It is clear that if I study for an exam in 2014, then it should be okay to look at previous exams from the previous semester of 2014, exams from 2013, 2012, etc.

First question: Is it wrong, however, to look at previous exams within the same semester?


Let's say there are two classes (9:30-10:30 MWF and 12-1:30 TTh) for a subject (S101). Say I am in the TTh class and I have a friend in the MWF class. My friend takes the S101 exam on Monday. I am to take the S101 exam on Tuesday.

Is it wrong for my friend and I to discuss the S101 exam after e takes the S101 exam and before I take the S101 exam?

Here is what I am thinking:

It should NOT be wrong because the S101 exam on Tuesday should be different from the S101 exam on Monday since professors should expect that students will discuss it among themselves. If the professor makes identical exams, then this is unfair to the MWF class who do not have as much information as the TTh class who easily obtain information from the ones in the MWF class who tell them.

See possibly related question.

Second question:

Some of my friends say it is cheating while others do not. Our "Code of Academic Integrity" handbook makes no mention of such behavior or perhaps I misread it.

If the CoAI in fact fails to mention it while doing such is wrong, can students be faulted for doing such?

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    This apparently varies a lot, but over here (Germany, university with STEM focus, CS department) we expect students to use old exams for preparation (as far as any are available). Basically, they should know what kind of problems they will be getting and use the larger pool of problems to train/test their skill. – Raphael Sep 1 '14 at 16:16
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    @Raphael, including exams given to different sections of the same class the day before? That's what this question is about. Exams from previous years are generally agreed to be fair game. – Nate Eldredge Sep 2 '14 at 13:17
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    @NateEldredge That's nothing we do (and I fail to come up with reasons why anyone would think that it's a good idea) but if we did, I think we would have to assume that students in round k have information from round k-1 and earlier. Even students talk. (As it is, we typically have one exam per course and reading period.) – Raphael Sep 2 '14 at 13:35
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    @Raphael "I think we would have to assume that students in round k have information from round k-1 and earlier. Even students talk" --> EXACTLY. – BCLC Apr 4 '15 at 5:40
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    @NateEldredge: "different sections of the same class" - In a way, yes: The only comparable situation I could think of is oral exams, which naturally exhibit more variation than written exams, but that can still feature a few "central" questions that the examiner will ask each student. When such exams are scheduled e.g. in consecutive 30 minute slots, it is fully expected that student n will possibly have used an opportunity to talk to student n + 2 (or later). I would even say it is considered due diligence for student n + 2 to actively seek that talk with student n (or earlier). – O. R. Mapper Nov 6 '16 at 12:34

A major principle of academic integrity is when in doubt, ask the professor. Academic integrity codes cannot cover all possible cases, and it's expected that all parties will act reasonably and request clarification when it is needed. You should not assume that "everything not explicitly forbidden is permitted", nor that "it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission." The answer to your second question is absolutely yes.

The case you describe in your first question is sufficiently questionable that I don't think you should proceed without explicitly checking. There is certainly the potential for this to be unfair to the Monday students who don't have the option of talking to anyone before taking the exam. If several of your friends consider that this may be cheating, that's a clear warning sign.

There are a few possibilities:

  1. The professor hasn't thought of this issue.

  2. The professor has thought of it, and doesn't want students to do it, but is afraid that mentioning it will only encourage students who wouldn't otherwise have thought of it.

  3. The professor has thought of it, but thinks it goes without saying that this is inappropriate.

  4. The professor has thought of it, and has taken other steps to ensure that students can discuss the exam without inequity (e.g. giving completely different exams).

In case 1, it would be inappropriate for you to take advantage of the professor's oversight. If you ask her about it, you might suggest that she make a policy and announce it explicitly.

Case 2 is perhaps a questionable decision on the professor's part, but in any case, by asking, you protect yourself from inadvertently running afoul of integrity rules. See also Case 3.

In Case 3, you also protect yourself by asking. Note that the university bodies that enforce academic integrity codes usually have no problem prosecuting students for doing things that they consider "obviously" inappropriate, even if no written rules explicitly forbid them. And since they are usually composed in large part of professors, they are likely to have a similar sense of what is "obvious" to your professor.

In case 4, when you ask, you'll be told to go right ahead.

My own practice in such cases is to write on the Monday exam "You may not discuss this exam with anyone, not even to say whether it was easy or hard, until Tuesday at 1:30". (In some cases I might weaken this to "anyone who has not yet taken it".) I do this even if the exams will be significantly different, partly because I feel that any differential in available information is a potential inequity, and partly so as not to tip my hand as to whether the exams will be similar or not. But as I said, you should not interpret the absence of such a warning as permission.

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    One way to mitigate damage, at the cost of more work, is to prepare three exams and release one of them chosen randomly before hand. – Davidmh Sep 1 '14 at 13:13
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    Nate, you seem to assume that the professor has such authority over the class? If the code of academic integrity does not say it is wrong but the professor says it is wrong, then it seems to be that the professor is superseding the the code? Furthermore, why is it that exams from previous years are fair game while exams from a few days ago are not? I mean, the professor could say exams from previous years are not fair game right? – BCLC Apr 4 '15 at 5:31
  • "I do this even if the exams will be significantly different, partly because I feel that any differential in available information is a potential inequity" --> Why not make an exam on the assumption that information WILL leak? If you don't do so, it seems you are not doing everything you can to make ensure equity. – BCLC Apr 4 '15 at 5:38
  • @BCLC: In my experience, generally the professor does have such authority. The academic integrity codes I've seen generally do not have an exhaustive list of forbidden conduct; they let each professor specify what is and isn't permitted in each class. It's entirely possible that a professor could prohibit the use of exams from previous years; I don't use this rule in the classes I teach, but I have taken classes where this was prohibited. – Nate Eldredge Apr 4 '15 at 17:04
  • @BCLC: As to "make exam on assumption that information will leak": It's a tradeoff. The best way to do that would be to make the exams very different, but this risks accidentally introducing inequity if one turns out to be significantly more difficult than the other (this is harder to avoid than you might think, at least for me). – Nate Eldredge Apr 4 '15 at 17:08

Do you have access to the exam in question? If you can "legally", e.g. download it from the subject's site, obtain it, then I see no reason why this would be wrong. On the other hand, you could have personal issues with it, i.e. personally consider it wrong, in which case you shouldn't look at it, even if you had the opportunity. I find this and similar kinds of dogmatically forced moral dilemmas in most cases very counterproductive, as I find it hard to believe that the staff would undermine the subject. So, if the staff is ok with it, i.e. makes it available and the CoAI makes no explicit mention of it, it isn't wrong.

Finally, I'd like to advise you not to impose obstacles on yourself where none should exist by overthinking it, it wastes your time and energy.

  • Thanks, but I don't quite get it. Does your answer then depend on whether or not the professor allows the students to keep the question sheets? i.e. If yes, then it's okay. If no, then it's not okay. It seems like the morality of doing such should be independent of whether or not the professor says so because the professor should make a different exam in the first place... – BCLC Sep 1 '14 at 10:52
  • @BCLC Following your logic, since companies should have controlled access to all sensitive information, if they do not then it must be OK to use it for your own purposes. If the professor does not make it available to you and uses reasonable safeguards (does not let students take the exam papers home) then you should do the honorable thing and not try to get around the system. – earthling Sep 1 '14 at 11:13
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    @earthling exactly, everything that falls not in the category of "getting around the system" is fine. – user3209815 Sep 1 '14 at 11:20
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    @BCLC yes, the whole point is that the answer to your question reduces to whatever the professor chooses. It may be their policy that he's making a different exam each time, and you should use previous exams as study material; and it may be their policy to reuse exam questions and request people to not look at previous exams - and in that case doing so would be wrong. Not preventing the ability to view the questions doesn't imply moral permission to view the questions. For example, having grading key (correct answers) on his desk in plain sight doesn't imply that you're allowed to use it. – Peteris Sep 1 '14 at 13:46
  • @earthling Right so if the professor allows the students to keep the exam question sheets, the students of the next class are allowed to see said sheets? – BCLC Apr 12 '16 at 6:36

If the prof. hasn't set any rules explicitly, I think it's safe to say you can use a past exam if and only if it has been graded and the grades have been released.


This was just a rule of thumb based on the premise that you won't see grades given until everyone has taken the exam. If your professor distributes grades before that then you need to wait until everyone has taken the exam.

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    I don't see the relevance of if it has been graded and the grades have been released – ff524 Sep 2 '14 at 10:20
  • @ff524: You really don't? The idea is that at that point students have found out the correct answers officially, and therefore have are allowed to talk about it. Before then, there is no guarantee that everyone has taken the exam, and thus the contents need to be kept confidential. I think it's a pretty handy rule of thumb. – user541686 Sep 2 '14 at 14:20
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    Grades =/= Answers. (Instructors can release grades without ever releasing correct answers) – ff524 Sep 2 '14 at 14:23
  • @ff524: It doesn't matter if they send out the official answers/solutions or not. If they never do that doesn't mean you can never talk about it, obviously. For one thing, when grades are released some students can tell what they missed just by looking at their grades. For another, the instructor isn't going to send out anyone's grade until everyone has taken the exam, so once you've seen your grade that's a signal that you can talk about it. – user541686 Sep 2 '14 at 14:24
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    the instructor isn't going to send out anyone's grade until everyone has taken the exam - why not? Some of mine have. – ff524 Sep 2 '14 at 14:25

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