This happened to me in my 2nd year of grad school, in a STEM field. As many do, our professor gave the class the last year's final, to give us an idea of what areas to study and what to expect, etc, which he obviously isn't required to do and is very nice of him.

Now, the reason he gives us last year's one is because, at the end of the year, he returns your test, so he knows that most of the ones floating around are the ones from last year.

However, as many older professors (in my experience, but maybe younger ones too) do, he also reuses exams from previous years (not even concepts or the same problems with different parameters, just literal copies), since the material and curriculum of this course is very well established/so old that nothing needs to change. I don't blame him for this; if you teach the same course on and off over 20 years, coming up with good exam questions over and over again would be annoying.

Now, what my question regards is, I realized a student in my class had past tests from not just the last time the class was taught, but literally the past 5 years. I don't know how to say this part as diplomatically as possible, but this student came from a country that about nearly half our program comes from. The other half (aside a few outliers) is from the U.S. I don't mention this to demonize or stereotype anyone; I believe it's relevant because the students from this country (in my program) are almost uniformly very tight knit, and seem to often share resources between each other and across years more than is normal amongst everyone else. The relevance is that one group has resources that others don't.

So my question is, is this ethical (for the student to do, I mean) ?

Just to put some relevant ideas/arguments/details down:

  • Assume (and I believe it was the case) that in the scenario I've written, the rest of the students (the ones who don't have the past tests) don't know about the students that have the past tests, so they can't do something simple like ask them.
  • I think many will argue that if the professor didn't want this happening, he wouldn't reuse tests, or at least as exactly as he does. However, I don't think this changes the ethics of the situation: the point is, in this situation, you can get away with it, but is it right?
  • I imagine the professor would not approve of this (actually, recently, another professor said in regards to his final "I know there are past ones floating around, please don't look at them", so at least he disapproved), but an argument could also be made for the possibility of him approving: It's not as though having the previous tests just makes it a given that you'll ace it, it's still a lot of work to figure out all the problems such that you can reliably do them later (he doesn't give back the answers to the tests, only the tests themselves). I could imagine a professor being okay with students getting a better grade on the final if it meant they learned more and worked to get it.
  • This professor never actually said not to, so the student wasn't explicitly disobeying anyone.
  • This question really has two subquestions, but they're very similar: a) Would it be ethical if everyone had these pasts tests (that the professor did not know about/give)? And b), Is it ethical if only a subset of the class has these tests. Obviously if you say no to (a) you say no to (b), but you might feel as though the concept of using past tests isn't wrong, but some students having an unfair advantage is.
  • 33
    Not quite an answer but: the instructor who knows that previous years' exams -- with questions that are being repeated verbatim! -- are out there and whose only reaction to that is a weak sauce admonition to the students to stay away from these materials is all but abetting any unethical behavior that the students may be led into. Making new exam materials every time you teach a class is indeed time-consuming: I have always regarded it as one of the main things you need to spend time on when repeatedly teaching a course. Evading this responsibility seems lazy or worse. Apr 3, 2015 at 3:20
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    Our "students from other countries" (which was 95% of the students, including myself) would scan and e-mail around the past exams and/or share them in our Facebook group. I've never seen an ethical problem with that, because if someone studies by preparing for the past 10 years of exams, they're probably well enough prepared to pass the current exam even if it is not a verbatim copy.
    – gerrit
    Apr 3, 2015 at 14:12
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    This is exactly why I publish all my old exams myself.
    – JeffE
    Apr 3, 2015 at 14:31
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    @user87166: Slight wording nitpick: You may be paying the university for training that gives you a chance to reach a degree. I would find it highly questionable if an institution actually promised a (meaningful) degree in exchange for payment. Apr 4, 2015 at 10:47
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    Here in the UK, doing a lot of past papers is considered diligent study. Re "The relevance is that one group has resources that others don't" - really? If you've asked and no-one will give you copies then what's stopping you from being resourceful and getting the past papers the way they did originally (e.g. from the library)? You say that other students don't know that past papers exist but isn't this obvious? Or if not, what's stopping you from telling them?
    – A E
    Apr 4, 2015 at 16:51

9 Answers 9


Perhaps this is a bit of a genuine ethical issue: should one use "game advantages" one might find, that one knows other "players" will not have? Of course, these questions completely ignore issues of the subject itself, learning, scholarship, etc. But, yes, there are advantages to "good test scores". That game is primarily (contrived) an adversarial one between "teacher" and "student", and any information obtained "legally" by the students is... "legal". It's a game!

In that model, other students may suffer "on the curve". Not nice, true, but, ...

I think the real answer is that, especially internet-wise, any policy that presumes secrecy of information is misguided. Sounds innocent, but, as this test case shows, there are "victims".

My sincere conclusion, and basis for my own actions for 15+ years, is that everything should be made public. If someone can assimilate good solutions to all the exams for the last 20 years, ... then why shouldn't they pass the current exam? :)

(So, the kids who cram from the last few exams are merely being rational, assuming they didn't have to break-and-enter.)

The unasked question about whether the behavior of the "teacher" is inadvertently unfair is the interesting one. That is, lacking intent, can one be unfair? Yes, it turns out, by negligence...

  • 9
    Interesting answer, but I'm not sure you needed scare quotes around teacher and student.
    – Tim
    Apr 2, 2015 at 23:47
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    @Tim, not so much "scare", but a possibly older-timey style of "X" meaning "not really X but trying to pass itself off as, etc." That is, a teacher who doesn't so much teach as "test", and is an adversary, or is at best not helpful, is not a genuine teacher, or is a bad one. Likewise, a student who doesn't want to study but wants to game the system is not... in my world... a genuine student, etc. So, actually, I stand by the "disclaimer-quotes". Apr 3, 2015 at 0:22
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    @paulgarrett "X" meaning "not really X but trying to pass itself off as, etc." That's pretty much the definition of scare quotes. Apr 3, 2015 at 9:22
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    @starsplusplus, ah, ok, usage... but I don't understand "scare", then, ... Nevermind... Apr 3, 2015 at 13:14
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    If the question is simply "is it ethical to use advantages?", then I fear the answer is "yes". Should/will other people try to discourage you from using whatever advantage you have? Of course! Should you be altruistic and share (and thus obliterate) your advantage? Sure, especially if you're confident that other people will appreciate, remember, and return the favor. Oops, fail. Thus, my point is that the whole scenario is anti-social, insofar as it creates needless and irrelevant competition among students. Against each other, when they should exert effort "against" the subject itself. Apr 3, 2015 at 22:21

TLDR; If you need to hide it from your professor, it's probably misconduct.

Does your University have any sort of Honor Code, published standards of Academic Integrity, Student Agreement, or other such thing that students must agree to be bound by? If so, this is a great place to look, and I'll share an item from my present University which notes that the following are violations of the code of Academic Integrity:

  • seeks to claim credit for the work or efforts of another without authorization or citation;
  • uses unauthorized materials or fabricated data in any academic exercise;

Similarly, it also notes about collaboration between students:

Collaboration You should be aware that different instructors have different expectations about working with others. If you wish to consult with or work with another student on an assignment and you are not sure of the course rules, ask the instructor. It is each student’s responsibility to seek information about the boundaries of appropriately working with others on assignments, papers, experiments or examinations. If no rules concerning working with others have been discussed in a course, the student must assume that working with others writing a paper, completing homework, or taking an exam is not permitted. [emphasis mine]

In my University this would, therefore, explicitly be considered academic misconduct and punished as cheating.

However, I offer a much simpler version than all this written stuff.

My Personal Academic Ethical Gold Standard

Would you feel comfortable going to the professor and telling them what you were doing (such as studying an old test from a previous semester) and asking questions about it?

Why, or why not? If you would have any urge at all to refrain from talking to the professor or think that you should hide your behavior...DING DING DING DING you're probably doing something wrong!

Specific Advice

If I were you my first preference, having witnessed what seems to be wide-spread academic misconduct, is to talk with the professor (if I am on friendly terms at least) and ask them if they are aware that there is a good possibility that a sizable portion of the class has access to 5+ years of past tests from this class? If they were OK with it, I'd go ahead and ask that if you could would you be allowed to use them and pass them on to everyone else in the class too, or heck, for that matter can you just get a copy from him? It hardly seems fair that some people have access to special materials that others don't, after all.

If the professor objects then he can do something about it. If I were him I'd personally keep the test and add a twist to many of the questions to shift them into requiring different answers, so those who studied the unethical material would have their own change blindness and "study" behavior lead them astray, but that's just me wanting people to learn lessons for themselves.

Now if you fear such a discussion with your professor, well I think it's unfortunate there isn't a better relationship between the students and instructors, but I can't fault you for being personally cautious or not wanting to get ostracized by other students. I would however point you to the existence of anonymous/free email accounts - a simple no-names-named email alerting the professor to the widespread availability of past tests to some but not all students should be sufficient to put the ball back in his court.

Now if the professor doesn't want to do anything and just lets a large portion take advantage of the course while others are comparatively penalized by not having special access to test materials...well, that would just be a very sad reflection of the program and the instructor, and I'm sorry the education you are being provided has such an unsavory element included in it. I'd make sure the appropriate people know - professor, chair of department, etc - and then hold one's head high, actually work to learn the material, do a good job, and move on with life.

A Final Note On Nationality/Grouping

I would be remiss if I didn't mention this, but while I understand your observation of what you see as a pattern, I would ask this: if the situation were that a band of multicultural native citizens banded together and were engaging in this behavior but also did not share these resources to the entire class, would you be any less bothered by it?

As such, we can simply separate the issue entirely, because it doesn't matter what nationality, color, religion, or any other grouping they happen to belong to other than "people who seem to be behaving unethically in this instance". Otherwise we simply create and add to stereotypes that would encourage discrimination against the group, which would itself make it so that the group might need to be more willing to break the rules to get ahead because they are double-disadvantaged! All stereotype threats are inherently negative.

One need not ignore reality - just put in extra effort to prune out unnecessary grouping. Some students ban together to do something potentially wrong, and those students may share nationality or family ties - but it is not the nationality or family ties that are the problem, but the ethics and behavior involved in the situation. Stick to these facts and do not paint everyone with the same brush and you will improve your argument, possibly help improve the world at least a little, and be in a more justified and ethical situation yourself!

  • 1
    Hi, I very much like your metric of telling if something is wrong. I suspect that, after many peoples' bravado in saying it's not unethical, they would definitely not go up to the professor and say they were doing that. Of course, it still does have the flaw that the professor could just completely not care, and you could be willing to tell him (knowing that fact), but it could still be a wrong thing to do. Apr 3, 2015 at 3:58
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    With regards to the nationality thing, I knew it would get a bit of flak, but I think it is relevant. To answer your question, if an American frat were doing the same thing in my class, I would be just as upset at it. I mentioned nationality because that is what defines the group in this instance (and left it vague on purpose). What I did leave out in the OP was that, in our program, this group has had a strong pattern of this in the past, including things that are unquestionably unethical. Apr 3, 2015 at 4:04
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    @YungHummmma In my alma mater, the student representatives had a folder of past exams that any student could copy. This was publicly announced on a university-hosted Web site. They certainly didn't mind the prof. knowing that they did that - in one case, they came to me (working as a TA) and asked me whether I would let them copy one of the exams that they did not have in their collection.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 3, 2015 at 7:33
  • 2
    I agree with @xLeitix: as a student (at Utrecht University, NL) I was part of a student committee collecting old exams, and even sometimes creating solution outlines when not provided by the professor. These were published online without reservations. Although some professors didn't quite like the fact that they thus couldn't recycle old questions, this publication was approved by the department. Also, I once sat on an exam which was a literal copy of an exam from 2/3 years ago, which I coincidentally practiced the day before. I'd have had no qualms admitting that fact to the professor. Apr 3, 2015 at 12:07
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    Surely cooperating on preparing for an exam (which this is) cannot be considered misconduct?
    – gerrit
    Apr 3, 2015 at 14:14

The students who got the past tests have not really cheated, but they do have an advantage over students who do not have the tests. This is especially true if the professor is heavily recycling questions. The professor may not be aware of this advantage.

Therefore, you should probably just speak to your professor about it. I would be careful to not be accusatory toward your fellow students. Your goal is not to get them in trouble, but rather to express to your professor that you feel you are at a disadvantage. That is, you are perfectly willing to work and study hard, but others may have their work rewarded more than yours.

I would also recommend that you avoid mention of national origin since I don't think that that is really very relevant to the topic and may be distracting.

A very similar problem that I have seen in the past is that some groups may "curate" past tests. For example, I have seen groups like frats and sororities which intentionally keep files of old tests for the purpose of giving future members an advantage on tests. This is something that lecturers were very interested in knowing about even though it wasn't technically against any rules.

  • 1
    Well, this is a couple years past now, so it doesn't matter, I was just curious. I actually highly suspect the prof in question reaaaaaally wouldn't care, because he's old and just gives off that vibe. Also, I purposely avoided (for fear of offense) mentioning the actual nationality of the group I was talking about, so I don't think anyone should be offended, without making assumptions on their own. The reason I think it's relevant is that I think they're doing exactly what you mentioned in your last paragraph. Apr 3, 2015 at 3:32

There's another way to combat this situation: provide more sample questions, so that fewer students would be at a "disadvantage".

At first that may seem counterintuitive, but I know of a few instances where such tactics were employed effectively.

One professor I know told me, "A long time ago, I figured out that if there was something I really wanted my students to learn, just tell them it will be on the test. That way, they'll learn it. So that's what I do."

(He doesn't tell students everything that's on his test, but if there's a fundamental concept he wants them to know, he's very public about it being asked on the final exam, using that as a motivator to steer the learning in a particular direction.)

Also, a past advisor once told me about a professor who gave his students a list of 24 questions, and told them, "Your final exam will consist of six of these questions." He smiled as he reminisced, explaining how all the students thought this was "cool," and how they thought the test would be "easy." He then told me how it took him about 10 years to realize how he and his fellow students had been duped. "Essentially, this guy wanted us to work through 24 problems," he said, "but he only wanted to grade six of them!"

I realize this answer isn't universal, and may not be a good alternative in some situations. But it does offer some different ways to possibly curb the problem of cheating on reused exam questions.

  • I've never seen 6 out of 24, but have done 3 out of 8 essay question. Or 10 questions, and pick 3 of 5 on the test ( Which meant you could be safe only prepping only for 8).
    – WorBlux
    Apr 28, 2021 at 7:48

There is nothing unethical about a group of students that have grabbed their hands in the past years' examinations. Maybe you can argue that is not fair and that they are selfish, but those justifications are far away from ethical issues.

If you or other of your fellow USA friends want that information, why you just don't ask for those examinations directly to them? Maybe they will be happily to hand you a copy of those exams. In the case they don't want to share them with you, what is the problem? You cannot force them to do something that they do no want.

I see in your question that there is a hidden message, not a good one against expats studying with you, and that is something that should not be tolerated in any way. If I am wrong, then the only advice that I can give to you is to study and prepare well for the exams, because at the end the reward of a good education is going to be only for you.

  • 1
    As to ethics, it might be explicitly against the rules of the course, program, or University as a whole. If one agrees to be bound by Rule X, then in most ethical systems one is actually bound by Rule X even if they wouldn't otherwise agree with the rule. Many programs do explicitly disallow such behavior as a condition for attending, and if the institution in question is one then getting or sharing past tests is academic misconduct and is defined as unethical behavior. And what is fairness and selfishness if not ethical issues? I do appreciate your concerns regarding the expats, though.
    – BrianH
    Apr 3, 2015 at 0:57
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    yes, you are right @BrianDHall, but my comment was towards that the lecturer gave all the years the final examination from the previous year. So if, for example, one person has failed or retired from the course two years in a row, he already have two past examinations on his hands, so if he use them it would not be unethical. Also the OP commits the mistake that he has not mentioned if the lecturer has put a rule of not using past material or examinations; in that case, if that rule exists, would be unethical to do that.
    – Layla
    Apr 3, 2015 at 1:50
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    @Layla, a quick google search for "define ethics" gives me "moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior". So it seems like (your 2nd sentence) that if "that is not fair and that they are selfish" is absolutely an ethics issue. Apr 3, 2015 at 3:35
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    Additionally, I only happened to become aware of what they were doing by accident, so I suspect many students outside their group don't even know what they're doing (as I didn't and wouldn't have), so can't ask for them. Beyond that, you don't see the problem if they have a huge upper hand that other students don't? I obviously can't "force them" but that's not what the question was asking, it was asking about the ethics of it. Apr 3, 2015 at 3:38
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    @Layla, well, I think being selfish is being unethical... Also, I'm OP :) I'll edit the question to include the fact that most other students didn't know about the group that had the exams. Apr 3, 2015 at 5:10

I feel like you are asking the wrong questions. It seems that your main concern is that the other group might have an unfair advantage and be gaming the system.

However, you do mention that this is graduate school. My understanding from talking to graduate students is that grades are really only a part of the overall graduate school experience. The other parts (actually learning the material, getting to know the professor, networking, getting internships if this is a masters program or doing research if this is a PhD program) are essential to the graduate experience and arguable even more important.

Morally, these students are acting fairly dodgy, but they are not necessarily ensuring their success in graduate school. Maybe the reason why there is not more collusion, and why the professor does not care enough to explicitly forbid this behavior, is that the tests don't matter as much as you think. They're are only reflected in the grade, but graduate school is about improving your career.

  • 1
    I agree with you, somewhat. You can do absolutely horribly in grad school, gradewise, and come out on top of someone who did great in their classes, if your research is better. But it's still important because you still usually have to maintain some average. If having this unfair advantage allows you to spend far less time studying (because you know exactly what to study, whereas they have to effectively study everything to be assured a good grade), that time will be spent doing research. Apr 3, 2015 at 19:16
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    As evidence, I just spent the majority of my hours of the past week studying for this test, so my research took a big hit this week. Someone who had the past tests could have studied for a fraction of the time. Over 5 years of many classes, you can imagine this "lost time" adding up to months or so. Apr 3, 2015 at 19:18

The above answers are shocking. The professors are not too busy. Most of them are lazy. They act unethically if they repeat the same exam questions and do not give copies of the past exams to students, when they should have known that some of the students probably have them, while not all of them. The students do not breake any rules by collaborating, studying together and simply using all available material.


The same thing happen in one of the courses of my graduate program. In my opinion, the only person who is unethical in this situation is the instructor, who is negligent/lazy enough to knowingly/unknowingly put a group of students under unfair competition. The students who take advantage of non-public materials have no obligations to let anyone know about it. After all, it is so common in college to obtain and practice past exams that it is one of the major ways to prepare for an exam.

Finally, I just want to mention that in the other course of our program the instructor chose to publish all of his past exams for practice. In that course no one could get any advantages.


If they are not public, but passed by students to students, highly unethical. Major reasons:

  • Yes, most of the questions are very similar from earlier years. Professors are too busy. Even if its not, you are more efficient in practicing them than problems in textbook.
  • Those cannot get it are pushed to lower grades, especially if the grade is curved according to distribution.
  • You only pay tuition for this year's class.

Most of my classmates did that in my undergrad and PhD years. I cannot, as I cannot get it from them. I sometimes wondered why they did not even take notes in class, as they can get it from last year's students.

  • Some people learn and succeed without taking noted in class. Mar 21, 2017 at 19:52

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