I gave a test in person this week. For the students that require accommodations, I submitted it online. The staff that provides the accommodations at their facility printed the test and gave it to student "A". When the next student went to take it, she realized the test had all the correct answers marked. By mistake I had submitted the key instead of the regular test. This student immediately mentioned it to the staff that then gave her a fresh test, they did the same for the first student. But student A had the exam in their possession for about an hour and never reported the issue.

Was student A in the wrong by not reporting the fact she had the key in her hands? She first said she didn't realized the answers were bolded, she then said that she thought the bolded answers weren't the correct answers, but then she marked the exact same answers on the scantrons. Is this an academic integrity infraction/cheating? Should this be reported to the academic integrity committee?

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    – cag51
    Dec 12, 2022 at 22:07

8 Answers 8


No. There is no evidence of intent and you cant prove a negative.

The fault is on the person that handed it to her.

Lets reimagine the scenario. Teacher hands a student a test. The teacher then audibly speaks and tells the student the correct answer to the first question.

What is the student to do in that situation? There is no fault on the students side. She didnt ask. She had no reason to believe the answer was correct. Why would student have any reason to believe anything was amiss?

  • 24
    The fault is on the person who sent an answer key and not the exam.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:51
  • 2
    Exactly. Just an opportunity to improve.
    – user156207
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:57
  • 1
    The person who sent it, and the persons who printed and handed them to the students without checking them. Both are at fault. Dec 10, 2022 at 16:43
  • 2
    I disagree that the student doesn't have any reason to believe anything was amiss, but I agree with your conclusion that the student shouldn't be held responsible. Even if the student did notice that they had been handed the answer, how were they to decide what to do? Taking exams is stressful, being accused of cheating is stressful, and no matter what they did, the student knew they could be accused of cheating. So they did nothing. And still they get accused of cheating!!
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:33
  • 3
    @stef the teacher -whos paid job it is to notice- didnt notice. And now the test taker - who does not get paid to notice and no one made clear to her this is her responsibility- is responsible for not noticing? Dont we all have better things to worry about?
    – user156207
    Dec 12, 2022 at 13:27

Student A was in the wrong to not report this. However, there was obviously no premeditation. As the matter was discovered after 1h, it is still plausible that the student would have done the right thing eventually. The root fault was yours, for submitting the solutions rather than the proper exam file. Thus, I would deem it inappropriate to punish Student A for cheating.

That said, I agree with Scott Seidman that their score must not stand. The exam result for Student A is obviously tainted. Usually, one would need to balance "global" fairness (to the entire student cohort) with individual fairness (resitting the exam is stressful and potentially detrimental to the student) here. But, as Student A's error in not raising the issue earlier was an essential contribution to the issue, I really don't see Student A being unfairly disadvantaged by having to resit the exam.

  • 2
    While you might claim it isn't fair to the rest of the students it also isn't fair to make a student sit for a long test twice due to mistakes on the part of the teacher and test proctor. Both of them should have done a basic review of the test being given out to make sure that it was correct and didn't have any answers. It seems like a quick review of the material before it was handed out would have spotted the issue. In the end does the grade one student gets on a test really impact the rest of the students?
    – Joe W
    Dec 10, 2022 at 18:20
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    @JoeW Your final question is strange - the purpose of an exam is to test a students knowledge. Giving an answer to a student defeats this purpose. Yes, a mistake was made and the student should probably be somehow compensated for sitting out the test twice - but giving them a certificate of knowledge (a grade) they did not prove is not a way to it and defeats the purpose of having examinations.
    – Mavrik
    Dec 10, 2022 at 19:37
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    @Mavrik You are right that tests are designed to test knowledge but this case of giving the key to a single student doesn't impact the rest of the students. And the student shouldn't be punished for the mistakes of multiple instructors who gave out a test with the answers highlighted. I would find it very strange if this single test was to make or break a students academic career and this should be a learning opportunity for the all the staff that are involved. In fact they could even use to to help change the rules in the future to address this in case it happens again.
    – Joe W
    Dec 10, 2022 at 19:44
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    @JoeW well if you don't want to resit a test, just don't keep the answer sheet.
    – DonQuiKong
    Dec 10, 2022 at 22:08
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    The typical criterion is not "premeditation", but rather "intent" (or "mens rea" to use the latin term). If I'm taking an exam and another student whispers to me "hey, I have an answer sheet, here, take it" and I take it and use it - I haven't committed premeditated cheating - I had not planned or prepared to cheat - but I have cheated with intent.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 10, 2022 at 23:21

As Arno laid out, there is a difference between "There is cheating" and "The exam result is illegitimate".

We should assume that there is a necessity of Mens Rea to judge something to constitute cheating. Clearly, the student had no will to cheat when handed the answer cheat. So, the question is, did the student engage in deceptive behavior when the student handed back the scantron answer cheat without saying something. No reasonable person can seriously argue that being handed the answer key instead of the exam constitutes a permission to use the answer key for the exam, since no reasonable person would be willing to give an exam together with the solutions under these circumstances. If the student received the answer key, copied it to the Scantron sheet, and then did not point out that there was an error, at that point deception happened and the student would be guilty of cheating. In an exam, there is a positive duty to point out any clear, unfair advantage. Thus, the important question is whether the student not saying anything, when there was a duty of saying something, constitutes cheating. This will depend on the reasonable expectation of the student. If the student for example wrote the student's name on the answer sheet with the key, and it is obvious that this was the answer cheat, then the student could have assumed that it is obvious what had happened, in which case there was no need to say something. From what you told us, it appears to me quite clearly a case of academic dishonesty.

There are some question of fact here as well as a question of law. The latter refers to the definition of academic infraction, which differs between institutions. These questions should not be handled by the instructor, but by the committee set up to deal with academic dishonesty.

There is also the question of sanctions. Clearly, a student who inadvertently was put into this situation had no premeditation. Furthermore, the student can rightly worry about the impact of your mistake on the student's success in the exam. These would at least be strong mitigating factors that would obviate the need for sanctions.

Another aspect would be the notion of entrapment, where a criminal act only happens because of actions by law enforcement. It seems to me that your negligence (however excusable it is), constitutes entrapment and as a legal principle, entrapment is a complete defense to a criminal charge. We are of course arguing by analogy here, as you are not law enforcement and we are not talking about guilt. Note also that different jurisdictions come to different conclusions, e.g. German law does not deal with entrapment the same way that US law does. Thus, according to US legal doctrine, the student can provide defense based on entrapment because the student had no predisposition to cheat and because many students, when put into this situation would not have said anything.

In summary: The student had a positive duty to tell the proctor that something was wrong with the exam sheet. The student's action therefore constitutes cheating. However, the level of guilt is minimal and one can argue that you accidentally entrapped the student, which would be a complete defense against accusations of wrong-doing. However, you should not have to decide this, this is what the competent committee is supposed to judge.

  • 6
    It's also possible that the student received the answer sheet, saw it had the answers, decided not to use it, but also was too shy to report it (and maybe was afraid of being accused of cheating if they admitted that they had been in possession of the answer sheet), and then took the test and got the correct answers without cheating, because, after all, getting the correct answers is not that improbable if you studied.
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:39

Should this be reported to the academic integrity committee?

Yes. Report the facts, and let them figure out if it is cheating or not according to their standard of proof.

This is not the case here since it was an accident, but in general keeping dubious cases from the committee isn't good, as it prevents them to catch repeated offenders. It's best to have a single point of decision, also for uniformity.

  • 3
    But, report the facts without an accusation.
    – Buffy
    Dec 10, 2022 at 13:38
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    If any accusation is to be made, it should be to the instructors and the staff that provided the test to the students. Dec 10, 2022 at 16:44
  • 2
    Very bad advice. In many institutions, reporting facts like these to an academic integrity committee will have strong consequences for the student, even if the student is innocent. In this case it's doubly wrong because the student is completely betrayed - the teacher made a mistake, then reported the student for it. Most likely this will cause the student to drop out of this awful university that punishes students for its own mistakes.
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:42
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    @FedericoPoloni The committee might end up not "punishing" the student, but this can takes months of investigation during which the student will be put under scrutiny and every student and teacher in the university will believe they are a cheater. That's punishment in itself, and not light.
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:53
  • 1
    Take this advice to the infinite limit. What is the committee to say after 100s of empty complaints against this student? Its hostile. This is an actual person youre talking about. Why is she punished for someone not doing their job?
    – user156207
    Dec 12, 2022 at 14:47

Cheating itself requires at least two elements: knowledge that it is cheating and intent to cheat. In this case it is possible that there is just a misunderstanding exacerbated by the stress of an exam. There was certainly no prior intent to cheat.

To make a charge of cheating, requires evidence, not a "gut feeling" or a suspicion. More than "some likelihood". I think the evidence here is weak, since the situation you describe is (one hopes) very unusual.

I suggest that you let it go and be more careful in the future. Yes, some infractions occur and some can't be caught or punished, but in grey areas, the balance should be towards leniency rather than severity. That is to say that false positives are more harmful to the overall educational process than false negatives. An accusation of cheating can devastate an honest student.


Grey zone, check your institute's policies and get ready for a wrangle

Here's an example policy:

In its broadest terms, cheating involves a willful and fraudulent act on a student's part. That is, information is falsified or fabricated or work to be evaluated by an instructor is submitted by a student as original and unaided, when in fact an unauthorized source has been employed.


Unauthorized assistance (collaboration with others, proscribed written materials) in completing work for academic credit, including but not limited to: take home exams, tests, or quizzes; lab reports; and homework assignments. Unless expressly allowed to do so by the instructor, students must be aware that they cannot use any aids in such situations. If a student is unaware of an instructor’s expectations, s/he must consult with the instructor.


The person pressing the cheating charge would argue that this is clearly a fraudulent act on the student's part, and that the exam was submitted as original and unaided when in fact unauthorized aid has been received.

The person defending the cheating charge would argue that providing the student with the answers turns the aid from unauthorized to authorized.

The person pressing the cheating charge would argue "Unless expressly allowed to do so by the instructor, students must be aware that they cannot use any aids in such situations".

The person defending the cheating charge would argue that being handed the answer key means the instructor is implicitly allowing the aid.

So, get ready for a wrangle - although I suspect the student will know they're in the wrong and will not press the issue until it reaches arbitration.

  • 13
    Are you really suggesting the instructor start a fight with a student over this case where they handed the student an answer key by mistake? I tend to take a pretty strict view on cheating, but would it really be fair to take a student, who's likely quite nervous to take a test, hand them what you say is their exam but actually has answers marked, and then put them at risk of expulsion or failing a course when they don't stand up quickly enough and say "um, are these letters supposed to be bold?"
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 10, 2022 at 6:40
  • @BryanKrause yes. And when you write "stand up quickly enough", you're neglecting that in the OP, student A had the exam in their possession for about an hour and never reported the issue.
    – Allure
    Dec 10, 2022 at 6:44
  • 12
    And you've only baited a single student who needed test taking accomodations likely due to a disability? The proctor didn't notice, the instructor didn't notice they gave the wrong document, but the student didn't report it quickly enough...
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 10, 2022 at 6:50
  • 6
    Not only was the student handed the answer key. BUT SHE HANDED IT BACK. The 'event' was effectively reported. The position you put her in is indefensible from her pov and it's your fault.
    – user156207
    Dec 10, 2022 at 14:51
  • 1
    "So, get ready for a wrangle - although I suspect the student will know they're in the wrong and will not press the issue until it reaches arbitration." So, you're suggesting to bully the student into not fighting back, when the teacher accuses the student because of the teacher's mistake?
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:43

In my previous institution, there was a policy against people who helped others cheat, intentional or not. I don't think what she did was cheating, but if it was decided to charge her with cheating, get ready for an abetting cheating by negligence charge (or whatever similar name your institution has for helping cheaters) against you.

It would be completely unfair to punish her, but not you, for this incident.

  • That's not how it works, mistakes happen. The author is in a world of trouble though. Firstly they didn't follow the procedures for academic misconduct, but ran their own investigation outside of that process -- including an interview. Secondly, they had 'unclean hands' during that investigation, as finding academic misconduct by the student would reduce the effect of their error. Thirdly, they made that investigation public prior to a judgement, by this very post. Student A: lodge a claim of instructor misconduct with the institution; the way you have been treated is not acceptable.
    – vk5tu
    Dec 12, 2022 at 1:37
  • Yeah, mistakes happen, that's why the name contains "by negligence".
    – zabop
    Dec 12, 2022 at 7:18

I have to admit I am surprised at the other answers. In my view this is cheating plain and simple. The student is passing off someone's else's work as their own on an exam. That is cheating. How they got the answer key is irrelevant.

My first paragraph is a little strong. There may be some doubt that the student actually used the answer key. But I think a strong case can be made—at least for further investigation—since all of her answers matched the answer key. If the student is a strong student, and has a history of getting high marks, that increases the amount of doubt. If this test score differs substantially from her previous exams (or differs substantially from the performance of the highest scores from other students on this particular exam), that decreases the amount of doubt. Was she the only person to ace this exam?

Her account of the situation doesn't seem credible to me. First, there is her changing story (at first she said she didn't notice the bolded answers, then she she changed her story to say she thought they weren't correct). The idea that she thought "the bolded answers weren't the correct answers" defies logic. Why would they be bolded? Had any other exam in your course ever have some of the answers in bold? Isn't it odd that only one answer per question was in bold?

Why would this student say she "didn't think the bold answers were correct" in spite of the fact that she marked those answers on her scantron? Doesn't the fact that she marked those answers indicate that she did think they were correct? Isn't she contradicting herself?

Either way, this situation is suspicious enough that it should be reported as a possible infraction to the academic integrity committee. Let them decide if further investigation or other action is warranted. You don't need to be be both judge and jury. But you do have a responsibility to the school and to the other students to at least report activity that is very suspicious.

Based on some of the comments, I think I should add: This is not a zero-sum game where either the student OR the OP is at fault. They can both be at fault, but for different things. The OP is at fault for mistakenly releasing the answer key. But there is a very strong appearance the student attempted to capitalize on that mistake to get a grade higher than she would have earned on her own. If the student didn't recognize that the correct answers were in bold, it's unlikely her scantron would match the answer key, even down to the mistake on the answer key itself. If the student did recognize she had an answer key, then she is at fault for using it. Merely getting or having the answer key is not her fault. Using it to try to inflate her grade is the problem. If she knew she had the answer key, then she would have known that was a mistake, and she should have brought it to the attention of the proctor (as the other student did). Getting the answers by mistake does not lessen her obligation to take the test honestly, so that it reflects her mastery of the subject. (The previous sentence is what seems so self-evident to me, that I started the post stating that I was surprised at most of the other responses.)

Her only possible excuse is that she thought the test was supposed to be that way. Or that she recognized the bold options seemed to be the correct answers, but she tried to ignore those and answer the test on her own. The first reason is not credible. It fails the laugh test. This is not her first rodeo. She knows how tests work.

The second reason is more believable and IMO a valid excuse. Except in this situation, it's not what she said. And it strains credibility since her scantron matched the answer key, even down to the mistake on the answer key.

Nonetheless, she deserves the chance to explain herself. The Academic Integrity Committee (which at most schools has student representation) is the appropriate place to do that.

  • The student usually scores in the low 80's and this time her score was 96.7. The only question she missed was the question that had the incorrect answer in bold (I marked it incorrectly in the key). The scores for the rest of the class went down compared to previous tests, only a few students increased their grades, she was one of them
    – Carolina
    Dec 11, 2022 at 2:53
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    The student was in a bad situation to start with. They're handed the answer key. Even if they notice that it's the answer key, they'll get nervous about it. "What do I do? Do I report it? But what if I report it and then they accuse me of cheating? Maybe it's less risky for me if I don't report it?". So student doesn't report it, at first. Then an hour later, teacher asks student: "Hey, I think I gave you the wrong sheet by mistake". Student then think "Oof, I'm saved, the teacher noticed that they made a mistake." [...]
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:49
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    But then teacher asks "Did you notice you had the answer sheet? If you did and didn't report it, then that's cheating". Of course at this point the student gets nervous again and lies "No, no, I didn't notice". And now you accuse the student of cheating and use the fact that they lied as a supporting argument. Congratulations. If you intentionally wanted to frame them, you couldn't have done better.
    – Stef
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:51
  • 3
    The teacher himself did not notice this was the answer key. Why do you immediately know for a fact the student noticed? The assumption is hostile to its core. Theres one person in this scenario responsible for misconduct.
    – user156207
    Dec 12, 2022 at 13:47
  • 3
    This answer completely ignores the fault at the person who caused the whole havoc in the first place: OP. Just blame everything on the student, ignore that OP sent the wrong sheet, and ignore that the invigilator handed the wrong thing to the student.
    – zabop
    Dec 12, 2022 at 13:53

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