Please read the bold text before answering.

A colleague has shown me that one of his students has posted exam questions with answers , and prior assignments with answers to a commercial web site intended to communicate such material to other students. Sadly, I am the chair of the university's Honor Council and the question of whether these actions rise to the level of academic misconduct has landed in my lap.

Also sadly, I am ill-equipped to have an opinion. Almost every assignment I've given in the last ten years is available on the public web and I return assignments with critiques. I give pen-and-paper tests and return them to the students, then go over the questions and give the correct answers in class. There are thousands of copies of my old exams around, many of them with answers that were either correct to begin with or corrected post facto. I am sure there are fat binders in fraternity and sorority houses with that material.

I can get all legalistic and ask, "Well... did you tell him not to do that?" In fact, I am in the process of finding that out. I am pretty sure that widespread commercial distribution of questions with answers is bad. My concern is whether contributing this information to such a web site rises to the level of academic misconduct.

So, here is a question that has an answer rather than leading to discussion: Are there universities that prohibit students from contributing material created by the faculty, such as exams or assignments, to commercial web sites the purpose of which is supplying that material to other students? If so, how is that prohibition worded and how is it enforced?

September 10: This has been edited by several people, and several people have added tags. I've just edited it myself to remove the word "cheaters" from the description of the commercial web sites involved in this case, and which are in general the subject of the question. I've also deleted most of the tags, leaving only "ethics" and "policy."

November 15: Thanks for the responses. After a certain amount of back and forth, my institution has adopted the following (voluntary) syllabus language: "Some lecture slides, notes, or exercises used in this course may be the property of the textbook publisher or other third parties. All other course material, including but not limited to slides developed by the instructor(s), the syllabus, assignments, course notes, course recordings (whether audio or video) and examinations or quizzes are the property of the University or of the individual instructor who developed them. Students are free to use this material for study and learning, and for discussion with others, including those who may not be in this class, unless the instructor imposes more stringent requirements. Republishing or redistributing this material, including uploading it to web sites or linking to it through services like iTunes, violates the rights of the copyright holder and is prohibited. There are civil and criminal penalties for copyright violation. Publishing or redistributing this material in a way that might give others an unfair advantage in this or future courses may subject you to penalties for academic misconduct." [emphasis in the original]

December 8, 2017: I just received a request from someone at another institution to use the language above. Although it was adopted by my institution, I wrote it, and I now contribute it to the public domain. Use it as-is or modified, with no need to attribute it or otherwise give credit.

  • 34
    What is cheating? Preparing to a test based on previous tests on the same subject? Than all the TOEFL and GRE textbooks are cheating books, from Kaplan to Princeton Review. If a student prepares from a similar test, it is not cheating, it is called studying. If the professor gives out the same test word-by-word every year, the blame is primarily on him (he is lazy) and not on the students who studied from old tests. It is only cheating if the people studied answers of the test that they suppose to take (e.g. someone take 1 day later because of illness or such).
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 16:51
  • 5
    @Greg the text and title are perfectly clear.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:32
  • 12
    Copyright infringement does not depend on making a profit, and in the U.S. you could use a DMCA take-down notice to get copyrighted materials removed from the web site, but this is a different issue than whether posting them was academic misconduct. I think you could make a reasonable case that violating copyright doesn't need a special university rule to be punishable by the university, but I imagine your colleague would like this punished more severely than copyright infringement might by itself be treated (and that just returns us to the question of what sort of academic misconduct it is). Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 17:51
  • 5
    @Moriarty Sorry, it is my bad English then. A post called "Is it a breach of academic conduct..?" with filled with thesis sentences like "My concern is whether contributing to them goes beyond bad to rise to the level of academic misconduct" is clearly not asking about if it is an academic misconduct, right?
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 0:16
  • 6
    What, exactly, makes a website a "cheaters' web sites"? You refer to this several times; I honestly don't know what you mean. Is a "cheaters' web site" any website that disseminates exams or assignments, or is there something else about them that makes them "cheaters' sites"? The link you gave in another comment lists sites from which students plagiarize content, which doesn't seem to be what you're referring to.
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 5:44

11 Answers 11


Since you asked for norms at other schools, here is one data point: UC Berkeley has an explicit policy on this subject. At UC Berkeley, instructors own the copyright on their course materials and are allowed to specify the policy on dissemination. In additional, dissemination for a commercial purpose is prohibited without express consent of the instructor. If instructors specify a policy, students who violate this policy can be punished for academic misconduct -- and this is stated explicitly in the UC Berkeley policies.

In more detail, UC Berkeley's policy on Course Note-Taking and Materials states:

Individual instructors retain copyrights to [...] class materials they create. Instructors may permit, limit, or prohibit the [..] further distribution of class materials created by an instructor (class notes, recordings, exams, and class materials, collectively referred to as “Class Materials”). Instructors are encouraged to clearly communicate their preferences on recording and sharing Class Materials in their syllabi. [...]

Unauthorized use of Class Materials may subject an individual to legal proceedings brought by the instructor as well as disciplinary and legal proceedings by the University. [...]

Thus, if an instructor states in the syllabus that dissemination of exams is not allowed, then a student who violates that restriction may be disciplined by the University for academic misconduct. On the other hand, if the instructor does not state any policy, and the students shares the exam with others (for non-commercial purposes), there is no violation of University academic misconduct rules, though there might well be a violation of copyright law.

Also, UC Berkeley's Code of Student Conduct has a section that deals specifically with this subject. It states:

102.23 Course Materials

Selling, preparing, or distributing for any commercial purpose course lecture notes or video or audio recordings of any course unless authorized by the University in advance and explicitly permitted by the course instructor in writing. The unauthorized sale or commercial distribution of course notes or recordings by a student is a violation of these Policies whether or not it was the student or someone else who prepared the notes or recordings.

Copying for any commercial purpose handouts, readers or other course materials provided by an instructor as part of a University of California course unless authorized by the University in advance and explicitly permitted by the course instructor or the copyright holder in writing (if the instructor is not the copyright holder).

Exams count as course materials and thus are covered by this policy.

Personal opinion: I think sites like CourseHero are scummy, sleazy sites: the worst of the worst. They require students to submit additional course materials to view the ones that are on record there, and they make no attempt to validate that students have permission to share those course materials; indeed, they have every incentive not to validate whether the student has authorization, and every incentive to encourage unauthorized uploading. Thus, their business model is based upon encouraging students to share stuff they might not have permission to -- and they profit off of this. I find this business practice reprehensible and worth of condemnation.

However... it is a separate question whether student use of those sites constitutes academic misconduct. Personally, I would say that students have a due process right to be informed of their responsibilities, and to only be published for actions that are a clear violation of published policies. Therefore, I believe it is the instructors' responsibility to establish clear policies -- either on a course-by-course basis, on course syllabi, or else by adopting clear policies at the campus level. In the absence of such policies, I would be very hesitant to punish students who shared exams with others. That does not feel fair to me.

  • 4
    You can call a test part of a course material. Legally, you still should properly copyright it every single time, and it will explicitly applicable only to the material. However answers to assignments are not part of the course material, neither created by the university faculty, so copyright cannot be extended to it.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 0:12
  • 3
    @Greg: "you still should properly copyright it" ehm, no, it is already copyrighted. If you plan to file an official lawsuit for copyright infringement you will need to register it officially however, but this can be when you feel like sueing. Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 13:41
  • @Greg's point about answers stands. What if I student uploads just their own answers with the questions omitted, but where it's obvious from the answers roughly what questions were being asked? Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 20:36
  • 1
    ... ofc this can only apply to the extent that the question is a significant creative work. One might argue that "What were the main causes of the Boer War?", while admittedly not a brilliant question, is also not copyrightable. The full exam as a compilation might be copyrightable even if the individual questions aren't. Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 21:35
  • 2
    Legal or moral, whatever, point of view I find questionable practice that people try to extend control over even answers to their questions, however original it is (generally not that much). Seriously, any kind of copyright-ish approach is absolute, i.e. no one can write a story about Batman without being derivative work, even if he hasn't heard about Batman or lives in Africa. A similar approach would argue that no one can talk about 4, because it is answer to "2+2=?" and Ms. Smith has already copyrighted that one. That approach sound even more disproportional in case of essay questions.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 0:57

First define the problem. "It feels wrong" isn't really an actionable reason right? Is the problem that the student published the exam with answers? Is the problem that the student removed the exam with answers when she/he was expected to return it to the instructor? Is the problem that the student published the exam with answers on a 'cheater' website?

To narrow this down a bit it might be useful to ask yourself and the professor: "Would your feelings be different if the student published the exam with answers on their own website?" As a student if an instructor returned an exam to me and I felt the information was worthwhile(aka not a 'multiple choice') I certainly published my exams, projects and some assignments on my personal website. I used this as a resource when I was tutoring students in the course and found it very useful.

If the student 'stole' the exam, by which I mean they took the exam and their answers when the instructor was expecting the exam to be returned, then you are in a different ballpark. Then you have something actionable but...

Let's step back a moment to something you yourself said: "I am sure there are fat binders in fraternity and sorority houses with that material."

This is absolutely the case and no matter what you or any of the other professors does this will continue to be the case. The question then becomes - is it fair to non-Greek students who don't have access to these binders? What do you gain by trying to prevent the 'publication' of exams?

I've heard of a couple of instructors who reuse the same exam year after year. I understand the rigors of teaching, I understand it can be hard to come up with new questions/new assignments/new exams every term. But, that being said, using the same exam over and over is just plain laziness. Even changing the order of the questions bypasses that issue - and if students are memorizing the 'correct' answer to a general question(instead of a multiple choice value or a number value) then aren't they essentially studying?

In the end the question needs to be asked - WHY is it important than exams and their answers not be published? There are only a few answers to that and most of them are going to be fairly flimsy.

A bit of an Anecdote here about this. One of the most challenging instructors/courses during my undergraduate career was with an instructor that had every single exam he had given(since he started keeping copies in the 1980s) put up on his website. A handful had partially worked out answers / solutions. Students didn't even bother looking for the 'cheating' websites for these exams because they were on his website(sans answers of course) and because the exams showed that, although they were great for studying and practice, memorizing past exams was going to be completely worthless. If I were a professor at the moment I would probably take example from this - I would put all the exams(and probably homeworks) online. Drown them in information. All the sudden there's little value in going to a 'cheater' website about it.


It turns out that many years ago I created a website to publish exams for my undergrad school: http://www.annales-exam.com (in French).

It contains many computer science exams of classes in my undergrad school.

Ethically: I created this website because I was very annoyed by the fact that some students had access to the previous exams (e.g. the fat binders in the frats mentioned in the question), while other less connected, less GPA-focused, etc., did not. The website aimed at breaking this iniquitous situation.

Legally: Publishing exams of classes in my undergrad school is legal (by jurisprudence) due the status of my school (CNAM). Here is what the law in France says :

Le droit d’auteur protège toutes les créations originales. Mais on admet traditionnellement qu’aucun droit d’auteur ne peut être invoqué sur les textes législatifs et réglementaires, les rapports officiels ou les décisions de justice. La question de la protection des sujets d’examen par le droit d’auteur a été examinée par la jurisprudence. Le Tribunal de grande instance de Paris le 9 novembre 1988 et la Cour d’appel de Paris le 13 juin 1991 ont refusé la protection par le droit d’auteur à des Annales officielles du concours de l’Internat en médecine. Les sujets des épreuves, en permettant de connaître la pratique suivie, complètent et précisent les textes normatifs définissant les épreuves et sont donc des documents officiels dont la reproduction et la diffusion sont libres. L’accès aux sujets d’examen ne saurait être restreint par l’application des droits de propriété littéraire. Il faut donc considérer les sujets d’examen organisé par l’État comme des actes officiels et, à ce titre, non protégés par le droit d’auteur. Ce ne sont pas des œuvres protégées.

As a side story, the only feedback I received from the administrative folks in school was a legal threat due to the fact I had used the school logo on the website:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: X [Cnam]
Date: 2013-02-25 8:46 GMT-05:00
Subject: Utilisation abusive de la marque Cnam
To: [email protected]

Bonjour, Sur votre site http://www.annales-exam.com, vous faites, sans autorisation, une utilisation abusive de l'ancien logo du Cnam, que vous avez, de plus, déformé. Pour toutes ces raisons, je vous demande de retirer au plus vite cette image, avant que le contentieux soit transmis à notre service juridique.


Conservatoire national des arts et métiers
Direction de la communication Communication Paris Cédex 03

No professor complained to me.

  • 1
    To respond to Frank Dernoncourt's answer- that is a fundamentally different context. He has the permission of the author, himself. This makes copyright moot. Also, the original question is clearly in the area of differences from one professor to the next. If a professor allows the original student's actions, then it's not an academic violation. If the university's written policy prohibits the student's actions or the professor has a written policy, often included in the syllabus prohibiting it, then it is an academic violation. Note: the policy need not specifically mention posting on "cheater
    – nickalh
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 6:17
  • 1
    @nickalh I'm not sure what your point is. Whether sharing is allowed by law or by school policy isn't half as relevant to the question as the fact that the policy actually exists, and it's pretty interesting that it's national law. For non-Francophones, here's a (vaguely intelligible) Google translate version of Franck's link to the legistlation.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 6:49

Nahkki's answer hits the nail on the head. However, there is another possible angle from which to consider this, which is the utilitarian perspective.

It sounds like this instructor did not have a clear policy, and your school does not have a clear policy, so the most that is going to come out of this is that they might now write clear policies. Suppose those policies said that it was an honor code violation to publish exam questions. What would be the outcome?

The outcome would be that there would be absolutely no effect on the prevalence of sharing exam questions, and no effect on the fairness of exams, i.e., no reduction in the unfair advantage gained by people who obtain old exam questions. Sites like Course Hero already allow people to contribute exam questions anonymously, so the contributor can't be punished. Students already have the option of waiting until they graduate before they post these materials online. Fraternities already have plausible deniability of the contents of the file cabinets sitting in their basements.

With a small amount of effort, instructors can make it a hassle for students to gain an unfair advantage through these means. The problem arises because some instructors are too lazy to expend this minimal effort. Changing policies will have no effect on this outcome.


@D.W. highlighted Berkeley's policy which is a decent attempt at stopping people from reselling an instructors course materials. However, even with clear cut legal verbiage the only real approach is to monitor those sites and issue DMCA takedown notices as required.

This will lead to an incredible amount of lost time, possibly more than the material is worth.

Rather than play wack-a-mole, the better policy here would be for instructors to stop simply reissuing the exact same test from one year to the next. Instead, do things like change the question order. If multiple choice is used, substitute new options and rearrange them. If written answers are required, change the questions subtly such that the prior year answers are completely wrong.

With that said, the best course would be to ignore the actions of this student because the instructor and the university failed to give them clear guidelines ahead of time; and instead have a discussion with your department on how best to eliminate problems where a student just memorizes "#14 is A, #15 is C".

If you are changing the tests each year, then review of prior year tests will only aid in the students understanding of types of questions you will be asking and therefore be limited to acting as a study guide as opposed to a one stop shop. In this scenario there is no reason not to allow students to upload the tests..

  • 2
    The question isn't about using a web site; it is about policies concerning posting a faculty member's work. Concerning keeping course material up to date, the fact that the program counter holds the address of the next instruction is fundamental to how von Neumann architecture computers work and hasn't changed in 60+ years. My courses have new material every term, but not at the expense of fundamental concepts.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 1:44
  • You need to re-read the question. An editor has helpfully bolded the key part.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 20:26
  • @BobBrown: Thank you for updating your question, I've modified my response.
    – NotMe
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 14:54
  • No, you can impose such a large penalty for sharing material to allow another student to get ahead that no one will risk it.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 23:43
  • 1
    @StrongBad: And how would you propose to identify the student in question? Assuming the student wasn't so dumb as to leave their name on a scanned copy that was uploaded. Regardless, you're missing the core here which is to decide if stopping this behavior improves the educational process at all. I don't think it does.
    – NotMe
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 15:21

Did the student sign a confidentiality policy before enrolling? If not, then no.

As for opinions on the matter... (yes, mine is smelly, too)

Let's consider a few angles: Does it help other students cheat? Should it help other students cheat? Does it help other students learn? Should your students be helping other students learn?

Cheating is a funny subject. If your instructors are permitted to re-use prior year tests then you have more serious problems than the eternal issue of students trying to cheat. That some students will try to cheat is simply a part of human nature. It is impossible to control whether the urge exists, only whether a cursory assessment of difficulty against risk against payoff indicates that the attempt is worth it. If your instructors reuse prior year testing material consider that the assessment criteria is seriously weighted against honest students and (in my opinion, more importantly) your testing material is not getting any better.

On the subject of students learning, which is supposed to be the point, after all... I would circumvent the issue by encouraging students to discuss class material openly and often, even to the point of posting prior material. If they are so stupid as to post a key-value list of [question-number]:[answer] for tests, this is their own waste of time and not your problem. If, on the other hand, they are discussing their subject with other students or (especially) with real-world practitioners someplace like stackexchange (hey!) then you can expect that your students actually care about their subject, and if they care, even a little, then passing the class will be a happy side effect of having done some genuine learning in and out of class. This is the best possible outcome an educator could hope for, unless, of course, the educator in question is actually a professional bureaucrat.

Ultimately I think the only way to encourage students to choose to actually commit themselves to study beyond just trying to get some paper after negotiating the academic bureaucracy is to foster an environment of active discussion. Any move toward censure is wrong-minded (if the RIAA is effectively powerless here, you certainly are) and will only serve to create an "us VS them" mentality in the students. Then the students are pouring their personal efforts into learning how to connive (a useful skill, indeed, but not the one intended!), and not into learning whatever the actual subject is. Don't let arbitrary notions of "honor" distract from concrete study.

  • 1
    If your instructors are permitted to re-use prior year tests then you have more serious problems than the eternal issue of students trying to cheat — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 6:19

As an instructor myself, I realize one aspect of studying involves learning material which may or may not be on the test. Unless students are willing to take 10 page tests every time, there is some expectation or need for students to learn material which is not directly tested. Of course well written tests will cover the majority of the material the student is expected to learn and sometimes on a specific topic there is only one or two very good relevant questions.

Most likely the student's actions indirectly violated the idea that work is original from the student. If the written policy includes a line about helping others cheat, then it would be a direct violation. If the written policy includes a line about needing to report cheaters, then he failed to turn himself in. In a justice system, consistency is essential- what has been done in similar cases by the university?

I worked for an online tutoring company whose official policy- we will not answer homework questions, but we could work similar questions, give general direction, correct mistakes, give ideas/hints etc.

In my personal opinion, posting a previous test without the instructors direct permission is cheating. Academic misconduct can mean several different things depending on the consequences. If the university's written policy on this aspect is unclear, some minor consequences instinctively speed up would seem appropriate to me. Perhaps, drop the student one letter grade in the course?

A relevant analogy- A. people who see a yellow light & instinctively speed up vs. B. people who see a yellow light & instinctively slow down. A. people are far more likely to get tickets or into accidents. It's a question of do you want to live as close to the legal line as possible? Also, going forward the policy needs to make a clear distinction between acceptable behavior & cheating in this area. If a student plays in that gray area, don't be surprised if consequences occur.

Having a clear written policy on the topic agreeable to all professors is important. Or better yet give the professors the freedom to set their own policy. Ensure each professor is comfortable with their policy regarding groupwork, copying answers, kinds & level of help one can give or receive, etc.

For example, I have seen a student google questions, find someone who had posted his questions & answers verbatim & simply copy the website's answers into his work. The website he used had recently posted his questions verbatim so they most likely came from another student in his online class. This student had no idea how to do the problems himself. On the public school level, expecting teachers to create different assignments for every student every time is ludicrous.

Also, to give different students different questions raises the question- is a 95 this semester worth the same as a 95 from two years ago? 70 now vs. 70 from five years ago?

  • 5
    I don't believe seeing past exams is cheating. When studying, it helps to know the style of questions, so I can practice those most. Will I need to quote definitions? Do I have to study the proofs of theorems? Or should I focus on solving exercises quickly? If seeing past exams is cheating, what about people retaking the subject? Or people that had the same instructor in a similar subject? Or if you have a friend with good memory that took the exam the year before? Lastly, in some universities, past exams are officially posted by the institution.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 7:53
  • 1
    The original question said "I'm also pretty sure that cheaters' web sites are bad". Without more information from the author- relevant policies, is group work encouraged or discouraged by the professor, to what degree, was it posted before assignments were turned in, etc. we're just guessing.
    – nickalh
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 8:14
  • 2
    You said: posting a previous test without the instructors direct permission is cheating. I don't think it is (or it ought be).
    – Davidmh
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 8:25
  • Without a written policy on the matter dropping the student's grade by a letter is problematic on several levels. First if you tell the student you are dropping it because they posted a test on a 'cheating' site and you do not have a policy in place - be prepared for a battle. Possibly even a legal one. If you(generic of course) drop the student's grade and do not tell them why then it is unethical. If there is no policy in place and no warning it is decidedly inappropriate to drop student's grades due to a 'grey areay'.
    – Nahkki
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 12:28
  • DavidMH, your comments are opinion with no substantiation. This website specifically discourages that. Please back up your opinion with authoritative sources if you'd like them to remain part of the discussion.
    – nickalh
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 1:30

A case study: This sort of website was, in its own twisted way, beneficial in revealing to me just how widespread was the practice (almost entirely confined to my international students) of posting scans of my past years' tests so that students could see what sort of format I preferred, and which of the topics I tended to ask more often than others (some were inevitable; we had discussed them for a full week, so it was clear I was highly emphasizing that topic). There were occasional instances in which the questions were identical, in the form of those core definitions that formed the core concepts of the chapter. (Not worth many points, of course, since there was no requirement to "work" anything to find a "solution," just demonstrate memory of the same formula that would then be used to work the next problem.)

However, when those same students began miraculously began regurgitating not merely the answer to the wrong question, but the answer as I would often specifically phrase/format it (when correcting those old tests), I became aware of just how little those students really knew. All they had learned how to do was transcribe their memory's recollection of the "general shape" (typically mangled almost beyond recognition) of the sentences that comprised an answer to "the problem in the upper left corner of page 3" (as if the new question were asking anything remotely related). Asked about it, they would typically go for guileless subterfuge efforts like "Well, I studied a YouTube video about it, so that's probably why my answer is slightly different from yours." I was highly irritated, but had to admit that they had exposed a potential weakness, one I should have been expecting from Greek-heavy universities of the past: test-file archives (just a new digital version). I have made it my business to try and stay just different enough every year to be able to throw off such efforts while still remaining true to those concepts that I wanted to be able to focus on year after year.

But then....

I noticed a student on the final exam spouting an absurdly irrelevant answer to one question, and recognized elements of it as coming from a question on the previous year's final. A search of such "cheater-friendly" websites under my name revealed scans/photos of the entire final exam. Since our university policy is to keep students from being able to take home their final exams after inspecting them (for the sake of those who do ask a "canned" final, I think), it should have been impossible for any such record to even exist; the secretarial staff have well-understood instructions to prevent the students from keeping, copying, or photographing them if they stop by to view them while we're away for an inter-term holiday.

But I was lucky; even with the name redacted, finding a matching test was trivial. The final exam in question was a "special edition" taken by only one student, who had a family emergency requiring him to depart the country a week early. Digging through the archives to find the proof, I confronted both the student who had used the "source material" to study with as well as the original student himself, now a year removed and well on his way to graduating. The latter protested his innocence, claiming that someone must have done this terrible thing without his knowledge. (He had gotten an A that year.) "Look," he pointed out, "it's not even graded yet, so I couldn't have possibly smuggled a copy of it out of the department office."

"You're right," I said, noticing the lack of my own handwriting for the first time. "That means the photo was made the day you took the test, while it was still in your possession." Things got worse for him from there.

Aesop's lesson: you'd be amazed at how little clues can add up to a finding of massive fraud or collusion. I take even the smallest suspicious coincidence seriously.

  • A fascinating case-study, thanks for posting that! Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 18:51

In my country, no policy about disseminating exam material is enforced (or at least, I've never heard it happen or even threatened to be punished during my college years). As far as faculty-created study material goes, it didn't seem to happen much, but it was also not enforced, if there even was some kind of policy. In many cases, students would photocopy books (or the institution/professor would recommend doing so, or do it themselves) instead of getting them through distributors (which used to be funded by the government but seems to not be anymore :( - it was usually how faculty distributed their own study books though, instead of having to publish them - some uploaded them to the college database as well).

Throughout my college life, me and all my fellow students used old exams, answers to old exams and other notes and materials (which we often found online through institution-related but unofficial forums) to study. Often, we tried to memorize the answers due to time constraints (more time to study harder material) but usually, it was because the professor was dreadfully bad at teaching, the textbook was terrible, the examination questions where unclear or the teacher was inconsistent in grading (there where multiple occasions where there where multiple, mutually exclusive answers taken to be correct and even then inconsistently, so you never knew what, according to the teacher, the "correct" answer was, so you just placed your bet on previous behavior).

Let me stress that this study environment was well known by all faculty members. Some would attempt to actually punish using old exams to study and memorizing by subtly changing the questions or through other underhanded means (such as grading the question differently). However, there was never any action taken based on institution policy. Overall, teachers that where not useless would work around this; they either allowed it to happen, leveraging it to reduce stress in students and increase attendance and interest, or put work into both teaching properly and constructing exams that where consistent in format but always different enough in content that studying and comprehension where necessary (and where loved by all, even when we failed those exams).

Your question ends in a clear request for how other institutions handle this. However, it is also tagged with ethics, cheating and policy. Pedantry aside, I think it is understandable when faced with such a question that so many of us feel strongly about how such policy is made, since it has a deep influence on what environment students live in. In short, it seems that any policy that prevents students from exchanging information in a university, no matter what information that is (in relation to subjects at least, if not entirely), seems to contradict the purpose of a university and reduces transparency. It would train students to think backwards. If cheating is a problem, then make it impossible by crafting exams properly. My entire experience and that of others that has been relayed to me, clearly indicates that only the incompetence of educators makes cheating necessary and desirable.

I agree with most of what others have said. I'd like to end by saying, the question of how to handle "cheating" students feels a lot like DRM. Like DRM, it punishes those who don't break it - in this case, those who choose to follow institution policy will be at a disadvantage and/or will be forced to face the dilemma of snitching on other students and gaining a terrible reputation that will follow them throughout their university life. Don't do this to them. Bad students don't graduate - period. If a student is lazy or can't deal with the material in general, they won't make it. Extremely few students I knew that where terrible graduated - and those that did, managed to do it by brute-force memorization on at least some subjects.

Trying to track down the material will only push it underground. If the colleague in question feels that this dissemination of his exam material could invalidate his exams, he/she is a fool to believe it only happened now that they discovered it and is probably lazy or bad at creating exams. They may be a fine teacher, but there is no excuse for being so bad that a leaked exam invalidates your exam process.

You yourself do not do this. You distribute your material and seem to do fine. Remember, this will create a precedent and policy. Do you really want to place this gun in the hands of future faculty members so they can punish students for their own failings and bad performance?

also, retroactively applying a rule that wasn't known to the perpetrator at the time is inherently immoral - you should ask the colleague if they told the students, if they didn't want that to happen

edit: I should add that I helped fellow students cheat many times. This was usually by telling them the answers during the exam. I never cheated. I used to finish my exams a lot sooner than them and would spend the rest of the period helping them with the material at the library. This was usually for weeks at a time, 3-4 times a year. I never regretted it and I did it because, to see others struggle without a chance, to be able to help and not do so, is also deeply immoral. Don't punish those that try to help fellow students manage. Many of those that disseminate material will be this sort of person - the lazy cheaters do not care about helping others.

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    @PeteL.Clark Your comparison with a marathon is beside the point. Enrolling in a university is not a competition, nor should it be. Also, it isn't as equal as one may like to think it is. For example, a lot of students would come from technical highschools, while the rest of us where from standard highschools - the teachers would expect everyone to know about calculus, yet those students had never done any. Isn't that unfair? Is it moral to not help fellow students because of some perverse moral standard of worth? I am not a faculty member, I was a student.
    – mechalynx
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 17:16
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    @PeteL.Clark My country is Greece, if you have to know, although I find it to be irrelevant to my arguments and my experience. Also, no matter what I claim, it can't be proven or disproven - this is effectively all opinion, no matter what the OP intended. I didn't state that I "never cheated" because I wanted to avoid being considered a cheater - I stated it because I wanted to emphasize that those that distribute exam questions and answers and other study material are rarely, if ever, those who use it to "cheat" as you put it.
    – mechalynx
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 17:20
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    @PeteL.Clark as a final point, my institution did not have any official policy on this matter, nor did any faculty member. I assume that in an institution with stricter culture, there would be incentive to not express "cheating-friendly" perspectives, as some may interpret an opinion that doesn't penalize everything as "sympathizing", possibly resulting in ostracizing and loss of employment. However, actions matter more than perceived sentiment or words - how many faculty members have you see explicitly punish this behavior or admit to discovering it? That is the proper metric I think.
    – mechalynx
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 17:23
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    "Enrolling in a university is not a competition, nor should it be." On the contrary, the university experience is inherently competitive, from the admission process to the grades and coursework done to the later effect on one's own career. If you think that it shouldn't be: okay, perhaps you'd be interested in a different educational system. What you describe as immoral behavior could only make sense if you find the entire university system immoral. There is no contradiction there, but one wonders why you participate in activities that you find so systemically immoral. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 18:21
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    @PeteL.Clark Verifiability is of course, important. However, how do you verify a policy that isn't officially stated, nor discussed (even amongst faculty) yet is widely practiced as "the way things are". Since this can't be verified by examining officially stated policy, in my case at least, what I claim is unverifiable. I stated my opinion to provide an extra point of view. The question is inherently one of ethics and policy despite the OPs intention. In fact, if discussion of morality was to be avoided, the OP should have only included the bold paragraph as it was complete enough.
    – mechalynx
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 18:31

Some of the other answers have alluded or mentioned this fact but it is important enough that it bears foregrounding with an answer. Whether or not your university has rules about this in its guidelines for student conduct, you are almost certainly violating copyright by redistributing course material without permission and there are civil and criminal penalties for doing so.

Copyright gives the exclusive right of distribution to the authors of creative works in almost every country on earth. As a result, copyright will almost always apply to tests, homework assignments, syllabuses, slides, and other course materials. The owners, depending on the situation, may be the institution, the professor, or a third party that has licensed content. In any case, unless you have a license to redistribute course material, you cannot do so without putting yourself at risk of civil, and possibly even criminal, penalties.


There is no legitimate reason for selling past exams. It seems a pretty clear case of collusion with the intent of giving another student an unfair advantage, albeit indirectly. The question, in my mind, is does your university policy allow for this particular type of misconduct to be penalised. The policy at the University of Nottingham is sufficiently vague:

2.1 The following is a non-exhaustive list of examples of academic misconduct which will be considered under these Regulations

Basically this means students cannot claim that we didn't tell them they couldn't do something. We reuse exams and essay and have had a number of cases in the past that we have followed up on. We have had enough of these cases that we have discussed the hypothetical situations to help us clarify our internal and somewhat private policy. The case we dread is when the materials are posted to a personal website to advertise the quality of the student's academic performance with appropriate disclaimers that the work should not be reused. This seems to us to be a legitimate reason to post the material and therefore probably not misconduct.

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    Question: Why is looking over prior year tests academic misconduct? One reason I can think of for explicitly allowing this is that the student can gain insight as to what it is the instructor actually considers to be important. Regarding "vague" policies, I find those to be evil. Why not just write: "Academic misconduct can be defined, or redefined, at any point by any instructor for any reason". It has the same effect which is to state that you don't know how to handle education.
    – NotMe
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 15:31
  • @ChrisLively I didn't say looking at past exams was academic misconduct. It may or may not be allowed depending on the class/teacher. What I said was there is no legitimate reason to sell a past exam.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 15:37
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    @StrongBad Such as studying the course material prior to showing up? How should that be defined, and what is the point of such a definition? Is the point to learn the subject or to learn how to negotiate administrative obstacles presented by the course rules? This is too broad to be acceptable IMO, and further, it gives the instructors an easy excuse to avoid improving test material over time.
    – zxq9
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 15:55
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    @StrongBad If the RIAA can't prevent the copying of entire movies, it is unreasonable to expect an academic institution will be able to stop the proliferation of course material. An unenforceable law is no law. Enforcement will drive the practice underground and that will give the instructors a dangerous, false perception of student reality. This is how things are in 2014 where students know how to communicate and aggregate. Distinguishing between disseminating and consuming only penalizes the technically incompetent.
    – zxq9
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 16:10
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    @StrongBad No. Punishment is the idea that must be separated from this collection of thoughts, not dissemination and consumption. Punishment and enforcement will only create an insurgent society of the students, one that will be completely invisible to the instructors. If this isn't obvious already, this discussion is pointless, as your basic assumptions are not in line with practical reality. Explain how you will "know who did it" once they move to Tor or peer networking unless the tests are changed regularly? And how changing the tests regularly won't obviate the entire issue (my point).
    – zxq9
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 22:34

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