I work at an educational institution where exam papers are considered protected. Leaking the exam question sheet and taking photocopies or camera shots is considered illegal and is strictly prohibited. I am not here to argue about this policy but to ask about the best ways to enforce it. Students have been taking pictures of exam papers during exam time, leaking them to subsequent sessions or posting them with solutions and often selling them to students of subsequent semesters. Though we don't use the same questions between semesters, they do exhibit some similarities at times for some courses.

Even with strict invigilation and requests not to bring cell phones to the exam room, there have been some incidents. Lockers are out of the question, as is collecting all cell phones before exam time. I would welcome any suggestions.

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    How about "if we see you handling a cell phone during the exam, you will be thrown out with a big F"? Of course, communicated clearly at the beginning of the course, the beginning of the exam and multiple times in between. If a phone starts ringing, the owner should just let it ring (and be pilloried by his classmates afterwards). Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 21:22
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    Why is collecting phones out of question?
    – adipro
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 0:07
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    Depending which country you are in, collecting phones could be seen as a violation of one's privacy. It's also a logistical nightmare if you have more than a handful of students. don't forget the liability of taking responsibility for the phones should anyone be miaclaimed, lost or stolen.
    – user479
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 2:56
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    If people can manage to take pictures of exam sheets, you should really worry about them using smartphones and similar to cheat for their own sake (and not for future students’), e.g., by communicating with an external helper or using a CAS in math-heavy fields, since this is much easier to conceal. It’s for the latter reason and not because of leaking exams that students are usually required to switch off any electronic device and keep it in a bag or similar which they cannot reach without drawing attention and must not reach unsupervised during the exam.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 14:07
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    @coburne: or, you know, your memory. Maybe I'm unusual, but when I left an exam I could sometimes remember some of what I'd been doing for the past 3 hours... Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 21:38

11 Answers 11


I'm going to be a bit harsh and say that your cause is doomed to fail if you want to solve the problem just by policing students.

What happened is that some factors contributed to atmosphere where it is considered advantageous to have a copy of past exams and your students are motivated enough to risk getting a copy. The tradition of having a monetary incentive makes things even worse.

At my previous university, I had opportunity to witness the evolution of hi-tech copying systems. At first, nobody was checking for cell-phones because they had bad cameras and weren't as popular, then cell-phone copying became popular. Then cell-phone detectors of various levels of sophistication came into use. After that, cheaters moved on to other devices.

Today, spy devices are cheap and commonly available and they are next logical step from cell-phone cameras. Are you going to start checking your student's watches next? How about buttons, glasses or even pens? What about say calculators (OK, that one in particular isn't the best example, but if there's demand, supply will come), whose use might even be allowed in some examinations? Are you going to have a spy-equipment expert on your staff to check what your students are using? What if they home-brew some equipment?

What if someone actually steals a physical copy of questions? That actually happened at my previous school. Guy (not a student at the school) came to a lecture hall where an examination was being conducted, waited for TAs to hand out the questions and then proceeded towards the exit with a question sheet, running over anyone who tried to stop him. There was even a recording from video-surveillance of him doing the deed and a wanted poster was placed at the school entrance, but it didn't do any good. That particular problem was solved by asking for IDs before handing out questions, but it shows the trend of escalation that can happen.

Next, what if a group of students organizes with the idea of memorizing questions in detail without any technological aids? There's literally no way of preventing that.

The more you press the anti-technological/anti-cheating offensive without taking away the incentive to cheat, the greater is the risk that you'll instead form a core of semi-professional cheaters who will have connections to the sources of appropriate cheating equipment and serve as a cadre which will train future generations and make problem even worse. For example, in my hometown, a sure way to detect presence of a higher education institution is the high concentration of flyers advertising rent and sales of spy equipment.

The only sure way (that I at least can think of) to solve the problem is to cut it at its source and take away the incentive to have the pictures of past exams. Try to take time to analyze all factors that could lead to such behavior and see if you can actually affect any of them in a meaningful way. Although questions aren't repeated, it's obvious from the response of students that seeing past exams is beneficial in some way. It's normal for questions to be similar, since there are probably some underlying concepts that students should learn and that knowledge needs to be tested. If the students are already aware of what they're going to find at the exam, then there isn't much need to see how exactly the sheet with questions looks like. If the exams is supposed to be a surprise, then you should reconsider if you're actually preparing your students properly for the exam.

If going in-depth when solving a problem such as this isn't real motive, then it would be best to take advice from Moriarty's answer. You'll be doing something "direct" and you probably won't challenge existing policies too much.

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    +1, Eliminating the motivation is really the only true way to police the students. Even better, you can make seeing past exams negatively affect exam score by making the question seem nearly exactly like a past exam question but so that the solution is completely different. If you are a teacher I highly recommend addressing motivation, you can always say to administrators that you do the best you can watching out for cell phones. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 0:03
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    How do you propose to minimize the incentive? The two ways I can think of is to (a) make the past examinations publicly available, or (b) if they don't already exist, write some special exemplar exams so that students have an idea of what they're in for.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 6:06
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    @Moriarty At my current school, both (a) and (b) are practiced. Some teachers also like to provide exemplar exams instead of providing past exams. Another variation used in some classes for mid-term exams is homework. For example, homework assignments carry 5%-10% (so are low risk) of the total score and are similar to content of mid-term exam. Those who do HW correctly, get the points and those who don't, get feedback before the exam, so they know where to improve. Of course, such approach takes more resources of the faculty and can be hard for large classes.
    – AndrejaKo
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 6:11
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    I agree that there is something wrong with the way you're teaching and conducting exams if seeing previous exam papers gives so much of an advantage. In my university previous exams could be downloaded from the course page. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 7:09
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    Apparently some people are looking out for the spy stuff during exams, too
    – ff524
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 13:32

This is not the answer you want but I have to get it out of my chest. (My background is engineering).

The best, most effective and easiest way to completely avoid students taking pictures of exams, selling them and making a profit out of that is:

Publish online all previous exams as an exercise book.

The questions in an exam and the exercises done before the exam should not be more different than an exam and a previous exam, actually old exams make for perfect exercises and practice.

The point is that studying the courses and making a few exams/exercises to practice should be easier and lead to greater success than checking the whole compilation of past exams, which should anyway lead to a good knowledge of the contents of the course (in a more tedious way than reading the theory and checking this with a few exams).

Personal story: When I was in high-school the homework would be much harder than the exams, anyone making the homework (optional) would get good qualifications and the qualifications would reflect actual good knowledge about the subject. In the university there were exercises, but they were explanatory and very basic, the questions in the exam were much harder. This made the exercises useless, students needed exams from previous years just to practice in answering the questions, and I hated that.

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    +100 if I could. This is the only sane solution. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 19:18
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    It's a great solution to someone's problem, it just doesn't answer the question. It seems pretty unlikely that the questioner can either change university policy, or refuse to even try to enforce the policy in place. So this isn't far from a "quit your job and get a proper one" answer. If it was the person in charge of the policy asking, on the other hand, they'd deserve a piece of the minds of everyone who works at or just attended a proper university with proper exams. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 21:40
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    I wonder if one can come up with an infinite supply of problems which vary significantly from each other. At some point you might run out and copy old problems from the supply. Now, if your supply is large and most problems differ from each other, then you are at an advantage. Students will have to either cram them all or learn how to solve all/most of them. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 6:22
  • @BoratSagdiyev the supply of problems may (in an extreme case) be composed of one single problem (or one type of problem), but if that was the case then the students should only learn in that course to solve that (type of) problem. The point of lessons and exercises is helping students to learn and the point of exams is checking that they have learned, the overlap in the topics and questions in both things should be very significant. We could consider that an exam is similar to a unit test, the set of exams should provide a good coverage of the course materials. (see next comment)
    – Trylks
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 8:54
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    +1 Publishing exams from previous semesters before class registration makes it easier for students to pick technical electives which are relevant to their future careers. I'm interesting is solving problem X, last semester's exam(s) from class Y has a similar problem. I bet I can learn to solve problems like X by taking class Y. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 22:16

Make the punishment for being caught well-known. Make every effort possible to track down the perpetrators, and make the offence and punishment publicly known.

You could set up one or two cheap cameras to take high-resolution photographs at set intervals, say every 15 seconds (making sure it's all kosher legally, and warning the students). I know that Canon compact cameras "hacked" with the CHDK software can do this. Don't use an SLR, they have noisy shutters. If you find out an exam has been leaked, you should be able to comb the archive and catch the perpetrator. Yes, it's an extreme solution -- but also a scare tactic.

Cell phone detectors are another possibility to catch offenders in the act, though by no means foolproof. Turning on airplane mode would render them useless.

Make offending harder by confiscating cell phones at the start of the exam. This won't stop pre-meditated offending, though -- you can't do pat-downs!

Yes, you claim this is out of the question. But I am truly surprised that this is not an institutional policy to collect all cell phones before an exam. Put this back into the question. My undergraduate institution also had a substantial fine (NZD $70, IIRC) for the owner of a cell phone that rang during the exam. It should go without saying that phones must be turned off.

Place a subtle random symbol somewhere on each exam paper, that is unique to each individual.

Your average none-too-bright cheater might not take much notice of a "⎋" symbol in the corner of a page. But, it would be a pain to implement for a large class and will only work until someone catches on.

  • There are more subtle watermarking techniques, e.g. some that work with a faint dot pattern across the whole page. One would have to experiment what kind survives mobile cameras. Of course such measures won't work indefinitely, but it stands to reason that one (occasional) very public case of a student being kicked out for misconduct lowers motivation to cheat (in this way) considerably. (FWIW, I personally don't think this policy is worth enforcing.)
    – Raphael
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 5:55
  • For starters, you could supply them with all the pens and pencils as per their choice. This way, one big source of bugs is eliminated. For the super stealthy bugs, how about fighting spy tech with spy tech, i.e counter surveillence and counter intel tools ? Camera dectors - brickhousesecurity.com/category/counter+surveillance/… Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 6:25

When designing the exam paper, place fewer items per page. To reduce paper waste, this can be achieved by using A5-size exam papers, created by putting two exam papers on a single sheet, then cutting the pages in half. This will not prevent students from taking photographs, but it will mean that each photo they take will be obtaining less information about your exam. The student will need to take their camera out more often to get the whole exam, increasing the chances that your proctors, who should be watching the room carefully, will catch them.

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    or print double sided but only have one question per page. If there are many questions you could have very small exam packets (note card sized) with one question per page. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 0:06

I had a professor that solved this problem nicely when I was in college. This is all based on what he did.

  1. Before the Final, tell the all the periods that everyone is getting the same test. And that all the grades will be scaled across all periods. If the second period class does better than the first period class, it will suck to be in the first period when the mean will be substantially higher.
  2. Repeat this warning on the day of the test.
  3. Hand out a substantially different test to the 2nd period students.

Yes, he lied to all the students, but he had watched the 2nd period Antennas class consistently score higher than the 1st period.

I've met people that had that second class, they studied our test exclusively and more than one of them lost 2 letter grades in their final class grade over it. Studying the other test exclusively wasn't a problem for this teacher after that.

His tests were deep in theory and derivation of where the equations come from, and Antennas is a very complicated subject. Might not work with all classes, but when word of this kind of apocalypse gets out, it will live in the history of the folklore for many years.

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    While I don't doubt this works, why is lying necessary? Wouldn't just giving the different test to the second period work the same? Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 3:34
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    The prevailing idea when I was in school is that the professors were lazy. There was a filing cabinet full of old tests in the basement run by the student IEEE association. Lots of people passed classes because the profs didn't even bother to change the test from year to year. This was a well publicized resource for students. Would you believe that the prof was going to make a new test in that case, or would you see it as an empty threat. If any other prof at the school had said he was making a different test, I wouldn't have believed it.
    – boatcoder
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 3:39
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    but that doesn't matter if he actually did change the test. Who cares what the students believed, it's the same result either way. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 3:42
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    @MHH: I'd assume the purpose (or at least the effect) of lying about the tests being the same would've been to amplify the difference between the two groups of 2nd-period students: those who'd take it as an invitation to cheat and only study the first test (and therefore fail) and those who'd consider doing so unethical, even if they had an opportunity to do so (see the comment about the filing cabinet full of old tests), and would thus study properly and pass. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 5:39
  • It seems this would result in drop/add from the 1st section to the others, until all sections are full but the 1st.
    – Paul
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 7:13

To prevent questions being copied from one test period to another is relatively "simple"—just make sure that classes taking the same test take it at the same time. (This requires some central planning of course, but should be something the university would in principle approve of.)

As for the use of cell phones, we take care of that by making sure that students can't access them during the exam. Because our protocols require a "gap row" between students taking the exam, that gives us an extra row of desks. We ask the students to put their extra materials in the gap rows. That way it's immediately obvious if students start reaching for the materials, because they have to stand up or visibly get out of their seat to access them.

In addition, it is announced that cell phones are not allowed material, and that any violation of the exam regulations results in an automatic failing grade. (Thus, any use of a cell phone gets you in trouble.)


Exam questions can be shuffled, or reparameterized (being careful to make both versions equally difficult) to obtain at least 2 versions of the same exam.

But don't mark them version A/B. Let the cheater try to figure that out.

Start playing this game early. Do it on quizzes and midterms.

This doesn't eliminate cheating, but may make it not worth the trouble.

If you think there might be spies within your department who are leaking the exams, give one version of the exam to the assistants to photocopy, and say nothing about an alternate version. Photocopy the alternate exam version yourself, and substitute at time of test. You won't be questioned about wasting trees, but if you are, say you thought there was an error in the test or that it didn't cover things with the correct weight, and you wanted to correct that.

It is a bit of work, but it is not 2x or 3x the work and if it seems like it is, rethink what to change. A side benefit is a larger pool of example questions is generated as time goes by.

Alternative: Make the exam open book, no time limit (i.e. this should take about 3 hours but you have all weekend if you need it), and the questions impossible, like what you would expect at Caltech or MIT. Contraindications: Requires working honor system; honor.

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    I've played the A/B game in the opposite direction, conspicuously marking the exams as "version A" and "version B" even though they were otherwise identical.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 7:31
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    It's amazing what open book exams can do to students. I had some midterm exams in two parts, a 24 hr preliminary computing part (open book, open notes, do-it-yourself, browse help files, do not talk to others, all numerical questions are unique for each student), sufficient for a grade of "C", and an in-class theory part necessary for a grade of "A" (the subject was statistics). I found that students would spend anywhere between 2 and 8 hours on the take-home part alone, and noted that they ended up working more on the exam that they would if they crammed in a "regular" way the night before.
    – StasK
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 18:57
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    About not marking them A/B: Do mark them A/B, just don't make it correlate with anything.
    – Veedrac
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 19:15
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    @JeffE: Another fun game is printing the same exam on two or more different colors of paper. Of course, this falls through if you post solutions or go over the answers in class, and have to admit that the same solutions apply to all "versions". Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 4:26
  • @JeffE I know at least two professors who mark versions A-E, but only have two versions, and the letters are just meaningless
    – anon
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 4:27

Do you have the option of conducting the exams centrally? At my institution, all final exams and major mid-semester exams were conducted at the same time for all students, under the supervision of external monitors.

Any person who was seen using a phone or unauthorised notes would be guilty of serious misconduct, and likely get zero for the exam at the very least. Similarly, no person was permitted to leave the room until all papers had been collected, so it wasn't possible for the question sheets to go walkabout.

Unfortunately, that will be difficult if there's not institutional support for it. (Although I'm constantly amazed to find out that it's not the norm elsewhere.)

What I have seen work in the past, though, is to use subtly different question sheets for different students. On numerical exams it's easy enough to change a few numbers, but people who intend to copy answers out probably won't notice the difference.

Of course, that won't help if there's later sessions of the same exam, but honestly that's not something that should be happening at university level anyway. No technical solution is going to be able to stop students from talking.

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    even if the OP did, this does not address the between years issue. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 3:35
  • although I agree, one central exam for the course is the most efficient. No need for spending money on external proctors. Just make all teachers/TAs proctor the large room at once. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 3:39
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    @MHH - I'm a little puzzled by the between years issue, to be honest. Isn't it the norm to release past papers? All the universities around here do it as a matter of policy.
    – sapi
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 4:04

I am not here to argue about this policy but to ask about the best ways to enforce it.

Like some of the other excellent answers, I am going to argue about this policy as I do not see a good way to enforce it.

Like many other institutions (entertainment industry, telegraph ) you are clinging to an old model in the face of overwhelming technology and a client base (students) that simply don't care about your rules (copying exams is not illegal: your institution is not the government and cannot enact laws).

Focusing on cellphones will accomplish nothing. I have a high-res camera in my laptop that is smaller than a shirt button. While I personally cannot hide it under my hairline, many 20 year olds can. See other answers (or amazon.com) for more places to hide a camera.

Your end goal seems to be to reduce cheating, meaning knowing the answer to question 17 before going into the test. You reduce cheating by making the contents of question 17 irrelevant because everyone gets a different question 17.

Any decent-size institution will have a large question bank built up over the years. Digitize it if you haven't done so already, and get the IT department to make a system that prints out 200 different tests with questions drawn at random from the database. Randomize the order. If you want to be really fancy, have the system randomize values if that is appropriate. This is not a complex process, I would probably quote you delivery within a week excluding the questions themselves.

Administration will probably whine about running costs, but there are none. Printing used to cost more than copying but today it's exactly the same machine.

So, 200 students each getting a different set of 50 questions drawn from 1000 in a random order with random values -> copying any particular test is of no value to others and the problem largely goes away.

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    This would open you up to accusations of unfair testing practices, though - some students would get a more difficult test than others.
    – David Z
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 0:47
  • You can still randomize elements of the problems if you are in a field that permits this. Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 4:24
  • @David-Z Question in the system should be graded for difficulty, the system can easily grab 5xA, 20xB, 20xC level questions. Randomizing numbers shouldn't make the math any harder, and any professor who cannot create 20 questions of equivalent difficulty should be shown the door.
    – peter
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 3:14
  • If you also record the overall mark of the students that passed each question, and put some new questions into each exam that are ignored by the grading system (don't tell the student witch questions these are). Then using basic stats skill, you can auto generates lots of exams that are about as hard as each other.
    – Ian
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 11:49
  • I love the possibility this opens up to get some good meta data on test problems - which questions consistently stump students, which ones have a strong correlation of correct/incorrect answers to a particular teacher, etc. Data is beautiful.
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 23:58

In many jurisdictions student's answers are his/her intellectual property and he/she is legally entitled to copy and reproduce them. You need to consult with local lawyer ASAP, because your institution may actually be asking you to prevent students from exercising their rights.

(I do understand that students transfers some of their rights to the institution. But depending on local laws, some rights cannot be transferred nor relinquished, like the right to make a copy for personal use. There is also a possibility that university might have no rights at all to student's work - until he/she submits it.)

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    This isn't about ownership of student answers, it's about conduct during an exam, which the school is certainly allowed to regulate. Besides, the OP says the problem is about exam question sheets.
    – ff524
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 9:30
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    @ff524 That's my point - some aspects of the conduct might not be in school legal powers to regulate.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 9:36
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    Just as you can tell students "I won't accept your exam if you walk out in middle of the exam to make a photocopy of your paper," you can tell students "I won't accept your exam if you take out your phone in middle of the exam to take a photo". These in no way infringe on students' intellectual property rights.
    – ff524
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 9:41
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    @ff524 I think this is already done, OP said "taking photocopies or camera shots is considered illegal and is strictly prohibited" so I assume some form of punishment is involved. The question is about what other steps to take, and IMHO some of them are illegal.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 9:47

If a student submits the same essay for two courses they get into big trouble.

Therefore why are you allowing your staff to cheat the system and not do the work they are paid to do by using the same exam for more than one presentation of the course?

The solution is to remove any member of your staff that are too lazy to do the job they are paid to do.

And then publish all past exams, as is done for every exam I have taken in the UK, for some reason the UK does not allow the same lazy and cheating by it’s university staff.

  • While there is something true about the essential thought of this answer, classifying it as cheating is out of scale in my opinion.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 13:15
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    Why do u assume it is an essay exam. It could be engineering, physics, maths etc Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 13:55

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