likelihood that will feel that you cheated them. Unfortunately, that's not the desired thing, but that's what typically happens.

You may need to ensure that your post is anonymous if you do not trust faculty to keep your identity as whistleblower confidential.

And, of course, do request that the paper is invalidated, so that students that were not informed about it do not end with a disadvantage.

  • 2
    The teacher won't be happy either, having to prepare a new exam again at the last moment. Better learn how to properly hide exams next time! May 27, 2021 at 9:47
  • 5
    @GiuseppeNegro I agree, but these systems are not safe. They can be easily outwitted and also, they have some counterintuitive settings which can get the wrong files being visible at the wrong times. May 27, 2021 at 10:21
  • Right. This is the high-tech version of the old fashioned "teacher forgot the exam sheets in a common room and student took one". May 28, 2021 at 10:07
  • 1
    @GiuseppeNegro More like, the teacher put the exam in a drawer, thought they had locked it, and the room was inaccessible and didn't realize the students could get to the room and open the drawer because the lock was broken. May 28, 2021 at 10:37

Many academic ethics problems are reasonably well addressed by the "Golden rule", i.e. treat other people the way you would like to be treated if roles were reversed (sadly, this is sometimes exactly what the maxim in Bob's answer suggests).

If you were the prof. you would probably want to be informed immediately. They would probably not want you to share it with all of your friends as that may well invalidate the whole assessment for every student (meaning you may all have to sit a second exam).

You may want to check whether this violates your universities plagiarism and collusion regulations. Giving material to other students that is likely to improve their performance is likely to be regarded as collusion.

I would recommend letting the prof know exactly what happened immediately so they can do what they can to salvage the situation. Whether you do this anonymously or not is up to you, but next time I would think about the ethics of the situation before acting.


The mainstream opinion here does not generalize well. I agree that it's ethical to tell the professor, and it seems from your words you are not afraid of repercussions.

But for the people in different situations, remember that often no good deed goes unpunished. You can derail your academic career or even get in legal trouble just for discovering security issues.

Do not ever, in any circumstances, access files you shouldn't have access to, even if you just want to help. They can blame you and accuse you of hacking.

It is very risky to help people. If you can report something anonymously, you will avoid lots of potential trouble - but take care that you actually left no identifying trace.

  • 3
    The fact that the OP has looked at the exam is already logged. May 27, 2021 at 21:31
  • The flip side of this is that if you are in difficulties, it would be hypocrisy to expect anyone to help you. May 28, 2021 at 7:32
  • 1
    @DikranMarsupial They didn't say not to help, but to help anonymously. It's more comparable to these passersbys in the US who save someone's life and then disappear so that they cannot be easily found and later sued for damages by the victim. They are happy to help, but do not want to later pay for saving someone's life, which is kind of understandable. May 28, 2021 at 10:41
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs fair point. +1 Studentix One would hope academia would be a bit more rational about these things than society in general though. The golden rule applies in both directions. If you are a prof (or disciplinary committee) you would want students to own up to their mistakes (so that you can minimize the consequences), so pillorying a student that does so would be counterproductive and not the way you would want to be treated if the positions were reversed. May 28, 2021 at 13:34
  • @CaptainEmacs do you have a reference documenting this alleged US phenomenon? There are many absurd and disturbing things about US society, but this one of good Samaritans disappearing out of an express desire to avoid getting sued is news to me.
    – Dan Romik
    May 29, 2021 at 19:38

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