Is it ethical to use WolframAlpha on a take-home exam for a math class? A couple qualifiers: this is a make-up exam where the original exam allowed for a scientific calculator but not a graphing/symbol-solving calculator.

The professor has made no other stipulations about the exam yet (no word on if it's the same rules as for regular exams or otherwise). He has simply just announced one will be given out.

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    Then it's too soon to tell. If the professor doesn't place any restrictions on allowed materials, then in principle it should be allowed. If he does, then those restrictions should be followed, as Fomite suggests below.
    – aeismail
    May 9, 2014 at 19:40
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    I would point out that asking something like this online is rather pointless, as the community consensus doesn't mean anything here. You really have to ask your professor.
    – eykanal
    May 9, 2014 at 20:21
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    @eykanal I feel like this is mostly generalizable advice. "Is it safe to stick my finger in this electrical socket" of course varies by socket, but some broad strokes advice is still relevant.
    – Fomite
    May 9, 2014 at 21:14
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    @Inquisitive: if the student asks for permission, the worst thing that can happen is that he will learn that he cannot use Wolfram alpha on the exam. If the student begs for forgiveness, the worst thing that can happen is that he will be prosecuted for academic dishonesty; especially if this is a repeat offense, there is a real risk that he will be kicked out of the university. So your advice does not seem very sound. In fact, you seem to be advising a student to commit likely academic dishonesty and hope for the best; I wish you wouldn't say things like that here. Feb 3, 2015 at 0:33
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    In my experience, "ethics" is not identically interpreted from college professor to college professor. — This is also true of "mathematics", but only some of us are correct.
    – JeffE
    Feb 4, 2015 at 4:31

5 Answers 5


Generally speaking, if a particular set of tools was permitted - in your case a scientific calculator but not a graphing calculator, I would assume those would be the only tools permitted.

This is especially true for tools, like Wolfram Alpha, that duplicate functionality of things that have been disallowed, like graphing calculators and calculators that can deal with symbolic notation.

  • That was along the lines of my thinking as well, especially with a class that can be practically done by just plugging stuff into WolframAlpha. When I took a similar class, we didn't even get to use calculators at all.
    – Erikster
    May 9, 2014 at 20:16

No, it is not ethical to do so.

In addition to the "spirit of the law" argument made by Fomite, you should consider that the computer running the WolframAlpha software is a "graphing/symbol-solving" calculator, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary's definition of calculator as "a usually electronic device for performing mathematical calculations," so not even the exam rules as written (the "letter of the law") would permit you to use it.

(I'm assuming that the make-up exam has the same rules regarding calculators as the regular exam did, which seems like a reasonable assumption until we see the make-up exam.)


I would say it depends on what kind of exam you're going to get. It's quite possible that the take-home exam will actually account for the possibility of students using online tools.


This is unlikely to be ethical on the student's part, as it would mean them bypassing the learning expected to form part of this assessment and so they may be gaining a qualification under false pretences.

If this qualification is then used to gain a job, for example, in many locales the end result could be considered a fraudulent activity.

It is likely that the university will also have wider guidance about plagiarism. Copying from an Internet source, without acknowledgement, which the use of WolframAlpha would represent, would be considered plagiarism.

Now, it may be that the take home assessment allows the use of the Internet. In that case, using, acknowledging and citing WolframAlpha may be acceptable. At that point, whether this was a good idea would depend on how the marking scheme was constructed. If the scheme only requires the answers (and possibly working) the student may be able to get full marks. If the exam (and marking scheme) is constructed to require the student to go beyond the information available online, then the raw WolframAlpha answers would not be enough.

In practice, if the assessment was set up to be so easily solvable in this way, it is unlikely to represent best practice. A wide body of literature exists for professors on how to set assessments that also positively promote academic integrity. It may be worth the professor actively engaging with these as part of their continual staff development.


Is it ethical for the professor to give a take-home exam with a set of instructions that probably can't be enforced by anyone? Is the professor going to police every student's taking of the exam by patrolling each and every domicile? The point is that in real life you have to consider and worry about what the other students are going to do. Trust me...it's generally not the "ethical" thing.

In all likelihood, the professor is going to create a very difficult take-home exam and then allow the students to have at it, no holds barred. This will eliminate the effects of the unavoidable tendency among students to be unethical.

Here's the crux of it. If you are going to break one of the professor's rules, don't get caught and never ever admit to it if you get accused. That goes for the rest of life as well because there will always be someone "holier than thou" who will try to hang you.

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    Most universities have honour codes, and most students abide by them. Perhaps it was not the best thing the professor could have done, but it doesn't make it lawless.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 4, 2015 at 0:15
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    tl; dr: just because the police isn't looking, it doesn't mean is legal.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 4, 2015 at 0:16
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    "Realpolitick" is a ridiculous thing to have to think about in a (well, ideally? in-principle?) scholarly context. Nevertheless, reality does intrude... Feb 4, 2015 at 1:09
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    -1. The question asks "is it ethical...?" and your response is essentially to say that the whole idea of ethics is a sham, and to (obliquely) advise the OP to cheat on his exam. Feb 4, 2015 at 1:41
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    Is it ethical for the professor to give a take-home exam with a set of instructions that probably can't be enforced by anyone?Yes, it is! It may not be practical or realistic, but it's certainly ethical.
    – JeffE
    Feb 4, 2015 at 4:28

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