In testing sessions that I proctor now, there are frequently one or more students who are not actually working on the test for extended periods of time. Perhaps they are just staring into space, or out the window, for most of the period. Or they may be holding the test paper up in the air and apparently scrutinizing it for a long period of time. Or a student may lean back in their chair and go soundly to sleep.

Excepting this last case, the student likely only has to adjust their eyes a few degrees to be looking at another student's paper. It gives all appearances that they are watching for me to turn away so that they can cheat. I feel compelled to watch them constantly for the entire period, which is tiring and stressful, and doesn't let me watch other students or answer questions. Frequently, the paper I get back is mostly blank after this hour-long staring match, but I can't know that in advance.

What is the best way to deal with inactive students in the testing session? Is it appropriate to demand that they leave the testing area if they're not actively working? (Students are already told in advance that they can turn in their paper and leave as soon as they're done with it.)

I'm teaching mostly lower-level mathematics at a large urban community college in the U.S.

Added: This is in a moderate-sized course with around 25 students in the classroom, taking the exam. The students are known to me and registered for the course which I am teaching. I made the exam and distributed a practice version, with identical directions for each question, in advance of the exam.

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    For "testing session" do you mean an exam? In my experience (in my country), in some courses where past exam papers were not made available by the professors (it happened especially in the past), some students would go to the exam anyway, even unprepared, just to take note of the questions and exercises given. So they would stare at the wall for most of the time. Sometimes students would take turns at the exams to compile a list of questions. Nov 27, 2016 at 20:25
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    OK, they are clueless how to solve the questions and stare at the problems for an hour, waiting for a spark of understanding to ignite in their minds. Why should they leave?
    – svavil
    Nov 27, 2016 at 21:39
  • @svavil: Because it complicates watching for cheating. Their head is up, looking elsewhere in the room the whole time. It's added stress for me to monitor them constantly. Nov 27, 2016 at 23:05
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    Personally, I would say to boot them out, in a polite manner of course. As they are likely distracting to at least one person in the room. Nov 28, 2016 at 6:10
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    I encourage my students, on exams, to often pause and think, and not feel compelled to constantly be writing. If they're doing this, I assume they'll be staring off into space, or closing their eyes. I've done this myself as a student, and I did very well on exams! I really don't see why this should make you (the instructor) uncomfortable -- what's the point of an exam that doesn't require thought? If the issue is that the students are turning in blank exams, that's their problem, not yours -- you're not their parent. Nov 29, 2016 at 15:33

6 Answers 6


It seems to me that students are permitted to spend exam time "as inactively as they choose," and that barring some truly exceptional edge cases it is neither fair to them nor the best use of your own time to try to deal with inactive students during the exam itself.

I'm sorry the behavior is stressful for you, but I don't have a good understanding of why. Not working or writing on the exam is not an effective cheating technique; falling asleep or staring out the window less so. If you see students with wandering eyes in a way that actually makes you concerned: okay, tell them not to do that when you catch them doing it. But that's a problem of unwanted activity, not inactivity. Moreover, you write

Frequently the paper I get back is mostly blank after an hour of inactivity like this.

I find it kind of strange that you think that a student (whom you know is registered for your class; no funny business there) who turns in a mostly blank exam is somehow cheating. Cheating means trying to succeed through illegal means; if they are pathologically avoiding trying to succeed, I somehow doubt that cheating is the explanation.

You write

It puts me on edge because it's so inexplicable,

Okay, I get you there: it certainly must be distressing as an instructor to witness students walking into an exam -- i.e., a situation which is a pressure-packed performance opportunity to most students -- and respond to the high pressure situation by basically doing nothing. I agree that there's something going wrong here. However, I don't think that you should fix the problem by proctoring the exam differently: rather, during the exam you should take note of which students are behaving in this way, and then make a point of talking to them about it after the exam (presumably after it's been graded rather than immediately at the end of the exam). In my experience, if a student is otherwise even moderately engaged with the course (coming to class, turning in homework) then they are very likely to be responsive to such questions on the part of the instructor. Maybe once in a blue moon you get a student who really doesn't want to work much on their exams and really doesn't want to talk to you about it. OK: you tried, they didn't, they'll fail. But they have the right to play it that way, it seems to me.

Let me end by commenting on another answer which suggests running future courses with a policy that says students' exams can be taken away from them if they are not working on them. While clearly well-intentioned, I think that's a bad idea. You simply do not have access to students' interior processes and you shouldn't pretend to do so: maybe a student who is staring out the window for half an hour is nevertheless working on the one problem that they don't know how to do and is going to write out solutions to all the problems in the last ten minutes. (I mean, probably not, but maybe.) It's just not defensible enough to respond to inactivity on an exam by taking the exam away from the student (and especially, with a policy to return it later on if they show suitable penitence). A student who has an exam taken away can go to the department chair or the dean saying "My exam got taken away from me just because I was thinking rather than writing." If I were the chair or the dean...c'mon: the student has a very strong case.

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    Let's see if I can help a bit on the apparent unclarity. When this happens, the student has their head up, looking elsewhere in the room. Their eyes are probably just a few degrees away from some other student's paper. I'm internally debating with myself: "Are they looking at the other paper? Or not? Now they're looking directly at me. Will they glance at the other paper as soon as I turn away?" At this moment, I have not received the mostly-blank paper yet. I cannot tell the difference at this moment from actual cheating or on-standby-to-cheat. Nov 28, 2016 at 3:44
  • "Do I have to stand here staring at the one student constantly for an hour? What if I have to look at some other student, or answer a question?" Nov 28, 2016 at 3:49
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    @Daniel: Okay, but the issue of students glancing at each others' papers seems like an independent one -- if anything, it's more pressing for a student who is actually appearing to work on the exam! If the potential cheating issue is what's bothering you, sure, go ahead and take steps to counteract it: e.g. requiring students to sit in ways that minimize line of sight to each others' exams and/or explicitly telling them not to stare off roughly in the direction of other students' exams. Nov 28, 2016 at 4:52
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    Also, if despite your good efforts cheating turns out to occur, you have a good argument for getting another set of eyes for the next exam. (In other words, though I do not agree with the rest of it, I do agree with the last paragraph of aparente's answer.) But the lack of activity is not the problem then; it's the wandering eyes that result in cheating. Nov 28, 2016 at 4:53
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    Thanks for those suggestions. However, at my institution, the facilities are fairly cramped (no way to minimize sight lines) and added proctoring personnel are not available. Nov 28, 2016 at 6:14

As long as the student is not disturbing anyone else, I don't see any reason to boot them out of the exam. I honestly think that kicking a student out of the exam would distract the other students more than someone sleeping or playing with their exam sheet. As Pete L. Clark explains, if a student were trying to cheat but in the end turned in a blank page, then that student is quite a poor cheater; and I would be rather amazed if a student managed to send another student signals just by sleeping and looking at the ceiling / out of the window.

You seem to mostly be distressed because you can't find any explanation for this behavior. O. R. Mapper already offered a potential one, here is another possible one, that may or may not apply to your exact situation (I know for sure that it applies in some places).

Some students have a scholarship that pays for their tuition and perhaps even student housing, subsidizes their meals and whatnot. Often the scholarship will have a few conditions attached, and a very common one is that the student must attend every exam (why pay for someone's education if they aren't even going to try).

This leads to some students taking advantage of the system ("cheating" if you will), never going to class/exercise sessions (or sleeping through every single one if their scholarship requires them to attend class too), but still going to the midterms and the final exams of the first semester so that their scholarship isn't cut off at the beginning of the second semester. Of course they're SOL for their second year because another very common condition of the scholarship is that they must successfully complete one year to get the rest of the scholarship for the next year.


Frequently the paper I get back is mostly blank after an hour of inactivity like this. It puts me on edge because it's so inexplicable

Have you tried finding an explanation by asking them? Don't try to appear like during an interrogation, make sure they understand you would truly like to know.

If the reason is indeed cheating in the exam, you might get a bogus answer, but chances are they are rather "cheating" (if you could at all call it that) the system in a bureaucratical sense. Massimo suggested one possible explanation along that vein, another one that had come to my mind is as follows: At a university where I worked, students were allowed to take an exam a second time if they failed during their first try. So, once a student realizes they won't score a good mark during the first try, they might rather choose to fail than pass miserably and try to get a better mark during the second attempt.

What is the best way to deal with inactive students in the testing session? Is it appropriate to demand that they leave the testing area if they're not actively working? (Students are already told in advance that they can turn in their paper and leave as soon as they're done with it.)

Based upon what you have described, no. Holding the exam sheet up in the air may be bordering on being inappropriately disturbing to others (who will, despite being focused, pick up unusual movements from the corner of the eye), but the other behaviours are simply remaining silent with a minimum of interference to other exam takers, as is appropriate while sitting in an exam room.

As a basis for your decision on how to react, try to weigh the possible advantages and disadvantages of taking action. While you may overcome your anxiety about "unnecessarily" having some more people to watch over (in particular if you can get a better idea of why that behaviour occurs), the two conceivable benefits that I see would be:

  • You might be preventing an act of cheating. (Unlikely, as based upon your description and pointed out by others, it is not clear how a cheating technique would work in the situation described.)
  • You might help other students who are distracted by the people in question. (Again, unlikely, given that they are virtually as silent/non-disruptive as they can be.)

The definitive disadvantage you are creating, on the other hand, is that anyone leaving the room in between - in particular when it's preceded by any form of communication when proctors ask them to leave - creates some commotion that will disturb most other students in the room.

As a final note, your question makes it sound as if some of these inactive students falling asleep were the culmination of inappropriate behaviour. Again, I'd like to ask you to check whether their sleeping actually disturbs any other exam takers. If they start snoring, sure - but otherwise, sleeping is actually a worthwhile way to spend the time while a student cannot do anything else, and at my university, we have actively recommended that activity to students in the past when for some reason they had to stay in the exam room without anything to do.


In your shoes, I would take their names, and sort it out later.

That is, if they are included in your roster of enrolled students, they are "clueless."

If they aren't, they are "sitting in" to try to get the test questions, and then memorizing them for future use by themselves or others.

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    Can you expand on what "sort it out later" entails? In my case, these are definitely known students registered for the class. Nov 28, 2016 at 1:43
  • @DanielR.Collins: I meant "make a decision," based on whether or not they were registered for the class. (If they are then they're clueless).
    – Tom Au
    Nov 28, 2016 at 1:50

In short: I find this behavior of theirs normal and suggest you consider the larger scope of dealing with possible cheating.

A couple of anecdotal examples from a student's POV:

  • During some of the school exams, I would finish the assignment way early and have nothing to do; requesting me to quit the room to not distract others by idling is reasonable and was occasionally done but was not always logistically feasible as it would leave me stranded while someone was arranged to pick me up at a later time. Other times, we would have arranged to hang out with fellow students after the exam. To a student, it is not obvious if you are causing a disruption that way, and the classroom may in fact be the most comfortable place to idle at. To the same tune, many students are taught to make the most of their time during exam, check their results multiple times if they have nothing else to do and only leave as the exam ends: I know of many cases, not just myself, where parents would scold their kids for being done with the exam early even if they aced it. Sometimes, being bored in the classroom is the path of the least effort when the alternatives are entering a conflict with one's parents or lying to them, and this is oddly common for people normally considered functioning adults.
  • There was a case when I was given an assignment far beyond my capabilities at the time, and a few cases where I would complete most of the assignment quickly and then get stuck on the topic I did not understand well enough. This is closer to what you describe. But most exams do not have IMO/IPhO-style problems and are not tuned to the model student who puts their pen to paper the moment the exam starts and barely finishes it by the end of it. Ergo, some students (myself included) would just stare into nothingness until they get the insight required to solve the problem. In fact, even for something routine-heavy like trigonometry or integration, I would normally prefer doing calculations in my head instead of writing everything down - which is a lot of staring into windows, at ceilings, at the assignment paper while actually doing the work. I am sorry if it made proctors uncomfortable in the past, but that is often the best way for me to work on problems, no malice intended.
  • Finally, we had exams with no proctoring whatsoever and students still failing, not because of an honor system but because of topics being advanced enough it is essentially impossible to cheat in a way that is not blatantly clear to an examiner.

I am a firm believer in that in good assignments, cheating is very obvious and/or not at all helpful. It is a lot harder to do for lower-level courses, but if the entire grading system hinges on preventing a student from glancing over to a neighbor's assignment, that is not great. So, then, is it that crucial that you watch them like a hawk and under no circumstances must they be able to copy some parts of other student's assignments (=cheat)? I think that if you decide to let it go, you might see their (statistically) previously blank papers now filled with a bunch of mostly incorrect answers, which should, ideally, still not be enough to earn them a passing grade. Given your previous experience of teaching that class, if I were in your shoes, I would try to adopt a more relaxed attitude during, say, midterms and see what happens and if that results in a perceivable grade inflation.


A student who is not able to do any meaningful work on the exam is probably feeling embarrassed and somewhat paralyzed.

It's not your fault.

I would suggest adding something like the following to your course syllabus:

During exams, if you are not making any progess on your exam, then a proctor will politely ask you to put your name on the exam and turn it in. You will be offered a short, optional alternative assignment. After five minutes, you may ask for the exam back if you feel ready to make some meaningful progress on it.

Here is one possible alternative assignment:

Please write a couple of paragraphs that will help me get to know you better as a student. For example, you could write about your academic and career goals, what your favorite course in high school was and why, and what special challenges, if any, are you currently facing as a student at XX Community College. Is there anything I can do, as your instructor, to make the material in my course more accessible for you?

Follow that up with some placement-type math problems. I suppose the students have all been through the placement process, but clearly, something's wrong -- so let's try to find out what.

If a student is sleeping, you may put a hand on a shoulder, offer a bottle of water, and ask if s/he would like to work on the exam or turn it in. (This is a gentle discouragement to continued sleeping in the exam room, and an opportunity to wake up and start working on it.)

Additional note: If you're on edge, that tells me you need one or two additional proctors, and/or a larger room.


(from comment) "At my institution, the facilities are fairly cramped (no way to minimize sight lines) and added proctoring personnel are not available."

Thank you for explaining this. You can buy or make cardboard carrels, also called privacy shields. You need a full set of these to use on exam days. Not only do they make proctoring easier and more effective, they can also reduce exam anxiety. Each student feels more in his or her own world, with less comparing of self to others.

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    It might be a good idea to offer an alternative assignment to those who are clueless about the exam. However, it's never a good idea for a proctor to initiate it, which your answer suggests. It should be the student's option and the student's choice.
    – svavil
    Nov 28, 2016 at 14:57
  • @svavil - I agree it should be optional. Maybe I wasn't completely clear about that in my answer? Nov 28, 2016 at 20:24
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    Maybe you wasn't. You might want to phrase it in the most liberating way possible.
    – svavil
    Nov 28, 2016 at 21:11
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    @aparente001 I hear there's this crazy new thing called paper, on which you can write unauthorized notes, that you can hide somewhere on your person or inside your clothing and that is virtually undetectable without a strip search ;)
    – ff524
    Dec 4, 2016 at 6:53
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    @ff524 - Most significant = primary. In other words, I'm wondering which of these is the primary or most prevalent form of cheating these days, paper, phone or copying from a neighbor. Cell phones were only a figment of Ray Bradbury's imagination when I was in grad school, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around its use for cheating in exams. Dec 4, 2016 at 7:02

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