I'm wondering how a proctor of a closed-book exam should approach the case where a student has a tattoo that would double as a cheat sheet. Maybe they think the math looks cool, or they got a nice calligraphy of a textbook passage, or they are just that desperate to cheat.

Now, on one hand, that tattoo is pretty much a permanent fixture. On the other hand, that is a cheat sheet written on your forearm. In fact, it might be a particularly brazen attempt at cheating. And on the gripping hand, the fact that a resource is available for easy reference whenever needed doesn't carry much weight in the context of a closed-book exam.

At least in my university, the general rule for exams is "No written material unless expressly permitted", and most of the exams that permit bringing a "cheat sheet" have had a restriction on the sheet size (e.g. one-sided hand-written A4 paper). Therefore, a situation may well arise that a student shows up for an exam with the maximum-sized cheat sheet, and some related math (purportedly) tattooed on their forearm. If I find myself proctoring an exam and this happens, how should I approach the situation?

This is an entirely hypothetical question so far, so I'm unable to provide details of a real-life example.

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    If a student loves a theorem or mathematical idea enough to get a tattoo representing it, I'm guessing that the student is going to have a very thorough understanding of the topic and won't need any aids to ace a test about that topic. (If a student is desperate enough to get a tattoo to cheat, however...) – Kevin Nov 7 '17 at 17:59
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    I've never had to teach a class where this would be an issue. But when I was an undergrad I took several classes where this would be an issue, and the profs tended either to allow each student to bring in one page of notes for exams, or to include in the exam itself one page listing "important formulas" and similar. Because they were not testing us on our memory of the formulas, but on whether we understood how to apply them. This practice also neatly renders tattooed formulas a non-issue. – zwol Nov 7 '17 at 18:36
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    This seems so impractical that it's hardly worth worrying about. How many theorems can you fit on the areas of the body that would be exposed while taking an exam? – Barmar Nov 7 '17 at 22:13
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    Here in Australia, many university depts provide a "formula sheet" with a closed book exam. My 3rd year solid state physics exam had a five double-sided page prologue of just about every fundamental formula, distribution and law used throughout the semester. Seems unlikely that your student's tattoo wouldn't already be on that... – detly Nov 7 '17 at 22:50
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the question is about an extremely far-fetched hypothetical situation that will never occur in practice. – Dan Romik Nov 8 '17 at 1:23

"Cover it up" seems the only realistic solution if it appears to be a tattoo.

However, since we're discussing this in the hypothetical, writing a theorem on your arm may serve as a nice reminder of a basis from which to work on problems, but it can't really answer something useful for you. Just as younger students tend to look at their fingers when counting, they still have to put in the work of translating an abstract numerical problem to their fingers, then "read" the information from their hand, and finally write their answer down. We don't restrict their fingers as counting tools. Advanced students make more elaborate associations between concepts they're learning and something concrete -- this is usually encouraged by instructors when we explain things in plain language or metaphors. So, your question makes me think about what questions I'm asking my students. If it's just "Write down this definition from memory", then maybe I'm not going deep enough in the topic. Suppose instead that I said something like "Here's a definition of a key term you can look up anywhere, or tattoo it on your arm if you really like it! Now, which of the following things matches this description?"

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    Great answer. Memorizing formulas will not take someone very far. Memorizing Boyle's Law might be helpful in an introductory Chemistry course, but what happens in later courses or real research when the student does not know how to apply Boyle's Law to non-canned contexts or whether it even applies to the problem they are trying to solve? At a sufficiently high course level, I would say that an instructor requiring students to memorize factoids is doing it wrong. – Robert Columbia Nov 7 '17 at 17:39
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    "Just as younger students tend to look at their fingers when counting" For what it's worth, I still sometimes count on my fingers (but I usually don't have to look at them when doing so), and I went through school math--including calculus--before calculators, plus being a math nerd I did plenty of lengthy numerical calculations back then, so I was certainly adept then (and now) at standard arithmetical algorithms. – Dave L Renfro Nov 7 '17 at 19:27

If it is a tattoo, then the proctor may ask that it is covered : plaster, bandage etc. If the student refuses then they may not be allowed to sit the exam.

However, it does depend on the institution and the institution’s regulations and any specific conditions for that exam...

If it is simply written then the student can wash their hands...


The purpose of learning is to have that knowledge and understanding with you your entire life. Assuming a tattoo is at least as permanent as your memories, wouldn't it stand to reason that it be allowed on the test? A closed-book test is intended to simulate a scenario where one cannot rely on outside sources of information to solve a problem. "You might not have your textbook with you in the field, so you shouldn't have to rely on it," but you will never be without your tattoo any more than you would be without the things you learned in class.

  • This assumes the test is perfect, which is not a warranted assumption. For example, say what the test is really trying to get at is whether you can replicate the reasoning behind a particular derivation but it does so by asking you to reproduce the derivation based on the reasonable assumption that you can't replicate the derivation without the reasoning. One could tattoo just the derivation, not the reasoning. In other words, this can exploit imperfections in the testing giving you an undeserved grade. – David Schwartz Nov 7 '17 at 20:49
  • @DavidSchwartz Replicating a reasoning behind a particular derivation is better done in an oral examination, not in a written one. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 7 '17 at 21:15
  • @MassimoOrtolano Agreed. I'm just saying, this answer would only be correct if the test is perfect. One can imagine many ways this technique could exploit a defect in the test and cause the test not to measure what it was supposed to measure. – David Schwartz Nov 7 '17 at 21:17

If I suspected that a student had got a tattoo in order to help them in an exam, I would not be treating that as misconduct. I'd be treating it as prima facie evidence of a mental health crisis.

It's not a practical way to cheat. Tattoos are painful, they take weeks to heal, professional tattoos are expensive, amateur tattoos are dangerous, visible tattoos are stigmatised in many circles, and it's not a tactic you can reuse more than a couple of times because there's only so much skin on your arms. It's less trouble just to memorise the damn thing. If a student is actually trying this, there's something seriously wrong in their life and they need help.

OTOH, if a student got a tattoo for some other reason - like they really love Euler's identity and want to carry it around with them forever - then I wouldn't sweat it. If they love it that much, they probably had it memorised before they ever got the tattoo. If not, they probably will have after a couple of weeks of looking at it every day. Maybe ask them to cover it up to avoid complaints from other students, but it's not likely to make a difference.

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