All's fair in love and...statistics?
September 25, 2006 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I just discovered that my math professor is recycling homework assignments verbatim from prior years. I have a friend that took the course a couple years ago, and has all the answer keys. Is it ethical for me to use them?

The professor is a very strict grader and takes fractions of points off for very minor things. However, the math we are learning in the course is fundamentally important for my chosen profession, so I would only be using the keys to check my answers before I turn them in and never to just copy an answer for a problem that I don't fundamentally understand how to do.

Additionally, since his tests are closed book/closed note (and, by reputation, quite challenging), I know that I need to understand the material. Please no "the temptation to rely on them too much is too great" responses--I am disciplined enough that this isn't a concern.

My thinking is that if the professor isn't sufficiently motivated to change the questions, then he is implicitly saying that that he isn't concerned with the possibility of somebody having the answers. However, I am concerned that this is just my attempt to talk myself into it. What does the Green think?
posted by jtfowl0 to Education (90 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
posted by phrontist at 10:37 AM on September 25, 2006

Come on.. your using a answer key and asking if that is ethical?

If something is ethical, your teacher should be more than happy/willing to discuss it with you. If you would prefer, ask the academic dean.
posted by SirStan at 10:39 AM on September 25, 2006


It would be a cool thing if you told the Prof. You're not the only one who's got the answers.

PS: You are correct in thinking that your rationalization is a rationalization :-)
posted by facetious at 10:39 AM on September 25, 2006

posted by orthogonality at 10:39 AM on September 25, 2006

I don't see anything especially wrong with this, any more than if you were using a computer program to check your answers or something. The idea is to learn -- and having the answers in front of you often helps learning, as you can see what you're aiming for and so where your process might be going wrong.
posted by reklaw at 10:39 AM on September 25, 2006

posted by jdroth at 10:39 AM on September 25, 2006

What does your syllabus say? If using previous homework assignments is specifically disallowed, then the answer is obvious.

If not, I'd still say no. What about doing the homework in a study group? I find error-checking to be a lot easier when you can work through and compare answers with others, as long as everyone's pulling their weight.
posted by muddgirl at 10:40 AM on September 25, 2006

i would use them, but only to check my work. i find that it is easier to learn knowing that what you have struggled through is actually correct (or not). That way you can find where you went wrong rather than just hoping you did it right.

Honestly, I am surprised this is the first you have come across this. In my experience, this is a regular thing in college.
posted by blueplasticfish at 10:41 AM on September 25, 2006

Checking the answers to your homework is a damn good idea. Not only will your grades improve but more importantly you will find your own mistakes. I work as a tutor, both at a community college and privately, and i always let students check their work (only on homework of course) because if they catch their own mistakes the seesion almost always more productive. So do it and don't stress about it.
posted by MNDZ at 10:42 AM on September 25, 2006

(that being said, in tutoring for classes I've sometimes provided homework assignments from previous years, along the same lines as reklaw's reasoning, but with the professor's explicit knowledge).
posted by muddgirl at 10:42 AM on September 25, 2006

posted by lobstah at 10:44 AM on September 25, 2006

I'd say no. When in doubt, err on the side of intellectual honesty.
posted by Iridic at 10:47 AM on September 25, 2006

My "no" isn't in bold so it counts slightly less than jdroth's but it's a "no"!

My thinking is that if the professor isn't sufficiently motivated to change the questions, then he is implicitly saying that that he isn't concerned with the possibility of somebody having the answers.

"Well if she is going to wear a short skirt - we all know what she's implying!" :)
posted by ed\26h at 10:50 AM on September 25, 2006

I think it would be a wake-up call for him if you copied your friend's answer key and included it with an anonymous letter to the professor saying "THESE ARE ALL OVER CAMPUS. PLEASE MAKE A NEW TEST".

It's important to make sure it can't be traced to you, though.

Also, don't cheat.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 10:53 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do you think your professor would be okay with it? If not, then the answer is no. If you aren't sure, you should ask. If you aren't comfortable asking, then the answer is no. While it's nice to be able to check your answers to make sure you haven't made any small mistakes, if the professor grades with the assumption that you haven't been able to/aren't allowed to check your work, then you shouldn't do so.

Also, since you don't say what kind/what level of math it is: when you say "answer key", do you mean complete solutions to every problem, or just final answers? Sometimes a key with just answers is okay (so you know if you made a mistake, though you still have to find the mistake) while a key with complete solutions is not.
posted by samw at 10:56 AM on September 25, 2006

yeah i think the mistake here was using the word ethical in your question. Clearly, this is not ethical behaviour.
But on the other hand, if you're asking: is this the kind of thing I can do to help me get by and that a lot of people are probably doing, and isn't that bad? Then in my opinion the answer is yes.
posted by alkupe at 10:59 AM on September 25, 2006

Laying the ethics aside for a minute, do you really want to be "caught" with this answer key, and have only the excuse that you were using it to check your work? I think not. Run it by the professor, if only to cover your ass. And if you don't feel comfortable doing that, consider whether this tells you something about the ethics of the situation.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:00 AM on September 25, 2006

You're asking the wrong people here. You need to ask the professor. You can then proceed without ambiguity.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:01 AM on September 25, 2006

I think it's ok in so far as it is ethical to study from them and using them to help you ensure you've a correct understanding of the problem. Aren't SAT, LSATS, etc from previous years used to help as guides for the current year?

Although I've never had a college professor actually recylcing old tests, I've had a college professor or two put an 'ok stamp' on using other student's previous semesters(if we could find them). And actually, with math, aren't you suppsed to show your work anyway - so you'll need a basic understanding of what's you're putting down anyway?
posted by eatdonuts at 11:02 AM on September 25, 2006

Yeah, that "the prof is using the same questions which implies a lack of concern about cheating" is totally ridiculous. So is the notion that "I would only be using the keys to check my answers." You might start out that way...

As a former math teacher, I see MNDZ's point about allowing students to check their own work, but disagree that that gives you license to break the prof's rules. You *are* getting your work checked; that's exactly what the prof is doing for you. It's not like you won't get your mistakes pointed out, and won't learn from them when the professor hands your homework back.

So, what's really going on here seems to be that you simply don't want to lose points on your homework during the process of learning about your mistakes.

Tough. You're not in a class that allows you to check your own work, so stop bending over backwards to justify cheating so you get more points. You're also missing the fact that honest homework provides feedback to the professor about what is and isn't being taught, which helps everyone. Don't use the key. Turn in the best work you can do without checking the answer key, learn from the professor's corrections and get better.
posted by mediareport at 11:03 AM on September 25, 2006

OK, I'll bite..My NO meant NO, It is cheating ! Unless everyone in the class has access to the answers, you have an unfair advantage, but if you want to paint it in shades of gray, no sweat off mine, you have to follow your own moral compass.
posted by lobstah at 11:04 AM on September 25, 2006

Ask the professor. You already know what (s)he is going to say.
posted by phrontist at 11:05 AM on September 25, 2006

Mail the answer key back to the prof anonymously, saying that you came across these and won't use them, but they are floating around out there and you want to be protected from cheaters (assuming that this course grades on a curve.) Suggest that he either (1) changes the answers or (2) distributes the key to everyone and no longer grades homework assignments.

Having the answers in front of you is called cheating.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 11:05 AM on September 25, 2006

When you say you have an answer key, do you mean that you have something used by a TA or prof to grade tests, or do you mean that you have old copies of the tests with right, wrong/ corrected answers?

I see a significant eithical difference between using an answer key and using old tests. (In some classes with less lazy professors, students are encouraged to use old tests to study, even.)
posted by desuetude at 11:07 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: All, thanks for the answers so far. As a point of correction, remember these aren't tests, they are just the homeworks. Old tests don't seem to be available. Also, perhaps calling them "answer keys" wasn't totally accurate--I think what I would actually have access to is my friend's graded homeworks as he doesn't seem to distribute actual answer keys, if that makes any difference. Certainly, the correct final answer would be available, but I'm not sure if the intermediate steps would be on there.
posted by jtfowl0 at 11:09 AM on September 25, 2006

Are these homework assignments graded in the sense that they count towards your final mark? Or are they primarily learning exercises?

If these actually count towards something, don't put yourself in a position where you could be accused of having cheated. Even if you are strong willed and only use these to check your answers, and even hand in the ones that you know you got wrong, you could still be accused of cheating if someone finds out you had the answers. It's not worth the risk.

On the other hand, if these are assignments that are just learning exercises (and which only get marked to provide you with feedback), I'd say that using the answer keys to check your work can be useful. But be very sure to only peek at the answers once you've given the problems a good try.

When you're learning maths or physics or a similar subject, the learning happens by trying to work problems through yourself. It's very easy to look at someone else's solution and say to yourself, "Yes, I understand that." It's a very different thing to sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and figure out where to start yourself.

If these assignments are solely personal learning exercises, and if you have the willpower not to spoil the chance to learn through trying the problems yourself, then yes, use the answer key. This approach helped me a hell of a lot at college. If either of the above is not true, though, be very careful.

(I'm assuming that this isn't the kind of maths where getting the final answer is all that matters -- rather, that it's the kind of maths where you'd get zero points for just writing down the final answer and only get points if you actually demonstrate working and understanding.)
posted by chrismear at 11:09 AM on September 25, 2006

The major point, to me, is that you are paying for college; you should get the experience you want out of it. If you want to use this to get higher grades, do it.

Screw people's opinions about the ethics. In these days of test files and grade inflation, grades are essentially meangingless anyways.
posted by Cycloptichorn at 11:12 AM on September 25, 2006

Another vote for suprised that this is the first time you've come across this. Of course it's not ethical, but it sure is common. A lot of people don't feel the need to be strongly ethical in regards to minor homework assignments.
posted by metaname at 11:13 AM on September 25, 2006


Professors who don't provide answer keys drive me crazy. If the point is to learn the material, finding out the answer NOW is much more useful than finding out days or weeks later when you've already moved on to something that's built on the material you may have done incorrectly.

Getting negative feedback on the learning process itself (in the form of homework mistakes counting against your final grade) seems counterproductive and sort of mean-spirited. I have never understood it.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:13 AM on September 25, 2006

My above comment pertains to homework only. I don't feel the same about exams- learning previous exams would be unethical.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:14 AM on September 25, 2006

Seriously, the point to getting an education is to get the education, not just to get the marks. If you use the answer key directly, you bone yourself on the education, and you're wasting your own time and money.

Regardless of what your prof thinks, don't piss your education away like that.
posted by Imperfect at 11:19 AM on September 25, 2006

regarding mediareport's "breaking the prof's rules" statement: I don't care about the prof's rules. All I care about is learning the subject.

If I have to jump through some ego-maniacal profs' pointless hoops in order to learn the subject, I'll do it, but I won't go out of my way to make it easy for them.

And if profs feel their hoops have a point, they'd better spell it out for me, and I'd better agree with it.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:20 AM on September 25, 2006

No. If the math hasn't changed, what makes you think your professor should be obligated to change the questions?
posted by OmieWise at 11:22 AM on September 25, 2006

In most of my math classes in college, the professors provided us with the answers along with the assignments. We were graded on our ability to come to the correct conclusion by following the correct mathematical path.

However, in your situation using the answers sounds like cheating.

Seriously, why is it "lazy" to give students the same questions from one year to the next? Most universities have ethics policies. Generally, if you choose to break them you're agreeing to an F -- either on the assignment or in the class. In some cases, you can be kicked out of school altogether.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:23 AM on September 25, 2006

By the way, I totally agree with small_ruminant. I hate it when ego-maniacal research funders and the ego-maniacal laws of physics expect you to get things right without mistakes. I've never really agreed with gravity, so I tend to ignore it in my calculations.
posted by OmieWise at 11:25 AM on September 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

i think it's fine. as long as you do the work first, there's nothing wrong in checking it against your friend's graded homework.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:28 AM on September 25, 2006

No. Why should the fact that the professor's reusing questions have any effect on the way you proceed with your coursework? I doubt that he's implicitly saying "yes, go ahead, cheat" by reusing questions. Most likely, he's been too busy or lazy to write new questions, or he assumes [perhaps wrongly] that students will behave with integrity, or he's oblivious in the way some professors are. You are lying to yourself when you use your [quite probably incorrect] assumptions about his actions as justification for doing something you think may be immoral.

"Only checking before you turn things in" is dangerous - yes, even for people who are disciplined and have integrity. Sure, if you fix the minus sign you accidentally added in, that's not a huge issue. Where do you draw the line, though - when you screw up something that you've gotten right on other problems? ["Well, I obviously know how to use this technique, so..."] When you read through part of the solution, say "oh, now I see what to do," and finish the problem on your own? [Everything is more obvious when you get to see someone else's solutions.] If the class is as challenging as you say, and the exams are difficult, the temptation to get an easy grade-lift by depending on the answer keys will only get worse. Furthermore, this is a grade lift that no one else will get - you'll be saving yourself from the dumb mistakes that we all make in math, but no one else will have the opportunity to do so. [This advantage won't be reflected in your work on exams, of course.] Really, is it fair for you to get this sort of advantage over other students? Particularly if grading is on a curve?

If you're serious about using the keys just for learning, the most ethical course is to ask the permission of the professor. If he says that it's OK, have a great time. If not, ask him if he can provide answer keys soon after the homework is due, so that you can read them while the problems are still fresh in your mind. If he still says no, well, you're stuck. [If you're not willing to ask at all, that says something about the ethics of your plan, doesn't it?] Alternately, you could use the keys to work through your mistakes, but only after you've turned in the final draft of your assignment. Make a photocopy of the work, turn in the original, and then sit down to see what you did wrong. You still get all of the learning out of it, but you're not cheating or artificially inflating your grade. However, isn't that what the professor is already doing? You turn in your homework, and when you get it back, you'll have the same sort of feedback your friend got, only tailored to your work and your understanding of the material.

In sum: unless you have the professor's permission or you only bust out the answer keys after your work has been finished and submitted, the answer's NO.
posted by ubersturm at 11:30 AM on September 25, 2006

jtfowl0, how much, if at all, do the homework mistakes count against your final grade? I think a lot of us want to know the answer to that one.

negative feedback on the learning process itself (in the form of homework mistakes counting against your final grade) seems counterproductive and sort of mean-spirited.

That's a fair point that guided me when I was teaching high school math. But there's a gray area between a simple "did homework/didn't do homework" system and a "did homework well/didn't do homework well" system. Teachers figure homework into the final grade differently, but the second way isn't always "mean-spirited."

if profs feel their hoops have a point, they'd better spell it out for me

Sure, but if you have a problem with any hoops, have the guts to ask the prof about them and give them a chance to "spell it out" before you decide to break their rules. So far, the only "problem" jtfowl0 has mentioned is that the prof is a very strict grader who takes points off for minor homework errors. I'm a big fan of students standing up for their rights against unfair teaching practices, but grading math homework strictly is hardly a grave injustice.
posted by mediareport at 11:40 AM on September 25, 2006


What would be ethical would be to do your homework, turn it in, and look at your friend's work to realize the err of your ways after you get the test (and your well-deserved grade) back.
posted by itchie at 11:44 AM on September 25, 2006

Ask the professor!
posted by thirteenkiller at 11:45 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: Homework assignments count 1/3, the midterm exam counts 1/3 and the final exam counts 1/3.
posted by jtfowl0 at 11:50 AM on September 25, 2006

How much are the assignments worth? In my program, assignments were usually something like 10% of your mark, with the midterm and final making up the rest (something like 30% and 60%). Also, if you aced the final, the professors wouldn't care what you got on the midterm or the assignments, your final mark would be your mark. I am guessing math programs around the world are like this? If this is the case, I wouldn't copy. You also don't learn much of anything.
posted by chunking express at 11:50 AM on September 25, 2006

Well I'm an ethicist and a professor so here's my perspective: you are in college to learn the material and craft a better life for yourself. As a professor, nothing makes me happier than a student who is interested, dedicated, and learning. Homework, exams, and so on, should be fashioned to help you achieve the goal of learning the material. It serves other functions, such as assessing your progress (letting you know how the learning is going) and classifying you with similar students in the class. However, these functions MUST be subservient to the primary function, which is to help you learn. You admit that you are using the past assignments to help you learn, so there is something valuable about using these assignments.

However, you have insurance against losing points in the process of learning that other students don't have. This means, for all real purposes, that what a grade now means in this course (for people without the answers) is how fast someone was able to learn the material -- i.e. did you learn it enough before having to turn in the assignment.

It might be surprising, but I see your using the answers as passing the ethics test. The primary reason is that you're using them for a good purpose. The secondary reason is that I believe the professor would not be doing a good job if he/she removed a possible boon to your learning. Hence, the professor's objections to your usage of them may be enforceable, but it isn't contributing to student flourishing. The only factor that weighs on the other side is that you have the answers but not everyone else does. This is important, but college is not about getting grades. It is about learning. The only thing on the wrong side here is some duty you might have to the rest of the people in the class -- to be a cog in keeping grading fair by resisting taking insurance. I don't think this is your responsibility, and your professor isn't taking up the slack by using the same questions. A less individualist-minded ethicist might disagree with me here, but what would the collective be getting by trading fairness for one or more students' learning? Not much.

So I vote that it is in fact ethical: learn and prosper. Note that your professor may not see it this way, probably won't, and is probably overly concerned with giving out grades as opposed to facilitating learning. But following authority's wishes does not make something ethical.

Creative solution: You don't get to look at the old homeworks, but your friend does, and he or she can steer you in the right direction. Then it's just making use of a friend who's taken the course before.
posted by ontic at 11:51 AM on September 25, 2006 [10 favorites]

As a former TA, and also as someone who once took a statistics class with an idiot who didn't know math (200 cm = 13 feet?) and took points off homework for exceedingly trivial things, I say it's fine as long as:

1. You aren't caught. Well, duh.
2. You're using it only to check your understanding/progress.

When I took accounting, we had the answers available, but most of us knew that the only way we would understand the material for the finals was to know how to do it. The answers made it better, since we could track back within the problems where things went wrong.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:55 AM on September 25, 2006

Seriously, why is it "lazy" to give students the same questions from one year to the next? Most universities have ethics policies.

Well quite. I think this stems from a common mistake whereby people believe that if something has not been properly secured due to laziness, incompetence, a lack of foresight or whatever, they are then justified in stealing it, hacking into it, abusing it in some way or what have you. Maybe it happens as it seems that the lazy, incompetent or short-sighted person got what they deserved and if that’s the case no wrong has been committed; a sort of natural justice has run its course. But I’m digressing. The point is you cannot justify a normally unethical action simply by pointing out that the victim could have expected it.
posted by ed\26h at 12:01 PM on September 25, 2006

Homework assignments count 1/3

And you really have to ask if it's ethical to use a past year's corrections to check your homework before turning it in? Have you found the homework particularly difficult to do? Are you getting the basic concepts but just annoyed at losing points for minor errors? Are you concerned that those errors are adding up in ways that might make the difference between an A and a B?

If you have a philosophical problem with homework counting so much toward your final grade like small_ruminant does, you have every right to raise that with the professor and/or higher-ups. But if you're just not on a path toward getting the grade you want and are looking for ways around that, at least don't fool yourself into thinking it's ethical to doctor your homework with your friend's graded assignments from a previous year.
posted by mediareport at 12:02 PM on September 25, 2006

A few more things:

1. My reasons are perfectly consistent with it being unethical to use the answers just to get a better grade -- say that you're fed up that you have to take statistics to get your BA in Art History for some reason.

2. The root of my reasoning depends on it being somewhat unethical for someone to grade you on how quickly you can learn the material. In this case, can you learn it and perform operations based on it before the assignment is due? This actually seems hostile to encouraging learning to me, and therefore practices that are based on it can be ethically transgressed.

3. Even though it is ethical (morally permissible), this doesn't mean it's the best thing you could do. The best thing, as others have pointed out, would be to hand in the work and then check it with your friend's old homeworks. I believe this is superergatory.
posted by ontic at 12:04 PM on September 25, 2006

Note that your probably overly concerned with giving out grades as opposed to facilitating learning

Well, there's also the possibility that the poster is the one who's overly concerned about grades rather than understanding...
posted by mediareport at 12:05 PM on September 25, 2006

Totally ask the prof.

Tell him you had the opportunity to get ahold of the answers as they're floating around, and you'd like his advice. You hold yourself to a higher standard than many, and you'd like his perspective on the issue of old answer keys. Is it acceptable to use them to check one's answers? If not, what would he say to a request to mix things up on homework and tests, just to even the playing field?
posted by orangemiles at 12:05 PM on September 25, 2006

Your assignments are 1/3 of your mark? Clearly if they are placing that much value on them, they are expecting you to do them by yourself. My computer science classes in University had assignments that were worth this much, and the teachers were draconian if you were ever caught cheating, because they wanted the work you handed in to be your work and no one elses -- a reasonable expectionation I would say.
posted by chunking express at 12:09 PM on September 25, 2006

No, it is not ethical at all. Maybe he doesn't change them because he doesn't need to? Why should he change his course just so you don't feel the urge to cheat? Yes, it would be considered cheating.
posted by Loto at 12:10 PM on September 25, 2006

FWIW, in my math classes at Berkeley, the required texts *included* answer keys -- that showed answers only, point being that you needed to show work to get full credit.

This was a useful study aid, because you would know after you completed a problem whether or not you needed to rework it.

if you don't learn the math, you're only screwing yourself. The only potential problem I see with the answer key is that it is unfair to other students who don't know/realize that such an aid is present.
posted by fishfucker at 12:17 PM on September 25, 2006

alkupe writes "Clearly, this is not ethical behaviour."

I don't think it's that cut and dried. My experience is that every professor seems to have a different bar when it comes to what they allow in the way of outside assistance. The gaumet includes those that encourage study groups, answer sharing and checking, or even hand out the answers with the questions. Really the best answer is to talk to your professor and see what he thinks. They ultimately are the judge of whether you are cheating, if they don't think you are then you aren't. Ethically that would seem to be the only thing to worry about.
posted by Mitheral at 12:26 PM on September 25, 2006

If the real issue is learning, then there is a really simple, ethical course: finish the homework to the best of your ability. Photocopy it. Turn in the original. Then get out your "answer key" and rework the problems that you messed up.

Of course, if the real issue is wanting a perfect grade, then that's obviously unethical. Even good students make mistakes on homework. Learning to work accurately and check your work (without the presence of a cheat-sheet) is part of mastering the material and being a good student ---as is getting slightly below 100% on your assignments. Deal with it.
posted by Humanzee at 12:28 PM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Of course it's unethical.

Even with the best intentions, the temptation to use the answers is nearly irresistible. You start out using them "just to check," but then you progress to using them "just for a hint," and then "just this one time."

Most important, though, you're cheating yourself. You're taking statistics, I suppose, because you will need to use the methods in later courses, and in your work after you graduate. You absolutely need to master the subject without a crutch. For this basic course, you need to know the subject cold, for your own benefit.

Having the answers gives you extra confidence, right? But how will you fare without this backup on the exams, and in your life?

This course is a foundation stone for everything else you'll be studying. If it's even a little bit weak, it makes the advanced courses impossible.

If you're having trouble in the course, you need to talk to the prof NOW, and get some tutoring if necessary. You have to do it ALL yourself, to build up your intellectual strength and scope.

You're not in high school any more. You have to get off the teat and forage for yourself.
posted by KRS at 12:31 PM on September 25, 2006

Are you getting graded on those assignments? If you are, then no, it's not cool. Not only will you not really be learning anything (and then be useless come exam time) but you'll be screwing up the curve for everyone else.

Plus, it's cheating. Expulsion never looks good on a resume.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:31 PM on September 25, 2006

Of course it's a black and white issue - the question isn't "What are the ethical implications of this?"; it's posed as a yes/no question. It's not ethical, but it's not of those infractions that I'd imagine a lot of people are committing.

In theory, you could get into academic hot water for cheating. This is the absolute worst case, and is not likely to happen. In the best case, you do your homework on your own, check against the old homework to learn from your mistakes, and then do very well on the assignments and tests. The reality is going to likely be that you do most of your own work, copy a little here and there, and do less well on the tests than if you had plowed through all of the work yourself.

I'd do my own work, and then sneak a peek if you really get stuck -- but only continue if you understand the problem you were stuck on. Get help or work on it longer if you don't comprehend what you're writing.
posted by mikeh at 12:34 PM on September 25, 2006

My thinking is that if the professor isn't sufficiently motivated to change the questions, then he is implicitly saying that that he isn't concerned with the possibility of somebody having the answers.

What others have said -- if the prof really doesn't mind, then no harm in discussing it with him, is there? Otherwise this sounds a tad like "if my wife didn't want me to cheat on her, she wouldn't go away on such lengthy work assignments." If your initial reaction to this suggestion is "uh, no, I can't talk to the prof about this!" then you're not even being dishonest with yourself. You know it's wrong.
posted by dreamsign at 12:34 PM on September 25, 2006

he is implicitly saying that that he isn't concerned with the possibility of somebody having the answers

No, he isn't saying anything, you are using your imagination to imagine a professor saying something.
posted by scheptech at 12:37 PM on September 25, 2006

A story: In my first semester of college spanish, I was not doing well at all. The majority of my classmates had traveled/studied abroad, and I later found out that ALL of them had the answer keys from another section of the class with the same assigments/tests. My professor encouraged me to find some assistance for assignments/tests, which I did in the form of a next-door neighbor who was fluent. When I turned in the homework that she helped me with (I did it, she checked it and guided me to learning my mistakes), he accused me of cheating and not actually doing any of the work myself because it was so much better than I had done before. Luckily, he was a graduate student and an idiot, and nothing ever came of it.

If your homework is too close to perfect or too great an improvement, it will be very clear that you are not doing it entirely on your own. The lines are sometimes fuzzy, but I'd err on the side of caution since more and more schools are taking academic integrity very seriously. If he wanted you to have it for "double-checking", he would have given you 1-3 answers for each assignment.

You'll get way more bonus points for feeling good about yourself and doing the right thing (i.e. not cheating, telling him about the answers) than you would if you made it through based on someone else's homework.
posted by ml98tu at 12:37 PM on September 25, 2006

I learn math by reasoning my way to the right answer.

Answers are handy for that, once I've settled my mind. Half the time, I am wrong. I'm not sure that an answer key per-se is a cheat, but as others have said, if you get points for homework, it's unethical.

If you don't get points for homework, then the prof should care less if you sacrified chickens or worshipped Satan in your approach, and you'd have nothing to lose by asking him. If he says OK, you're clean. If he says, NO, you've done the right thing.

If you keep quiet, it's because you have something to hide and that means you know in your heart, it is unethical.

Whether he is a nitpicking pain in the ass or not has no bearing on the right/wrong of it.

Reason tells me you should bring it up to him and abide by his resulting reaction and guidance.
posted by FauxScot at 1:01 PM on September 25, 2006

Humanzee is correct. Finish your homework without looking at the answers, and turn it in to get graded on a level with others in the class.

(If you're concerned it won't be level, then tell the prof that old answers are freely available and ask him/her to either put different numbers in the homework problems or distribute answers to everyone.)

Keep a copy of the homework and compare to the answer key -- then work through the ones you've messed up. Good for you, for being devoted to learning! You will get more out of university than many students do, and hold your head high while doing it. You get to learn, exactly in the same way you would if you were cheating... except you avoid cheating.

You don't get the benefits of cheating, that is, being guaranteed to get full marks on your homework when not everyone in the class is guaranteed full marks. But those benefits, as exhaustively noted, come from cheating. And yes, despite what one professional ethicist says, cheating is wrong.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:18 PM on September 25, 2006

If this were really just about learning, why not check the answers on your own corrected work (after the professor hands it back)? Checking your answers before handing them in helps your grades a lot more than it helps your learning.

(I guess you could argue that using your friends' old papers lets you learn sooner than if you wait for your own papers to be corrected.)
posted by mbrubeck at 1:52 PM on September 25, 2006

I Nth the NO, though I might personally cut some small amount of slack on the issue if there was any grade curve in operation. Clearly this is not a fact that only jtfowl has figured out. It would be unfair to the honest people in the class for the professor to make a full third of the grade dependent on something s/he is too lazy to generate unique questions for.

Given that it's math, however, and presumably you're on an absolute grade scale then yeah, you're rationalizing. Do the work yourself and enjoy the sense of satisfaction involved in getting the grade that you earned completely by yourself.
posted by phearlez at 1:53 PM on September 25, 2006

despite what one professional ethicist says, cheating is wrong.

Here's the rationale: a cog in keeping grading fair by resisting taking insurance. I don't think this is your responsibility...

Hmmm, maybe he skipped class when they covered the Social Contract.
posted by scheptech at 2:17 PM on September 25, 2006

Presumably you can make use of resources outside of the formal course materials, such as webpages, java engines that demonstrate concepts or calculate stuff, Maple or Mathematica or similar to crunch your equation stacks, and so on. At least, the fact that they're homework implies the use of such resources, since the prof can't know you're not using them.

But using old homework seems unkosher to me. It also might be unhelpful -- you might write your answer in a particular way to avoid getting a point off, but find that you get a point off anyway because the prof isn't consistent in his pickiness from year to year.

If you want to check your work, why not just set it up in Maple and see if everything holds?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:40 PM on September 25, 2006

I'm really surprised at all the immediate "NO"s.
What you suggest is, ethically speaking, completely and entirely neutral. The only one you'll be hurting is yourself.

That is what you need to be asking, and you've already answered your own question by saying the math we are learning in the course is fundamentally important for [your] chosen profession.

Once you're working in your chosen profession, there won't be crib sheets.

But, ethics? C'mon, folks.
posted by poweredbybeard at 2:45 PM on September 25, 2006

The ideal solution would be to hand the old homework to the whole class, but someone would narc so that's probably a bad idea. Therefore, if I was worried about an unfair advantage over my classmates, I can see that checking a photocopy of my own work against it after I've turned my original in would be a good solution.

I still say grading homework this way is counter-productive. I hate that classes are competative. If, at the end of the class, we all undestand 2 + 2=4 why did the process of learning how to get there need to produce winners and losers?

mbrubeck, I never did get half my homework assignments back. I certainly wouldn't want to wait for them to be returned to find out how to do a process correctly.

the ego-maniacal laws of physics expect you to get things right without mistakes. I've never really agreed with gravity, so I tend to ignore it in my calculations.

Omniwise, I'm not understanding you. I'm not talking about checking my answers so that I get an A- I'm talking about checking them so that I know that I'm learning to do things correctly. I don't want my incorrect method to have cemented into my brain for the week (optimistically) it takes to get things back.

Thank god I'm out of university. The trade-school type instructors whose classes I've taken most recently don't care what you use to learn the material. Nearly all of them hand out answer keys and examples of previous projects. Bonus if your project is better than those. If you have an uncle in the business, last years' homework assignments, an amazing study group, or a direct link to god- it's all good. Make use of it. All that matters for your grade are the project(s), midterm, and final.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:49 PM on September 25, 2006

Also, MeTa post on this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:42 PM on September 25, 2006

Yes, read the MeTa post. It started out as someone pointing out the interesting turn the thread had taken, now it's just a continuation of the same argument.

And I feel it's important to point out that this is definitely not NECESSARILY contrary to the policies of the school or department. For instance, Georgia Tech's honor code very clearly states that materials from previous sections of a course are a perfectly valid resource for studying and working homework, and professors are even encouraged to make them available.

And the poster has not yet made clear what the professor's policy on using extracurricular materials for help with the homework is. I'd think that's pretty important. Are you supposed to do the homework with nothing but your book and a calculator? Then yes, it breaks the policy, and is unethical. Are you allowed to use any resource you can find? Then fine, do so. If you can use outside materials, this isn't a dishonest or unethical resource. Not in the way you're describing. Naturally, if you just copied it with your name, it would be both.

And the argument that this is a resource not available to other students is not really true. Any other student could also seek out someone who took the class previously and get the notes and homework.
posted by solotoro at 4:09 PM on September 25, 2006

solotoro: I took it from the title of the post ("I just discovered that the prof is recycling questions") that not everyone in the class knows about this, and the prof hasn't made it known. (I took it that the prof didn't make it known because s/he did not intend for students to borrow old homeworks to help studying -- that is, I take it the opposite way from the way the poster took it.)

Obviously, if you spoke to the prof and s/he said it's fine, and announced it to the class, then it would be ok. It's really the "I have a cheat sheet and not everyone else does" aspect that I'm responding to.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:17 PM on September 25, 2006

I think this is a pretty clear "Golden Rule" violation: How would you feel if, at the end of the semester, you discovered that one of your classmates had the answer key for all the homework and had thus been able to get a perfect score on every assignment? Would you be pissed? No, really. Don't try to equivocate this because you really want to be able to use the old assignments.
Like others have said, if this is really a matter of learning better, you can go through the old assignments after turning your work in. Otherwise it seems pretty clear to me that you are cheating. But hey, if you ask the prof and s/he is cool with it, then go nuts.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:29 PM on September 25, 2006

ontic: I believe this is superergatory.

It sits on top of hills of sand?

posted by koeselitz at 5:05 PM on September 25, 2006

Checking the old assignments in order to improve your work before turning it in is clearly cheating.

Do you seriously think that it's the professor's responsibility to keep you from using previous materials? You are the one going outside of the implicit student, professor contract. Do not pretend that his naiveté excuses your activity.
posted by oddman at 5:28 PM on September 25, 2006

"What you suggest is, ethically speaking, completely and entirely neutral. The only one you'll be hurting is yourself."

That's not necessarily true if the poster is in a competitive field where jobs, grad school admissions, or other rewards are based partly on GPA or class rank.
posted by mbrubeck at 5:31 PM on September 25, 2006

I find the abundance of "NO" answers strange.

I attended a university program where it was common, though by no means universal, for students to use previous years' exams, problem sets, and other materials for studying. Sometimes these materials were provided by the professor, sometimes not. Sometimes people obtained "course bibles" from friends in upper years. Some people with previous years' course notes shared the notes, some didn't.

In any case, no one viewed as unethical the appropriate use of previously worked problems or course notes to check your work. Everyone knew some people who (unethically) copied old problem sets verbatim and passed this work in as their own. The copiers might have gotten a boost on the 20% of the grade associated with homework problems, but they often wound up getting screwed in the end when, having cut corners in learning the material, they dropped the ball on the final exam that represented 60% of their final grade.
posted by theorique at 6:28 PM on September 25, 2006

I find the absolute certainty of the "no" answers strange as well, since the OP hasn't said anything about the collaboration and sourcing policies of the class. I'm a math TA in a class where homework counts for a good portion of the grade, but students are allowed to work together and tell each other how to do the problems; the only requirement is that you write up the solutions individually. I suspect that a lot of people with the "no" answers have little experience in mathematical fields and are thinking of an "answer key" as something where each problem is answered by a number; I'd just as soon think that it might be a set of solutions that provides an outline of how to do a proof. It's not the professor's responsibility to stop you from using certain materials, but it is his responsibility to provide a clear and explicit ethics policy.
posted by transona5 at 7:09 PM on September 25, 2006

I did exactly this for one course in my first year at University (used previous years assignment answers to validate mine). Did not feel bad about it then, certainly don't feel bad about it now. There are some differences though

- the course (earth science) was not related to my major (biology) and I did not continue with that subject in any way
- it was a practical course so even if I knew the answers before class (which I often did) I still had to go through the motions, learning how to use the microscope or recognise the rocks etc, and needed to demonstrate that I could do that as well as have the correct answer at the end. This is somewhat similar to mathmatics where the key only gives answers but you have to show working.
- the practical assignments only made up about 20% of the overall grade, the tests and exam were closed book and focussed on understanding etc (and changed year to year).
- the course really wasn't that hard, I would have got full marks on many assignments regardless of having answers (so my 'boost' was very small) and I also got high marks in all the closed book testing.
- the course used the same set of questions every single year (and made no secret of this) and many of us had answer sets from previous students (which also came from prevous students etc). I'm sure the people running the course had twigged to this by the time I came along.
- if I got something totally wrong I left it wrong, sometimes I used the answers to make sure mine was complete and correctly worded, but mainly used them to get an idea of what would be expected before starting then worked things out for myself.

In the end I got an A- I think. Probably would have been the same without the answers, going from a high A- to a low one, but even if it bumped my grade it wouldn't make much difference. Absolute numerical marks didn't matter (only the letter grade) and grade point averages weren't calculated at the time. First year grades are fairly meaningless, all that mattered was that I got enough B's or above in my third year to get into Masters (which this obviously did not count towards). I don't even list my undergrad papers on my CV anymore, let alone grades, just mention the degree and two majors. Oh, and no scaling or class averaging, so no reason for my grades to affect those of others in the class. It was a high scoring paper in general.

Under my circumstances I fail to see how using previous answers really matters at all. If it had been a more important paper (i.e. biology) or the grade mattered I would probably have gone for the idea mentioned here of turning in the assignment with my answers then using the 'correct' version to check them and learn from it afterwards. I assume you're going to get answers in class at some stage anyway so you're not getting any advantage besides being able to learn the material properly while it's still fresh.
posted by shelleycat at 7:23 PM on September 25, 2006

If the general culture at poster's school or in this course allowed this kind of thing, wouldn't the poster know that already? Or wouldn't his older friend (who he's getting the notes from) know that? If this would obviously be aboveboard for his school he wouldn't be asking whether it's ok.

Again: either ask your prof, or don't check your answers before turning in the work (though after turning in is ok).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:25 PM on September 25, 2006

No. Do the work, learn the material. Look at the keys after the test, not before.

Seriously. What you're talking about is known as 'cheating'.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:42 PM on September 25, 2006

I find the abundance of "no" answers strange, too, but I think it's because there's a little uncertainty in the question. There are at least three things you could do with the answer key:

1. just copy the answers without working the problems
2. correct wrong answers after working the problems
3. check the answers and figure out what you did wrong, but don't make any changes--always turn in your initial answers

The poster says he definitely wouldn't do #1, but he doesn't specify whether #2 is out. I'd say that #3 is obviously okay, and #2 is wrong unless the professor says otherwise.
posted by equalpants at 7:44 PM on September 25, 2006

three things you could do with the answer key

It's not an answer key; the poster has clarified it's the friends' corrected homework from a few years ago.
posted by mediareport at 7:47 PM on September 25, 2006

It's not an answer key; the poster has clarified it's the friends' corrected homework from a few years ago.

Indeed; doesn't change anything though, does it?
posted by equalpants at 7:52 PM on September 25, 2006

I once had access to the solutions to a subset of the HW I was assigned in a physics course. The course was gruelingly difficult and the professor did not want to teach the course. He would come to class, sit down and READ us the notes that ANOTHER prof had written. We all had the notes, so we didn't need them read aloud to us.

Because the class was so hard and the prof was so poor at teaching, the homework was nearly impossible. I had solutions to less than 20% of the assigned problems and I probably looked at half of them. But I never turned in work that I did not understand completely. If I could not work it out, I did not copy the solution that I had. True, I used the solutions as guides, but the work was my own.

That said, on the next to last assignment, the grader figured out that I had solutions to some of the problems. He said he would "grade me harder" from then on. I'm not sure how that was justified, as he had seen how hard I had struggled all semester, and that I clearly did not have all the solutions.

What's my point? My point is that I agree with the professor and ethicist who posted above. But, your prof and/or grader might not be so forgiving.
posted by achmorrison at 8:40 PM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: If anybody is still following this thread (and I was surprised at the large amount of attention it received), I am following the advice posted by a number of you: I'm going to office hours today and ask the professor if it is ok or not. I'll post an update when I get a final determination.

However, it occurs to me that while this will solve my problem, I'm not sure that it answers the question of ethics one way or another. Thanks all for the advice, especially those that took the time to include their reasoning.
posted by jtfowl0 at 7:06 AM on September 26, 2006

jtfowIO, I think you're making the right call. Asking the professor removes all doubt from the situation.
posted by jdroth at 7:39 AM on September 26, 2006

It's math? Is there a better way to learn math? WTF?

Use the examples and learn your stuff good! I excelled in math when I had the anwers to check my work. Nothing like knowing something is wrong, to make one look more closely. Quickly catch erros in thought before they become bad habits, which really screws one in math.

Ethics? Um, it's math. There are no ethics in math. Math is. It is pure. You can or you can't.

Math professors, OTH, vary widely.
posted by Goofyy at 8:20 AM on September 26, 2006

jtfowl0, I hope the conversation goes well!

I just spoke to a math professor friend of mine, and he contradicted my advice. So here's his:

"To level the playing field, you could make the old homeworks available to the other students. (Assuming grades will be curved.) But in my math department, it's taken for granted by professors that if a large course uses the same homework problem sets from year to year, students will have access to previous years' problem sets. I don't see anything wrong with what the student is proposing. Also if he's going to talk to the professor, he could just bring the old homework with him, along with the current assignment, and say 'I was working through Problem 3 here, and see that I'm getting a different answer from the previous year's. I've been trying to work out what I'm doing wrong, and wanted to talk to you about it.' That way, he make it clear that he's using the old problem sets in the right way, and will get a read on what the professor thinks about it."
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:23 PM on September 26, 2006

Goofyy writes "Ethics? Um, it's math. There are no ethics in math. Math is. It is pure. You can or you can't. "

This isn't about math, this is about behaviour of a student. Nice try, though.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:54 PM on September 26, 2006

The temptation would be too great. You say you need to know this math - but there will be that night when you are just too tired, and you say "just once, I will just copy, and study it tomorrow". But tomorrow you will have another assignment, and maybe you won't understand that one, and things could just snowball. Maths is so cumulative that missing just one thing because you were tempted to copy could disrupt your whole program.

Heck, the temptation not to do the readings was too much when I was auditing courses. I was there just to learn, didn't care about marks, but I let myself slip, and in the end I was the only one who suffered (since I didn't learn what I wanted to). Don't risk your future career and understanding of the math.
posted by jb at 5:23 PM on October 20, 2006

« Older Why can't I hit the DoubleClick domains?   |   Online Shoe Purchase, Help Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.