Is it OK to use an answer key when studying?
November 20, 2019 4:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm in grad school for TESOL and I'm currently taking a Linguistics class. Our textbook has lots of exercises but there is no answer key included. I'm struggling to understand the material without a way to check my own understanding. I found the answer key book online.

I would like to use it when reading and studying to check my own comprehension of the material. The professor doesn't use these questions on the exams (although sometimes she assigns them for classwork and/or homework.) Is it ok to use the book to practice on my own? Or is it unethical because sometimes we are assigned the questions and it's cheating to have access to the answer key?
posted by Shadow Boxer to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is it ok to use the book to practice on my own?

Good grief, of course it is ok.

Or is it unethical because sometimes we are assigned the questions and it's cheating to have access to the answer key?

It was probably very easy for you to get the answer key if it's available online, and anyone in your class including the prof could get it just as easily. If the professor for a graduate level course can't think of more interesting assignments than to assign work out of the textbook, that's her problem.

You are being smart to use all the resources you can to learn and succeed. School is expensive. You're overthinking it.

Maybe next quarter you would be well served to direct this energy into a philosophy class.
posted by phunniemee at 4:31 AM on November 20, 2019 [16 favorites]

If it's the book I'm thinking of, your prof (and the publishers) likely know that there's an answer key out there on the internet.

You can let the prof know about the answer key if it'll ease your concious, and with the temperament of your prof in mind- I can assure you pretty well that this will likely not backfire in terms of you being dragged to honor court or the equivalent (and the prof will either say that they already knew, or that they didn't and they'll say thanks and they'll go grumbling off to make new problem sets), but you know the prof better than me.
posted by damayanti at 4:52 AM on November 20, 2019

I mean, you can use the answer key on the exercises that you are doing for practice and not on the ones you'll be graded on; then there's no ethical question. It's like comparing homework with your classmates; the point is not to keep the answers a secret but for everyone to learn how to get to the right answer.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:06 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm a professor and I would absolutely encourage my students to study in the way that you describe. Just don't use it for your homework assignments.
posted by k8lin at 5:11 AM on November 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

You are not cheating. Don't bring it up. Just learn.

Answer from a professor in TESOL who has taught linguistics classes (sometimes) with workbooks.

You are 100% OK in using that answer key you found online. The prof knows it is out there and can reasonably expect anyone to find it. That's why they do not use the questions for exams/assessments. (Well, and they should have a better way of doing that. But also people should know, they may be under some pressure, too. Not me, but plenty of part-time instructors teaching MA TESOL courses with no support or job security either.)

Classwork/homework is for you. You work on it. You check it against the answer key and keep going. Any practice you do on your own is good practice.
posted by Gotanda at 5:33 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone! I wanted to make sure that this was basically cool to do, not only for myself, but to share with classmates when studying together. (In high school, I had an incident with potential plagiarism that turned into a huge controversy, so I admit I'm a bit paranoid about what is allowed.)
posted by Shadow Boxer at 5:36 AM on November 20, 2019

If you're worried about it, another way you can get a check on your understanding is by going to office hours and asking.

As a student, I'd always been of the mindset that you only went to office hours when you were in DIRE NEED and BEGGING FOR MERCY. But it turns out that — at least at some schools/with some instructors — you can just show up and ask questions.

When I was teaching college classes, I was surprised (and delighted!) to find that there were students who came to office hours every week. They were generally friendly, dedicated, and interested in learning, and I enjoyed talking to them very much. When I saw them doing that, I wished that I had done it too when I was in college and the classroom stages of grad school.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:39 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

(But I agree with everyone else that what you're doing now is fine as long as you're not getting an unfair advantage on graded work.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:40 AM on November 20, 2019

I would go even further and say its fine to use the answer key to check your homework assignment answers but don't change them in the work you turn in.

It is important to get feedback on whether or not you're right while the material is still fresh in your mind so you can correct your misunderstandings, not reinforce them. The only ethical question is whether or not you get some sort of unfair advantage in your graded work. If you don't change the work you turn in on the basis of having seen the answer, then you haven't cheated in any sense.

(Honestly, I'd personally even say it would be fine to correct your mistaken answers on the basis that its known that the answer key is readily available and that your homework is primarily for your benefit, but that is getting into a more complicated area, ethically. The simple ethical answer is don't change the work you're going to submit for a grade after you've seen the answer.)
posted by Reverend John at 5:43 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I concur that it's perfectly fine to use as a study tool to check your work. It would be unethical to change your answer on a graded assignment. But as a study tool, to help you learn, to help you figure out what you did wrong on the practice problems -- 100% acceptable.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:53 AM on November 20, 2019

You're not being unethical.

Side-note that might be of interest to you: I have seen research recently that you will learn better and recall better if you don't check the answers right away. Even if you're wrong initially. It was a chapter in the book Range by David Epstein.

It'll feel like you're learning, but you recall much more if you are frustrated and don't know the answer. Weird, I know.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:43 AM on November 20, 2019

I think whether it is ethical to use the answer key to change your answer on homework depends on the nature of the problems and the nature of the grading.

If the questions on the homework set are simple right/wrong answers AND your homework is used in your grades based on your actual performance on the homework vs. just on completion, then yes, it would be unethical.

But if your homework requires that you show your work and is graded based on the work you did, then using the answer key to realize you got the question wrong, and then figuring out your error and redoing the work to get the correct answer is ethical and excellent learning practice.

If your homework is purely included in your grade based on completion, then changing the answers to match the answer key isn't unethical, but it's also completely pointless and has the potential to make the instructor think you know the material better than you do, which is actively self-sabotaging if you might otherwise get more help with it.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:45 AM on November 20, 2019

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