Personally I do not recall ever having seen any of my final exams I have taken during my undergrad (except in my nightmares). Midterms, quizzes and homeworks are usually returned to the students before the final exam, but I am really curious as to what happens to the final exams after they have been graded.

Are the exams hauled off to a secret storage facility for keepsake? Are they photocopied and kept as a student's permanent confidential academic record (unbeknownst to the student)? Are the exams hastily moved to a recycling facility and turned into fodder for new exams?

If I were to request a copy of my final exam from undergrad (say after one year), what are the chances that the school will still have a copy?

Can someone (administrator/professors) shed a light on the secret life of a final exam?

  • 37
    I imagine something like Willy Wonka's factory, lots of Oompa Loompa's (sometimes called TA's) dancing and using the exams to create ..something. – Olorun Oct 17 '15 at 6:25
  • 10
    I heard that they use them to line the walls of their underground lairs – user41783 Oct 17 '15 at 6:39
  • 1
    I have not been in a position to have to pay attention to that, yet, but I've been told several times that the regulations require that professors hold on to final exams for several years (three or five, I don't remember exactly). – tomasz Oct 17 '15 at 13:19
  • 2
    (1) hold onto them (2) wait until one of your students becomes a celebrity (3) hold EBay auction for said celebrity's exam text (4) ??? (5) profit! – Federico Poloni Oct 18 '15 at 10:32
  • 4
    @BenCrowell Where I have worked, we archived the final exams in a central facility in preparation for accrediting body auditing. The accrediting body verifies that we had an impressive amount of paper stored in an organized manner and little else. – emory Oct 18 '15 at 23:42

12 Answers 12


Speaking as a professor, I typically hold on to them for a year or so just in case any student wishes to see them. That said, I can remember this happening only once in about 5000 students taught.

When I was in college, we had the option of providing self-addressed stamped envelopes in which our final exams could be returned to us. Over half of the students availed themselves of this option.

I do not believe that my university has any formal policy, though they could have one that I am unaware of. It would seem foolish for a professor to get rid of the exams before the students have had an opportunity to see their grades and respond if something seems out of line.

  • 9
    You should check your policies, and applicable laws. – Raphael Oct 17 '15 at 21:38
  • didn't even know it is possible to request a copy back then – Jeffrey04 Oct 19 '15 at 7:12
  • 1
    If you have a formal grade appeals process, you probably have a policy. – APrioriRainbows Oct 27 '15 at 20:18
  • I wonder if there's an archive rule. – Mikey Apr 23 at 19:57

At our university, the lecturer has to store your exams (along with the original test and answer key) for at least 2 years. This is so that a committee has the possibility of looking at them during an audit, to determine whether the exam was of sufficient level and graded properly. Usually such an audit does not take place and the exams are simply discarded once the lecturer runs out of shelf space.

There is a 30 day period in which students can request a copy of their exams. After these 30 days, even though the exams are stored, they are no longer entitled to this - the storage is purely for the eventuality of an audit.

  • What happens with oral exams? Are they simply not allowed? Or should they be digitally recorded/transcribed in order to be accepted? – Bakuriu Oct 17 '15 at 13:31
  • At one university, I recall the rule was to keep final exams for 5 years. I wasn't even there for 5 years. – Kimball Oct 17 '15 at 13:43
  • @Bakuriu Oral exams are somewhat uncommon. No records are kept, but (formally) oral exams are open to the public so anyone is welcome to come and verify things are done fairly. – Tom van der Zanden Oct 17 '15 at 21:21
  • At my university, it was all student work for at least 2 semesters/terms. You can imagine what that looked like with daily quizzes for over 100 students... – APrioriRainbows Oct 27 '15 at 20:17

An out-of-the-way corner of my office contains stacks of final exams from the last few courses I've taught. Students are welcome to stop by my office and retrieve their exams; very few do so, but more than the one in 5000 mentioned by Corvus. We're not supposed to discard the exams until some time (maybe a year, maybe 3, I don't remember offhand) has passed, presumably because students might open a grade appeal process. I generally keep exams longer, but not forever; when that out-of-the-way corner gets too full (and when I notice it) I weed out the oldest exams.


As you can see from the other answers, practice varies considerably from institution to institution. Generally speaking, in every jurisdiction there is a period during which a student can challenge their marks. I have never seen or heard of a situation where this was not based on the grade of the final examination. The final examination papers are therefore treated as legal documents which must be kept in a place where they are easily accessible. Once the statute of limitations runs out on these documents --- again varying from place to place --- the papers are disposed of. At my department they are usually shredded, but nobody has ever told me that they cannot be disposed of in some other manner. (Of course if you are a packrat, you can store them in your office until you retire.)

  • 4
    The shredding is probably because of privacy laws (FERPA, probably). All it takes is one person looking through the trash to find these exams and you could have a big problem on your hands. – zibadawa timmy Oct 17 '15 at 22:20

At my UK institution, exam scripts are stored centrally by the university up to the deadline for formal appeals (I think one year post graduation). Any student should be able to request to see their exam script under data-protection rules, and a number do. As a lecturer I usually won't see the scripts after I've submitted the marks – the administrators take them away as soon as possible so they're organized for the external examiners.


At my institution in the US, materials used for grading are to be kept until after the appeal / change deadline, which one has to look up in the rules, but has been after two quarters. Students can asks for them, because they are "records" which they have a right to. After that, they are to be destroyed (because, by policy, failure to pick it up means they have abandoned their "record"). About two students gave me envelopes to mail the exam to me, a bunch would pop in after grades were posted to get the exam, and maybe a dozen asked for them some time around the start of the next quarter. Because exams have to be kept secret, retaining them indefinitely poses a substantial risk for the institution, so they tend to favor short periods of retention. However, there can be specific state-mandated retention policies which force longer retention; so I suspect there is much variation in how long exams are retained in the US.


At my Alma Mater, and for over 5 years now, all final exams are scanned after grading, and the paper is shredded (not necessarily immediately but pretty quick I think). Then they all live in infamy on some web server...

Each student can access the scan of their graded exams, of course.


After an exam was taken, the secretariat of our institution copies them and sends them to the lecturer in charge of it (some major exams require a second reviser). After grading them, the lecturers have to return the exams to the secretariat which announces the results to the students who failed (passes are only told on request). The graded exam papers (with the lecturer's signature) will be stored in the secretariat for one year after announcing the result as the law gives every student the right to dispute a grade within that time frame.

Theoretically we could dispose of them after that time. In fact, however, it is too much work to regularly scan the students' files for such "expired" exams as there are several smaller and major exams throughout the year. So what's done is normally, that they dispose of all them (but finals, which must be stored a lifetime) one year after the graduation of a student.

  • 1
    LIfetime storage? I sure hope they've gone digital on that. Otherwise that's a very untenable fire hazard. – zibadawa timmy Oct 17 '15 at 22:18
  • @zibadawatimmy No, nothing digital. Digital images can be manipulated. And there's not really much of a fire hazard. The archive is all steel and concrete and there's (beside the lamp and the dehumidifier) nothing there that could cause sparks or the like. – Patric Hartmann Oct 18 '15 at 14:34
  • 5
    If you think a digital image can be manipulated, then wait until you see what I can do to those papers with any of the following: pen, pencil, eraser. Encryption will protect digital versions of the files at least as well as a guarded storage facility. And the untenable part is that if the university exists for long enough then they will always run out of storage. And storage costs money, both in construction, maintenance, and opportunity costs. And if they cease to exist, what do they then do with their stored finals? – zibadawa timmy Oct 18 '15 at 17:08
  • 2
    @zibadawatimmy You say these things like they are a bad thing. Fire is good because it reduces university storage liability. Document manipulation is good because I can retroactively pass/fail anyone I choose without having to hire computer nerds. Construction can't happen without kickbacks. And your comment about what if the university ceases to exist? I guess the government just has to keep funding them in perpetuity. Don't smash the iron rice bowl. – emory Oct 19 '15 at 0:11

This has been mostly answered with a variety of practices, but I'll note that the return policy (as opposed to whether it's kept at all) does depend somewhat on discipline and (in particular) the type of exam. I hope this is considered relevant, as I feel like it has been discussed quite a bit in other answers. Here is what I've noticed.

  • @Maroon is right about math exams - typically "In mathematics sequences taught by the same instructor, we simply received the final exam papers in class in the succeeding term" is a reasonable policy. I've gone so far as to hunt students down because then I don't have to find a place to hang on to them, or because I know they'll be happy to see it (especially if the final is a longer take-home exam or a portfolio); we're small, so this is doable. But then again, it's often not so hard for me to change the questions for succeeding offerings of the same course.

  • In many humanities courses, you would not be able to keep the exam because there are only so many good questions for essays and the like (or at least because they think this is the case). Naturally this is for an essay exam, not a final paper.

  • In some social or hard science courses (and elsewhere, e.g. humanities survey courses), you may have a multiple-choice exam that is graded by "Scantron" or computer or some other way. In such events I also wouldn't expect to be able to keep the exam itself, but perhaps the scored sheet could be given to the student (since they could just change the order of the questions in a succeeding term).

Finally, there is a new trend toward what is called "embedded assessment", or the idea that one can track how well a course is doing at its objectives by examining some subset of questions that are not changed from term to term. In that event I would expect that exams definitely wouldn't be handed back, though again one might be able to look at them.


In my undergraduate experiences (in the US), I usually was able to, at the very least, take a look at my exam after it was graded. However, the exact practices seem to have varied by department (or even by instructor):

  • In two cases from the statistics department, I could take a look at the exam while in the professor's office, but I had to return it immediately afterwards.

  • In some cases (a physics and some economics classes), I was able to obtain the exam papers from a department secretary. I was also permitted to hold onto them.

  • In a third scenario (also economics), I was told to contact the TA's if I wanted my final exam papers. So not only were the TA's responsible for grading, but they also kept the portions of the exams they graded. However, I have no idea if in this case the papers eventually go back to the professors / department, should the TA's graduate.

  • In mathematics sequences taught by the same instructor, we simply received the final exam papers in class in the succeeding term. I am not sure if the papers for the final term of the course were retrievable: I would assume that they were but never attempted to access them.

In all of these cases, I was able to access my papers within two or three months of the exam. However, I also remember one instance where I had wanted to obtain the comments on a final paper for a history class. The graduate student who taught the class was unresponsive to my emails, but in our intermittent exchanges, did indicate that it would be possible for me to get comments for the final paper (which had been submitted as a hard copy) back even two terms after that class had finished. (This meant that he must have held onto the work in question. However, my institution also goes by the quarter system, so "two terms" is really only equivalent to about four or five months.)


At my university there was no centralised repository for exam scripts, and it was the responsibility of individual academic staff to store the exam scripts for their own classes for two years, at which time they could be disposed of. (In the event of a staff-member leaving the university, they would give their exam scripts to the colleagues taking over their courses.) Each semester we would get an email from our wonderful school administrator reminding us all that we were now allowed to dispose of exam scripts from Semester X, Year Y. There would be disposal bins provided, which were the kind that are bolted shut, so that once you dispose of them you can't get them out.

As to what happens with the exam scripts after they are put into the disposal bins, I have no first-hand knowledge. However, I conjecture that all the exam scripts from all the universities in the country are taken out into the middle of the desert and burned in a mighty bonfire, with exorcists from all the world's major religions present to banish the evil spirits of introductory-calculus errors back to the netherworld.


It depends on the university, as others have said. There may be specific policies regarding grade availability, audits, etc.

In U.S. public universities, graded material that isn't returned to students may also subject to public records laws. These laws are not very consistently followed or enforced for individual faculty records, and details vary from state to state, but my memory of the relevant training session is that Texas law requires them to be kept for 5 years then properly destroyed, with a record destruction report filed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.