For some of my more difficult and early morning tests, I will buy coffee and bring it with me into the exam. My hope is that the caffeine will help me be fully alert, think more clearly, and write answers more quickly.

However, I know that drinking caffeine puts me in a slightly different state of mind physiologically than my classmates. Is it fair for me to drink caffeinated beverages at tests? If it isn't, is it merely something rude that would be nice for me to stop, or a form of mild cheating that I would be wise to admit to and discuss with my professors?

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    Caffeine is a socially accepted drug without excessively bad collateral effects. Oct 31, 2014 at 8:58
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    "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems" (Rényi), and this quote can be generalized to many fields of science. So I think you are ok. Oct 31, 2014 at 12:31
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    @JeffE Mine explicitly allows "colourless liquids" and forbids everything else. At some point, I really must exploit this by drinking vodka in seminars. Oct 31, 2014 at 13:21
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    @DavidRicherby I know of a person that drank a bottle of vodka in the Quantum Field Theory exam. She got maximum grade, and sloshed.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 31, 2014 at 13:55
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    To be honest, I'm more concerned about your chances of succeeding in the real world if you feel guilty for something like drinking a cup of coffee. It's a world of cut-throats out there and you're going to get eaten alive if you don't toughen up. Oct 31, 2014 at 15:05

12 Answers 12


I think the salient point in your question can be more explicitly stated as:

What determines which advantages are fair and which are unfair to have during an exam?

Going to the extreme for fair advantages: Is not being sick on the exam day cheating? Is not being hungry cheating? Is not staying up the night before cheating? Is attending every lecture and study session fair? Is studying for the exam fair? Is being more intelligent than your classmates fair? Is always marking the correct answer fair? Is lucking out and having exam question be on something you happen to be very experienced with (database question for a seasoned database programmer) fair?

All of these are obviously fine. Yet consider the other extreme:

Is smoking during the exam fair? Is taking Adderall fair? Is doing cocaine before the exam fair? Is hacking the instructor's computer to get answers fair? Is manipulating the TA to trick them into revealing answers to you fair? Is bringing a cheatsheet or phone with you fair? Is making someone else take the test with you fair?

These aren't qualitatively different from the previous group. Sure, some are distinguished by being illegal (hacking) but many are accepted ways of improving performance in all but exam contexts (having reference materials at hand, looking up things you don't know online, collaborating with peers).

I posit to resolve this as follows: Exams are not a meritocracy. The point isn't to enforce some sort of egalitarian principle or to "let the best man win". The exam is part of the course, and the aim of the course is to make students proficient with the course material. The exam exists as a target for the students to aim for as they are independently studying and preparing.

If you agree to this point, then the question of what is fair becomes trivial: The instructor allows as "fair" any behavior that they deem conducive to learning.

For example, studying for days on end may be unfair to students who don't have as much time to study, but encouraging students to study benefits learning, so instructors deem it fair and sanction it.

On the other hand, stealing exam questions beforehand is an extremely effective way to do "well" on the exam, but not only do you learn nothing this way, if you get caught and punished there may be severe consequences for your future career. Theft of questions is a mechanism by which the exam is enabled to act as a perverse incentive. The instructor, therefore, tries to remedy this by specifically banning this mechanism. That such banned mechanism are called "unfair" (as if to imply some egalitarian or justicial purpose) is, I think, an artifact of language.

Coming back to your question:

Is it fair for me to drink caffeine during tests?

Let's accept the premise that drinking coffee increases your performance (I am skeptical of this).

Is this conducive to the learning process? There is a tiny positive effect - your brain performing better during the exam means you will be more likely to experience those moments of really grasping a concept when you are forced to use it during the exam.

Does it facilitate a perverse incentive? Dubious.

  • If the caffeine helps mental performance that much, students will probably start drinking it during courses or when they study, which means their learning will be enhanced.
  • If they drink only during the exam, their score will be slightly inflated compared to other students. But the effect is tiny and self-damping: The more effective coffee proves to be, the more students will start drinking it, and everyone will end up on equal footing anyway.
  • The smell of coffee may slightly disadvantage other students, which has a very small positive effect on your grade if the exam is graded on a curve. However, the effect is tiny, and if any student feels otherwise, they can always complain and ask you to remove the offending beverage.

Taken together, it seems like there's a few positive and a few negative effects, but all are very small. The only thing being meaningfully incentivized is the business of the coffee shop - but this does not detract from the learning process.

On the other hand, some people enjoy drinking coffee, it makes them feel more comfortable in the exam, and if it lets them believe they have control over their performance and have "stacked the deck" in their own favor, the psychological motivation may contribute to a more positive attitude towards the course in general. Altogether, when you are trying to teach someone something, it probably works better if they are physically comfortable rather than not. So I don't think it should be considered unfair or banned, unless students are very clumsy and constantly spill the coffee, litter by leaving empty cups around, or otherwise go about it in an unacceptable manner.

As an addendum, with more "hardcore" performance enhancing drugs, this may not be the case. For example, instructors would most likely be against taking drugs like Adderall (although this is very difficult to enforce) because it would incentivize the abuse of these drugs. Adderall abuse has serious harmful consequences, unlike caffeine abuse which is not commonly thought to be harmful.


That would be totally acceptable. Remember, you are also in a totally different state if you went to the toilet right before the exam. If you drank a litre of water in the morning. If you ate something for breakfast that happens to contain lots of short-chained carbohydrates, providing lots of energy for your brain.

You have to draw the line somewere and coffee is definitely acceptable, if not expected.

Edit: As several comments suggest, your other question about rudeness because of smelling beverages: that's different from course to course, and you will probably have to employ some degree of common sense there. People are usually not bothered by coffee smell as opposed to french fries or the sounds of eating potato crisps. If in doubt, just ask your TA or fellow students before going to the exam.

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    Exactly, you have to draw the line somewhere. Do universities normally have any "academic doping" regulations? Whilst coffee is considered acceptable, other drugs might not be if the advantage they provide is significant enough. You could even argue that caffeine shouldn't be allowed to minimize advantage over non-drinkers. Oct 31, 2014 at 7:42
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    You say that it would be totally acceptable to drink coffee in an exam by analogy with going to the toilet, drinking water and eating breakfast before the exam. I don't see how that follows. There are many things that are acceptable before the exam (listening to loud music, reading the textbook, chatting with friends, ...) that are not at all acceptable in the exam. Oct 31, 2014 at 11:27
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    I understand your arguments but the question was not about what is allowed during an exam but what is ethically/socially acceptable esp. regarding fairness/rudeness. You are right, but in this case, it doesn't even matter (or change your state of mind) whether you drink your cup of coffee before or during the exam.
    – Jan
    Oct 31, 2014 at 11:59
  • @StrangeLoop The problem is that a lot of people taking say ADD medication for academic purposes can actually go to a doctor to get a diagnosis and prescription. How do you then say that people taking legally prescribed medication should abstain from using it? Even if their motives for getting the diagnosis are suspect. And illegally obtained medication is more serious and should not be left to an academic policy.
    – kleineg
    Oct 31, 2014 at 12:35
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    @Superbest The consumption of coffee is a perfectly normal, accepted part of western society to the extent that asking "Is it cheating to drink coffee before an exam?" is a question at the same level as "Is it cheating to eat bread before an exam?" The only meaningful question is based on the distinction between "during an exam" and "before an exam." Oct 31, 2014 at 23:51

You might find that your university policy prohibits any beverages except water during exams. Coffee has a strong aroma that can be distracting, especially to the less-awake students who might then crave coffee.

Even if coffee had no aroma, it would still be distracting. A cup of tea or coffee is usually pretty identifiable by sight. If someone walks into my office with a mug of green tea, I usually want a mug of tea myself long before I can smell it. "That guy 20m away is drinking some unidentified hot beverage. Now I want coffee!"

Sure, the consumption of coffee beforehand should be fair and allowed in any country where it's a legal and commonly consumed drug - chances are many classmates drink it too. You still have to have learned the material in order for the coffee to help you remember it. It's just not fair to be distracting to others during a test.

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    Why the downvote(s)? I can't see where my answer is somehow incorrect or controversial...
    – Moriarty
    Oct 31, 2014 at 9:13
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    Damn you now I want tea and I'm out of milk Oct 31, 2014 at 11:12
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    Clearly, somebody disagreed with you. (It wasn't me.) This is a subjective topic, not a "correct"/"incorrect" topic. Oct 31, 2014 at 11:12
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    @Moriarty Polite, constructive but not obligatory. Don't take it personally that somebody disagreed with you. Maybe they didn't have a constructive explanation of why they disagreed. Maybe they already explained their disagreement by posting an answer putting forward their own point of view. Maybe they just clicked the wrong arrow or misunderstood what you wrote and can't change their vote because it was more than a few minutes ago. Oct 31, 2014 at 12:31
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    @DavidRicherby I'm not offended at all. This is the internet! Everyone is free to disagree with me. I'm asking why because I prefer constructive criticism to silent criticism.
    – Moriarty
    Oct 31, 2014 at 12:41

Working in computer science and looking at the consume of caffeinated beverages in the department I'm wondering: Is it possible to work without? Seriously, you are legally allowed to buy this stuff and as long as it is not forbidden by any rule of your university it is totally fine to do so (edit: As long as you fit 'social norms'). Some people will eat dextrose/glucose or do other things they think will help them. Everybody has his/her own ritual I guess.

Taking other drugs to be able to learn better is a whole different story but here I don't see any problem as long as your university allows it. So it is neither rude nor any form of cheating.

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    In a sense, he has a good point - caffeine provides measurable cognitive benefits. In summary, it is quite an effective nootropic drug. So, a person drinking coffee during an exam will have a measurable advantage over an otherwise equal student not drinking coffee. This is more of a discussion for the cogsci.SE site, however. Oct 31, 2014 at 7:35
  • I get that but as Jan has written as answer there are so many factors which result in the state of your mind, not just caffeine. So either you have to control all of that, which in my opinion doesn't make any sense, or you are just fine with everybody being able to use legal drugs to get better results.
    – doomoor
    Oct 31, 2014 at 7:42
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    Yes, there are a myriad of factors involved in your cognitive performance on an exam, that is of course important to note. To play devil's advocate a bit (I do not actually support banning coffee during exams!): Why should you not control those factors that are easily controllable? Not allowing people to bring coffee into the exam room is a pretty simple way of levelling the playing field. A more extreme example would be someone who arrives with a brain stimulation device, which has been shown to give quite impressive cognitive benefits.They're not practically portable yet, but they're legal Oct 31, 2014 at 7:51
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    There are probably something important to be considered here: the laws should always somewhat reflect what society deems to be allowed, but lag behind the current "real" consensus. So only using legality as basis for whether coffee is allowed is a bit questionable. Now the coffee has such a long cultural tradition that only very people would disagree on that it should be allowed (given that no coffee smells can distract the other students), it is probably OK. The brain stimulation device is questionable, as it is likely not to be contained in the current societal consensus on what it fair.
    – DCTLib
    Oct 31, 2014 at 9:01
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    I agree that drinking caffeine is fine, though not necessarily in the actual exam as proposed in the question. However, "as long as it is not forbidden by any rule of your university it is totally fine to do so" is a very bad rule of thumb. For example, the university probably doesn't have a rule saying you have to shower on the morning of an exam but it would not be "totally fine" to turn up to an exam filthy and stinking. Oct 31, 2014 at 11:29

In my classes, students bring coffee to my exams all the time. When I have to give early morning exams, I often bring a jug of coffee and paper cups, and offer cups of coffee to the students for free, as a way to help their scores.

There are deep philosophical questions about whether it's even possible to "cheat" using drugs. It comes down to whether one views "cheating" as defined by the rules of the institution, or as an ethical violation that goes beyond the written rules.

Most actual cheating policies ban sharing or receiving information during the exam, but make no mention of performance-enhancing drugs (e.g. Adderall). Some universities do have policies about misusing prescription drugs, e.g. the policy at Duke University. But the policies at my university make no mention of performance-enhancing drugs. Although possessing prescription drugs without a prescription may be somewhat illegal, it would not be a violation of any academic "cheating" rules at my school.

I doubt any school has rules against caffeine, however. Note that the Duke statement only refers to prescription drugs -- that is surely intentional. In the U.S., apart from a few religious groups, drinking coffee is perfectly acceptable as a way to improve concentration.

Your school is probably more likely to worry about the mess it would make if you spill your coffee than about the benefit you receive by drinking it. So, unless someone asks you to stop, you shouldn't worry about it.

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    That's a great solution to the "distraction" problem (except for the rare person who hates coffee but loves tea). A very nice gesture (when the class is small enough for it to be practical).
    – Moriarty
    Oct 31, 2014 at 12:34
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    I wish I had teachers like that. Bringing coffee to exams will boost your status among students like crazy.
    – Mast
    Oct 31, 2014 at 16:24

One of my students admitted to me that he took a harmless and side-effect free sugar pill before a stressful exam in order to benefit from the placebo effect, which placed him in a different state of mind to his cohort, unfairly enhancing his cognitive capabilities. Needless to say, he was summarily dismissed.

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    For those who didn't notice, this answer is intended as sarcasm. Oct 31, 2014 at 13:30
  • One may argue that sugar can have a positive cognitive impact. Food for the brain.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 31, 2014 at 16:31
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    +1 because the placebo effect probably helped him more than caffeine ever will.
    – Prime
    Nov 1, 2014 at 15:26

I am a caffeine abstainer. I don't drink coffee because I can't stand it. The caffeine in the coffee might give you an advantage over me, but it would be the same advantage in the workplace (where I also don't drink coffee). So I think it is fair.

The day I took a standardized test that helped determine my academic career, the weather was really hot. Everyone showed up to the test center wearing summer clothing. I was the only one to bring a jacket in my bag. The test center cranked up the A/C and I put my jacket on. Was my comfort cheating?

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    "Was my comfort cheating?" - not quite a fair analogy, in the sense that on a standardized test you probably aren't only competing against the people in the room with you but against many other people taking the same test at different times. So it's easy to say that your comfort was not an unfair advantage unless it is part of the standardized test procedure that it should be taken whilst uncomfortable :-) The other students might have a case that they faced an unfair and avoidable disadvantage, though, as if e.g. the exam proctors chose to spend the exam throwing baseballs at their heads. Nov 2, 2014 at 22:49
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    +1 for "in the work place, I will/will not have coffee." Though on the other hand, in the workplace I can always refer to my notes, and bring in notes is traditionally considered cheating. Nov 3, 2014 at 2:29

At the university I went there where plastic cups available at the entrance and if you wanted coffee or tea you could take a cup and put it on your desk if you wanted coffee and upside down on your desk if you wanted tea. Then when the test started a coffee lady would walk by and fill your cup if you had one. This leads me to think that it is acceptable (if not commonplace) to have coffee in the exam.


This would only be unethical if you'd be gaining an advantage that is unavailable to other students. For example, if coffee would be prohibited, but you'd use it despite of that, or if it were too expensive for others to obtain. But as long as caffeine is socially acceptable, readily available for everybody and allowed at the exams, it's a fair choice for every body to use it or not.


My short answer is Yes. You can drink as much coffee as you want.

I've studied in 4 universities and had many exams in my academic life. I've systematically experimented different ways to boost my performance in exams. I've experimented with sugar-rich snacks, coffee, prayers, meditation, and a few more. I know my experiments would not stand scientific scrutiny and you should take them with a grain of salt but they gave me an insight into what actually matters.

The difference coffee made in my exams was insignificant. I can assert the same thing about effects of chocolate, sugary drinks, meditation, and prayer. The only thing that seemed to be directly correlated to my performance was amount of practice before exam. Whenever I locked myself in the library and studied the course material hard, I did well in the exams regardless of anything else. I also did poorly in easy exams when I didn't prepare.

So drink coffee with no guilt because you are not manipulating your performance.



Just openly bring your coffee mug and you'll see on the faces of the staff and students if it's a good idea or not. Simple as that.

*It's not unfair because (1) anyone can do it and (2) it's not a competition.

*It's not cheating if it's allowed, and the effects are surely minimal anyway.

Why would fairness enter the equation at all? You will be graded according to your performance, not relative to others. It's not a competition, it's an individual appraisal. Besides, anyone is free to drink coffee if they want to.

In any case, I don't think coffee or any other drug taken during the exam would have much of an effect.

  • If fairness doesn't enter the equation at all, why not just play loud music outside all the other candidates' rooms the night before the exam? After all, you're only graded according to your own performance; nobody else matters. Oct 31, 2014 at 23:54
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    That illustrates pretty well what I'm talking about. Disturbing the other exam takers doesn't help you, it's not unfair, it's just obnoxious and rude.
    – user15896
    Nov 1, 2014 at 7:55

When there are thousands of ways to be proficient at any given subject, hundreds of ways to learn and execute the skills required to be successful at any given subject, and a million ways to fail... Is it fair to measure a student's proficiency with only a narrow sliver of a window into said student's ability provided by a paper test in the first place?

I say absolutely not; And limiting the student's scope of success to what one person (or few people) think is the 'correct' application of a concept is setting education back hundreds of years, and is entirely unfair to the students and society at large.

That being said, do what you have to do to get out of that trap so you can move on to the real world where you're going to be applying those skills and concepts as a matter of survival-- where you're free to drink as much coffee as you want, and use as many calculators and references as you need to get the job done. Don't ignore the lessons! Just get through the tests without worrying about fairness- the world isn't a fair place anyway, and you're the only one responsible for being good at what you do; Not the education system; So who cares if it's fair that you drink coffee? As long as you pass your tests and enter the professional world as a reliable quality producer of goods and services.

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