Suppose we have a Psychology class of 20 people. They have an exam scheduled on, say, Tuesday April 12 2016. One of them, Shion, is sick and so takes a make up exam on Tuesday April 19 2016.

Edit: The make-up exam is different from the original exam. It is also significantly more difficult.

Edit: Shion has an advantage of seeing the original exam which is nothing like a random sample of homework questions.

Is it cheating for Shion to see the exam taken on Tuesday April 12 2016?

I have a feeling the answer might depend on the university, department or professor (which seems weird: If professors can compel students to not see or discuss original exams why not extend this to exams since the beginning of time? Why is the most recent exam any different?).

If not, ignore what follows.

If so, another question:

How can the answer depend on the university, department or professor? One university could allow it while another can't? Can some universities really leave the decision up to the departments or professors? Can two professors in the same department have different decisions about this? I understand if people have their own opinions so two professors could have their own personal opinions, but I don't think their personal opinions should matter.

  • 2
    It's not a matter of opinion, it's a matter of "what is the content of the original exam and the makeup exam, and does the student get an advantage from seeing the original exam before taking the makeup?" That's why it depends on the professor and the course, because the answer to that question varies from course to course.
    – ff524
    Apr 12, 2016 at 7:11
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    Is the make-up exam supposed to differ from the actual exam?
    – JRN
    Apr 12, 2016 at 7:22
  • 1
    That doesn't address whether there is an advantage to seeing the original exam.
    – ff524
    Apr 12, 2016 at 11:15
  • 4
    For example: students in the class know (based on previous year's exams, for example) that the exam will be a random sample of the homework problems, with different numbers. The original exam is a random sample of homework problems, as expected, and so is the makeup exam. Everybody knows equally what to expect for their exam, whether they take the original or the makeup, and knowing what's on the original doesn't give the student any new information.
    – ff524
    Apr 12, 2016 at 11:21
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    Similarly to what @ff524 says, if there are sufficiently many previous exams available, then having seen one more will not mean anything. Apr 12, 2016 at 11:59

2 Answers 2


You are asking two related but distinct questions here. First:

Is it cheating for Shion to see the exam taken on Tuesday April 12 2016?

No, unless she promised that she would not see the exam (for example by signing a form to that effect as mentioned in The Fire Guy's answer). And it is not clear that there is any reasonable basis for the professor to ask her to make such a promise, unless the professor is giving her the make-up exam as a special favor that he/she is not required to do.

And second:

Student taking a make-up exam sees exam she would've taken: Unethical?

Yes, this could very well be unethical, but it is the professor who may be behaving unethically, not the student. I see several issues here: first, the professor allowed all the students to keep their copy of the exam, which makes it easier for them to share that information with Shion. Second, the professor is planning to give Shion a make-up exam in which knowledge of which questions were on the original exam could give her an unfair advantage (at least I'm assuming that's the case, otherwise the question wouldn't really make sense). And third, the professor is planning to give Shion a make-up exam which is "significantly more difficult" (note that although this goes in the opposite direction from the first two items, it is still unfair and the three sources of unfairness do not necessarily cancel each other out).

All of those things point to the professor not really thinking through very carefully his or her approach to fairly assessing Shion's performance. At the very least it seems like sloppiness on the professor's part, and depending on the level of negligence involved could potentially rise to the level of unethical behavior.

Summary: It is the professor's responsibility to design a make-up exam that assesses Shion's performance and knowledge as fairly as possible compared to the other students. Different professors may take different approaches to doing so. Some would find a way to ensure that Shion cannot look at the original exam; others would write a make-up exam that is of the same level of difficulty as, but different enough from, the original exam. Creating a situation in which Shion can easily have access to the original exam and benefit from this information is a recipe for trouble and probably means the professor is not doing his/her job as well as he/she should be. In any case, Shion could only reasonably be accused of cheating if she made an explicit promise that she would not look at the original exam and then did so anyway.

  • Can Shion ever be 'forced' to make such a 'promise' ? Thanks Dan Romik!
    – BCLC
    Jan 24, 2022 at 14:51
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    She cannot be forced to make a promise, but, in a scenario in which the professor isn’t required to give a makeup exam but is considering doing it as a special favor, she can be offered an option to take a makeup exam if she agrees to make the promise. At least, this seems like a reasonable condition to me.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 24, 2022 at 17:04
  • Dan Romik, wait does this apply to my other question When is it wrong to look at previous exams? Seems Nate Eldredge might disagree with you.
    – BCLC
    Jan 25, 2022 at 9:12

This is not a direct answer, but it might it help. I worked as a TA for different professors. They would ask the student to sign a form stating that they have not seen/discussed the exam with other students. If the student signs (most do anyway), then s/he gets the same exam the other students got. Otherwise, s/he gets another exam. I don't know how ethical is this but this is what I have seen. Keep in mind most professors have multiple versions of their exams and they don't have to grade them (TAs grade them). So, I'm not sure why they tend to ask the student to sign such a form rather than using a completely different exam right away. Maybe a department policy? One question, how did you see the exam if you weren't there in the first place?

  • Oh okay, I guess there can be variations of rules for make-up exams. Thanks. But can professors, departments or universities compel students to not see or discuss the exam with other students? Shion saw the exam from her classmate, Monokuma. Monokuma and the others were allowed to keep their exam.
    – BCLC
    Apr 12, 2016 at 11:13
  • Also I think some would find that kind of unfair, how do we know that the student has not seen or discussed the exam? Why don't we just assume that the student has not discussed or seen and then give a different exam?
    – BCLC
    Apr 12, 2016 at 11:15
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    In my case, the student who missed the exam must take his/her exam before the other students get their marked exams back. To clarify, students can come and see their marked exams during office hours, we don't post the solution online nor give the question sheet back (only give back their solution sheet). I doubt that students do not share information on the exam with the one who missed it! But, depending on the nature of the course (i.e., design course), the format of questions can be known (to some degree) so in a way, all students know what kind of questions they will be facing!
    – The Guy
    Apr 12, 2016 at 11:22
  • Please fix ethnical -> ethical. Tried to edit, but changes must be at least six characters to be accepted :-(
    – gnasher729
    Apr 12, 2016 at 21:39
  • @gnasher729 thanks! Next time you can do this (changed "ethnical" to "ethical") this way you will get the needed number of characters :)
    – The Guy
    Apr 12, 2016 at 22:11

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