Variation of When is it wrong to look at previous exams?

Suppose students are taking a certain subject and are divided into classes A and B at different times but under the same professor.

Say the students are assigned an exam that is said to be sometime in a certain week. Is it wrong for the students of the other class B to ask the students in class A about the exam if they know that the teacher will change the questions in the exam?

  • I'd say that gives B an unfair advantage over A, and is thus unethical. If you want to make study tests available, use tests from past years so A and B have equal access to them.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:00
  • 2
    @BCLC Yes, because it still gives an unfair advantage to students in the second class. Students should not be penalized based on which class time they are in. There's also a different between ethical and "not explicitly against the rules." Just because something might be technically allowed does not mean it is ethical.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:38
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    @BCLC Because students in the first class don't get to see what kind of questions will be asked, but students in the second class do. Doesn't seem like a difficult concept. That is also a very different situation, where someone with a diagnosed medical issue gets to take advantage of an explicit provision for people with that medical issue.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:53
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    @RogerFan By that logic, people of year 2015-2016 have the same advantage over people of year 2014-2015? The purpose of the analogy is that if those are the rules, well then why not? How can it be right if it's not against the rules?
    – BCLC
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:54
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    @BCLC As I said before, ethics are not the same as rules. There are plenty of things that are unethical but legal. In addition, every single code of conduct that I've ever seen has been open-ended in terms of defining cheating/unethical conduct. "Including but not limited to" is the usual phrase, which means that the code is not to be interpreted as an exhaustive list of prohibited activities.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 16:11

4 Answers 4


This is an artificial issue, creating an unenforceable rule, stress for students, etc. The teacher should create a situation in which people have enough information about prior exams to (rightly) feel that they have an idea what will be on the upcoming exam. And if two exams are given at two times, they should not be identical, certainly. It should be arranged that students in the later exam should find nothing surprising or particularly in formative in seeing the first exam. That is, the marginal information content of seeing the first-given exam, with all prior exams visible, for example, should be close to zero.

Edit: it is never genuinely wrong for students to get information about past exams. It is not the obligation of students to "refuse" to give information about exams they have taken. It is not the obligation of students to "not ask" students who've already taken exams about their content. Students should be allowed to behave sensibly. It is, instead, the obligation (if any) of their teachers to create contexts in which the students do not have to worry about artificial (and extremely awkward) constraints on information.

Unenforceable rules create stress, trouble, and fatigue, to no good purpose. Students shouldn't have to think in such terms.

  • Agreed, but what exactly is your answer to the question?
    – BCLC
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 23:45
  • Oh I didn't notice your edit. Still, same question.
    – BCLC
    Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 6:17
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    It should be fine for students to ask each other for information. That should be taken into account in advance by the instructor, and perhaps even acknowledged. It should not be "required" of students that they keep secrets, nor that they risk accusations of collusion due to better or worse performance of their peers... without other evidence, etc. Commented Apr 12, 2016 at 12:21

The ethical answer for students is easy in this case: if it's not clear, and remotely borderline, ask the professor. Ideally, ask the professor publicly, so that everyone hears the answer.

That said, the real problem is that in this situation, the professor should be dealing with this publicly in one of two ways: either clearly instructing the first class not to discuss the exam until the second class has taken it, or making the exam available directly to the second class (so as not to benefit students who have friends in the first class over those who don't).

  • Can a professor prohibit students from the first class to discuss the exam if no mention of such ability is mentioned "Code of Academic Integrity" handbook?
    – BCLC
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 23:48
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    @BCLC: That really depends on the institution, but at most institutions, yes, that's a thing a professor can do (in the sense that students who get caught violating that could likely be punished and have it upheld by the relevant university bodies). That said, it's hard to enforce, so it's generally not a great practice.
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 0:03
  • Henry 'ask the professor' --> but it's easier to ask exoneration than permission? If we do this 1st and are 'caught' then we can say 'hey wait a minute. why is it our responsibility?' if we ask 1st then then there may be a explicit rule and then we'd have to argue. in either case we argue but at least in the 1st place we've done it before the rule was made so we have an advantage. what's the harm?
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 17:15
  • @BCLC The potential harm is that the consequences of losing that argument are much more serious if you wait to after - instead of not getting an advantage on a single exam, you’re risking the consequences of being found to have cheated on it.
    – Henry
    Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 19:25

I do not believe that this is ethical, as it gives students in the second class an unfair advantage over students in the first. As keshlam mentioned in his comment, if you want to give students access to previous exams, then both classes should be given access to the same set of prior-year exams.

This is less of an issue if the exams are graded by separate professors (which does not seem like the case) or if the grades will be curved separately, though I would still lean towards it being wrong in the latter case.

Though, when it doubt, the answer is the ask the professor (as this answer suggests). If you aren't comfortable asking the professor this question, then that is a sign that it is almost certainly unethical.


It's not ethical as a one-timer, but can be ethical as a long-time trade. When one time group A has earlier exams and shares questions with group B, and next time it's the other way around, then it should be ethical.

  • You mean professors should alternate who gets the exam first?
    – BCLC
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 23:45
  • It usually naturally comes to this. One time this group has this exam earlier and the other time it's that group. From what I know setting times and hours for exams [and class plans in general] is like trying to fit badly knitted sweatshirt on a live octopus - always someone protests, someone dislikes the schedule, someone is not a morning person and someone is very self-entitled to better hours because of something. I don't know where professors can have a luxury of scheduling their own preferred hours. So I wrote from this perspective - that exam order naturally changes anyway.
    – Karolina
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 10:11

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