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Like most students and professors during the pandemic, I attended my classes online for over a year. The online lectures weren't mandatory, and I stopped attending after the first day and relied on my readings to guide me.

During our first test, the class had a practice test that if completed (right or wrong) added points to your overall grade. I did so and finished my test.

Now, here is where the issue occurs. I had no problem with the material on test one but needed more help with understanding the material for exam 2. Before exam 2, I hired a tutor to explain to me the areas that I needed help with, with practice test 2 (which wasn’t against the academic policy) before taking the actual exam.

This is where I messed up. I met with the tutor and went over the practice exam. Well, unfortunately for me, the practice exam that I thought I was taking was the actual exam. Apparently, there was only a practice exam for exam 1 and not exam 2 or any other following exam (there was no password needed to take the exam).

I should have doubled checked that I wasn't taking the actual exam and if there was a practice exam.

Should I confess to the professor?

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    I am a bit confused about this, I never known a uni to release the questions like this, if that really happened then I would imagine the majority of your class would have done something similar, so you should be asking is it morally right for most your class to have done something like that and only you getting penalised for it? It is the responsibility of the university to ensure exams are invigilated properly.
    – moo
    Aug 20 at 11:24
  • 1
    I heavily edited your question to remove the parts where you go through self-flagellation and (in my opinion) irrelevant information. Feel free to revert if I went with a too-heavy hand.
    – WoJ
    Aug 20 at 11:56
  • When did this happen? In the last few weeks? Spring semester? A year or two ago? Aug 20 at 13:38
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    Please don't remove the content of your question when you find an answer. Other people read this site in the future, and the answers will make no sense with the question edited this way. "Thank you" can be said in comments—and, really, by accepting the best answer. Aug 20 at 17:12
  • 2
    Where I'm from there's often no such thing as a practice exam. You sometimes practice with actual exams from previous years. It would be the professor's mistake if the real exam was "out there". Any exam that's public is material that is free for you to study. The professor should never reuse the same exam verbatim. Are you even sure if it was exactly the same exam? Maybe they were just very similar.
    – Ivo
    Aug 22 at 6:59

6 Answers 6

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If it was accidental, then it wasn’t cheating (edit: see the comments at the bottom for a clarification of what I meant and why I stand by this statement). The only wrongdoing I can think of that you might be legitimately accused for is not bringing this to the attention of the professor immediately after you discovered the issue (or soon after, as opposed to letting the matter slide for more than a year) — that is indeed not appropriate and likely to be seen as dishonest.

But as they say, better later than never. If you confess, it’s unimaginable to me that you would be kicked out of the university, especially if your confession comes with a suggestion for how to make amends for what happened. The most logical thing is to offer to retake the exam in an honest way and be assigned a new grade based on how well you do in it. If I were your professor, I would welcome seeing a student demonstrate this kind of personal growth, and would be happy to help make things right.

I can’t say if you should confess or not. But as a general rule, I am of the view that it’s good to live one’s life in a way that one can sleep well at night. Good luck!


Edit: I see some people in the comments are disagreeing with my basic premise that “if it was accidental, it wasn’t cheating”. I think this disagreement is based on one of two possible misconceptions, so let me address those:

  1. You might be conflating between some behavior being cheating and that behavior appearing to be cheating to people on the outside who do not know the state of mind of the person committing the action.

    In the law, most crimes require a guilty state of mind as a necessary element for a person to be considered guilty of the crime. This isn’t universal, and some crimes explicitly don’t require this element, but nonetheless a guilty mindset is a basic principle that underlies most legal systems and the ethical theories the legal systems are based on. So the same issue would be relevant to a question of whether someone cheated on an exam.

    For an illustration of the distinction between actually being guilty of something and only appearing to be guilty (or actually being innocent and only appearing to be innocent), see this answer.

  2. You might have understood that I’m claiming that OP didn’t behave dishonestly at all. No, I’m not saying that; what I’m saying is that the act of accidentally taking the exam using improper help was not cheating. The aftermath of that event, in which OP didn’t report to the professor the accidental violation of the exam rules and allowed their course grade to benefit from the violation, was in fact dishonest, and could reasonably be described as cheating. But that part consisted of action (or, rather, inaction) that was intentional, not accidental.

    The fact that actual dishonesty did take place is likely why OP feels anguished and is thinking about confessing. If my position was that no dishonesty had occurred, I would not recommend confessing, as there wouldn’t be anything to confess.

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    If the mental anguish of the OP is leading them to be more careful, then that is sufficient.
    – Buffy
    Aug 19 at 19:22
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    @Buffy well, not everyone likes to live in a permanent state of mental anguish, even if it has some positive effects. Anyway, as I said I’m not taking sides on the question of whether OP should confess. I’m not Dostoevsky, only a guy with some knowledge about academia.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 19 at 19:28
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    “If it was accidental, then it wasn’t cheating” — strong disagree. There’s no doubt OP made a mistake, and I’m not going to make a call on whether they should confess or not. But for a non-online analogy, if I take an exam in class and use my text book to help me answer the questions then that’s cheating, regardless of whether I knew or not. Your argument opens the door to all kinds of “I was never told I wasn’t allowed to use my text book!” arguments. OP even said they weren’t much in touch with the lecturer.
    – MacRance
    Aug 20 at 2:55
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    @MacRance that’s a good analogy. Using a textbook because you didn’t know you weren’t allowed to wouldn’t be cheating either. Of course, you’d have to have a pretty convincing explanation of how you failed to possess such important knowledge if you expect your claim to be believed, considering that in normal circumstances this is announced to the class multiple times ahead of the exam, and is written at the top of the exam, along with “Read all the instructions carefully”.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 20 at 3:10
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    IMO, the major difference between OP's case and @MacRance's example above is that MacRance does not (hypothetically) claim to have somehow used the textbook accidentally — they merely claim ignorance of the rules. This would be similar to the OP claiming that they knew they were taking the real exam, but not that having someone assist them with it was forbidden. But what the OP claims is that they (somehow) mistook the real exam for a practice exam. That's claiming ignorance of the facts of the situation, not of the rules. Aug 21 at 13:17
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To the extent that what you've described is cheating, it was the wrong thing to do. However, whether what you've described is, in fact, cheating in the first place isn't entirely clear. Moreover, as with most moral questions, beyond being simply a matter of right vs. wrong, this is a matter of degree.

Was this cheating at all? As you tell it, you had no intention to cheat. Does one need to intend to cheat to do so? Perhaps not, but the phrase "accidentally cheating" in your question's title strikes me as a contradiction, which suggests that there may need to be some premeditation required for an act to be one of cheating.

You elaborate on what happened with your tutor in some of your comments to other answers:

I always explained my thought process with each problem and only used my answers (even if they were wrong) ...

If I was wrong, the tutor would show me where I went wrong to help me learn.

Presuming you didn't change your submitted answers after the tutor pointed out where you went wrong, your answers would appear to be entirely your own. To me, this indicates no cheating was involved.

But again, even if this was cheating, it was limited in its effect. If this was a midterm or final exam worth a significant portion (e.g., >30%) of your total course grade, that would be one thing, but it sounds like that isn't the case. You mention neither this nor "any other following exam" had practice versions, suggesting more than one followed the one in question, and I think we can safely assume you didn't make this mistake again for any of those.

In other words, you sought help by having someone explain why your own answers on a single exam were incorrect. (Frankly, I'm unconvinced that even rises to the level of transgression, but...) Recognizing you may have made an error, you avoided doing so in the future. And your error, if it was one, likely had a relatively small effect on your overall course grade. So if this was cheating at all, it was to such a limited degree as to be almost trivial.

As a fellow human, my conclusion is that your apparently profound regret about this matter is enough to serve as both penalty and deterrent. As a professor who has seen some questionable exams, as well as dealt with confirmed, blatant, bad faith instances of cheating, my assessment of what you describe is that it's a minor infraction.

So to answer your question about confessing to the professor: if this is an infraction at all, it's minor enough that, were I your professor, I would prefer never to know about it or have to address it. Given its limited significance in the overall course, not to mention your ongoing regret being its own punishment, I wouldn't see this as needing an institutional response. (And given the amount of paperwork those responses require, I'd be more upset about dealing with the bureaucracy of it all than I would have been with what you did in the first place.) Ultimately, I'd suggest that having confessed to the Internet, you can leave your professor out of it, give yourself a break for being a conscientious student doing the best they could during a global pandemic, and work on forgiving yourself, while of course allowing the experience to guide your conscience and future actions.

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  • Yep, this even sounds more like a "quiz" than an "exam"...the 7% is tiny, but even more relevant is that it doesn't sound like your tutor was the one doing the answering of the questions, which is when it would be cheating. If you answered the questions and got advice on them afterward, that's totally appropriate for a tutor, whether it be on a homework assignment, an exam, a quiz, or whatever. If the work was yours, you have nothing to feel guilty about. But even if it was a marginal case, given the low stakes and the fact you didn't do it again, I'd say no need to involve the prof.
    – cpit
    Aug 20 at 0:59
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    As a fellow human, my conclusion is that your apparently profound regret […] is enough to serve as both penalty and deterrent. The problem with this statement is that the profound regret may be a too severe penalty. For people with a certain personality type, they will fixate on the anguish and carry it with them for many years into the future. That’s probably disproportionate to the size of the offense. In that case, allowing the person to confess would be an act of kindness, and the minor annoyance (if any) that this might cause the instructor is pretty much irrelevant.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 20 at 17:19
  • @DanRomik very much agreed. But in situations where the regret is too severe a penalty, the confession doesn't necessarily need to be made to the person against whom the transgression was made. Indeed, in some (far more severe) cases, a confession can cause further harm to that person. In any case, the effects of the confession on the confessee should be an important consideration in making a confession: entreating an act of kindness ought not to be done in a manner that is itself unkind. And since OP has effectively already confessed here, there's no need for further confession.
    – cpit
    Aug 22 at 6:22
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Honestly, I think the university screwed up here. If they leaked the exam before the actual exam everyone will have done the same as you, but knowingly.

I don't think you did anything wrong. I think besides learning some stuff and making valuable connections in life uni is actually about learning how to take shortcuts.

In the real world you aren't paid for wasting time doing everything by the textbook but for solving problems. You have this difficult situation going at home and this should be your priority. I would take any shortcut I could find.

As long as you aren't trying to shoot rockets into space and putting people's lives at risk because you were cheating on this exam it really does not matter.

Uni will make everyone re-take the test if they find out. I think you studied hard for the test and learnt everything there was to learn. I would not mention it or beat yourself up. Focus on the things that matter - your family, your health, your energy. The next course in uni will keep you busy soon enough.

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I would say the fault is not in mistaking the actual exam for the practice exam but in not admitting the fault immediately when you noticed the mistake. Personally, if I wasn't still taking the class, I wouldn't bother the professor with it. Similar experiences of not admitting faults quickly in my own past have taught me that it is important to try be above reproach in everything that I do.

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Short answer, in your case, based on the legal definition provided below, no, you did not cheat, quoting a reference example:

One cheats by

deceiving any person, fraudulently or dishonestly induces the person so deceived to deliver any property to any person, or to consent that any person shall retain any property, or intentionally induces the person so deceived to do or omit to do anything which he would not do or omit if he were not so deceived, and which act or omission causes or is likely to cause damage or harm to that person in body, mind, reputation or property, is said to "cheat".

So, if you suspected or have prior knowledge to the fact that the practice exam was de facto the real exam, or even probabilistically could be such, then you "cheated".

However, as you claim no prior knowledge, you are innocent, but only you can honestly make this assessment.

I would advise not to personally report it, perhaps anonymously at some future time, as you are placing the matter in the hands of others to subjectively assess your honesty that, in my opinion, is not generally pragmatically advisable.

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  • The definition you cite appears to be from the penal code of India. It's unclear if OP is referring to an institution in India, but since this is not a criminal proceeding the cited definition would likely have no bearing.
    – cpit
    Aug 22 at 6:30
  • It is but an example of british common law showing that cheating involves a premediated intent to deceive so as to acquire an item of value.
    – AJKOER
    Aug 22 at 10:47
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Yes. It is bothering you now and will continue to do so.

Personally I find going over even a practice exam with a (paid?) tutor problematic. The goal of an exam is to see what YOU have learned, not what the tutor knows.

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    By this logic, going over a practice exam at all is problematic, but I don't see how the tutor makes it worse. By talking to the tutor, you are doing additional learning, and therefore you know more. It's not a controlled assessment of the efficacy of the course materials.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 20 at 21:58
  • No, a practice exam is for you to practice - and if given in Moodle there should be much feedback from the instructor if questions are answered wrong. Going over them alone is fine. But I understood taking the practice exam with the tutor. That I don't approve of. Aug 21 at 23:54
  • Oh, I see what you mean. If the results are used anywhere, then yeah, I get that.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 22 at 0:46

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