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I have checked different existing posts on the topic and none of them really clearly address that point. With the increase of online exams, there has been an increased of exam questions asked and fully answered here. An example of such a question but not answered can be found there: Find the solution of matrix equation which matches vector span This was clearly admitted by the OP in a comment.

The issue with that is that sometimes some complete solutions are posted within minutes while some other people were commenting that the OP should at least put their effort. Which is a proper way of delaying everything.

My question is: how to avoid that someone provides a complete solution to exam questions too early?

Adding a delay would be a solution as exams are often time limited and that time is rather short. Unfortunately that would not solve entrance exams where this time is long.

Should a box message should be placed as a warning that this could be an exam question to refrain people from answering and should negative points awarded to people answering the questions too early? That would refrain people from answering those questions during the embargo time.

Maybe none of those suggestions is acceptable for some reason I ignore and some others would be preferable.

All in all, I think that this platform is great but it should not serve this purpose.

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    $\begingroup$ The question to which you have linked is a PSQ (problem statement question), and does not meet the quality guidelines for the site. The fact that the asker has outright said that they were trying to cheat is galling, but relatively irrelevant to the policies and procedures of this site. That being said, I have deleted the question (as it is a low quality PSQ, and the brazen claim regarding cheating indicates that an answer is not likely to be of much use to anyone, including the asker). $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    May 6 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson I know that the OP claims that they don't "fear a ban", but surely that kind of brazen claim would merit a suspension of the account, however useless such a ban might prove in practice? $\endgroup$ May 6 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @ArturoMagidin What StackExchange policy have they violated? $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    May 6 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ Puppet accounts? Maybe we should have a local policy, then... $\endgroup$ May 6 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ I'm with Arturo here. There are many suspensions given to users who have not violated any policy, save for one moderator's impromptu rule, non-existent though it is. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    May 7 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Something that always makes me suspicious is the year number arbitrarily appearing in the question. A trivial example would be "What the largest prime less than 2022?". This style (but a lot more complex of course) is common in entrance exams and other challenge papers. If the number is a little less than current, e.g. 2020 or 2021, then they might be practicing on past papers but the current year is suspicious. $\endgroup$
    – badjohn
    May 8 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @badjohn Of course, if I were a dishonest actor asked for the largest prime less than 2022, I would quickly check that 2021 is not prime and then change the number to last year's. $\endgroup$ May 11 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @MishaLavrov Better still, ask for the largest less than 2023, as fairly obviously, the answer won't be 2022. Also, it might be next year's question. However, the better universities might use slightly harder questions. $\endgroup$
    – badjohn
    May 11 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ This might be an example: math.stackexchange.com/questions/4380647/…. It was the first result when I searched for 2022. $\endgroup$
    – badjohn
    May 11 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ It seems like a bot could check for the current year appearing in a question and auto-flag for moderator's attention. The bot might even send a note back to the poster saying, "Your question includes 2022, so it is required that you include the source of your problem in your post before a moderator can approve its publication." $\endgroup$
    – B. Goddard
    May 13 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ @B.Goddard I understand your point, but it seems like the likely response on the part of the questioner will be to just change the number to something else close by. I suspect a measure like this would be pretty ineffective in practice. (I'm not opposed to it per se, I just doubt it's worth the time to code it up.) $\endgroup$ May 13 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AaronMontgomery Changing the number could mess up the problem. Maybe the nearby number isn't prime? Besides, once auto-flagged, the moderator can see of the year used to be something else. $\endgroup$
    – B. Goddard
    May 13 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson - a bit more complexity, by deleting the question you've made it very difficult for the instructor to hunt down cheating... $\endgroup$
    – Joel
    May 17 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Something that seems to be missing from the discussion is that exam questions are often covered by copyright... $\endgroup$
    – Joel
    May 17 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Joel My primary concern is with the health and quality of this site. The question is not a good question; it is a problem statement question which was apparently asked in bad faith. It doesn't belong here. The ability of an instructor to track down potential cheating is a much lower priority, particularly considering that the user is essentially anonymous. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    May 18 at 17:44

4 Answers 4

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Some context for my answer: I am a professor at a small university in the US, and I was burned very badly by the need to administer remote exams in the last year due to COVID-19. I caught a substantial share of my students working with each other or using the internet (not on MSE, thankfully, though for this conversation I don't think it substantively matters) when it was clearly disallowed. I was pretty scarred by this experience; it changed the way I view my relationship with my students and it's fairly likely that I'll change careers soon as a pretty direct result of this. I was angry about this issue at the time, and I remain angry about it. I am very, very sympathetic to your position.

With that context in mind, I don't think MSE should enact any special measures to handle this problem.

  1. It's nearly impossible to know when this is happening. It is typically quite challenging to determine when a post is being used for an exam question inappropriately. I am unable to see the post you linked, but I understand that it was a particularly egregious case in which the student explicitly acknowledged that they were cheating. Obviously, that's bad. I would not dream of answering that question; others would. But, I'd imagine (without an iota of data) that for every post like the one you linked, there are dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of posts where an exam question is well-dressed enough that it passes muster and gets answered.

  2. Without ironclad proof, accusing or implying cheating risks real harm. Again, in the brazen case you listed, there's no question about this. However, most cases are much grayer. If we correctly accuse users of cheating, the likely response is anger and denial, or perhaps a hasty deletion of the post before trying again on one of the more unsavory parts of the internet. But if we incorrectly accuse someone of cheating? There's very little chance that user would ever come back, I'd think. This would be true even if they were an upstanding, thoughtful user asking a good question in good faith. That would be a shame, and it would limit our community's potential and deprive us of excellent new members, in my opinion. (Not to mention, being falsely accused of something is just a plainly crappy feeling, even if it's just a bunch of internet strangers that you'll never encounter again.)

    Falsely accusing someone of cheating is patently unkind, and in the spirit of the US legal system -- "it's better to let ten guilty persons go free than to put one innocent person in jail" -- I'd submit that we shouldn't try to ferret out the cheaters.

  3. Ultimately, this is the responsibility of the instructor to sort out. I like this quote from the contest question policy:

    First and foremost: we believe that the responsibility for the integrity of an exam, contest, competition, etc. ultimately falls on the shoulders of the organizers.

    That said, the Mathematics Stack Exchange community is not an island unto itself: rather we exist within a larger macrocosm of people who do or are interested by mathematics. So in the occasion when our purpose (essentially: providing mathematical answers to mathematical problems) butts against that of others, it helps to draw some reasonable boundary to play nice with other members of the larger community. In short, we want this community to have a reputation as a Good Citizen.

    I think the same principles apply here; it's on the instructor to determine how to manage this problem. As for maintaining our reputation in the mathematical community, I would suggest that comments, downvotes, etc. are probably an appropriate mechanism for dealing with this. In severe cases like the one you linked, my desire would basically be for the question to quickly get comments warding others off from answering it, to be closed quickly, and to be downvoted straight to Tartarus. As for the users who will ignore these signs and answer anyway, well... I suspect they're small in number and probably not worth developing policies to handle. [EDIT: AmWhy has pointed out that we already have policies to handle such offenders.] Moreover, even if we chase users like that off from here, they're in much greater numbers elsewhere.

    The big lesson that I learned during the COVID-19 year is to never again give an unmonitored exam. If I want to assess closed-anything knowledge, I need to have students sit in a room with me to demonstrate what they can do. Even if we change MSE to counteract this problem, there are dozens of other websites that will uncritically -- even enthusiastically -- do this work. It is incumbent on the instructor to decide how to assess knowledge and how to mitigate the risk of cheating.

  4. Even in the case of cheating, answering the question may serve the MSE mission. Like Xander mentioned, the goal of MSE is to be a comprehensive repository of good questions and good answers. If an exam question is good, having it answered here could constitute a useful (non-cheating) reference for someone else later. And if the question isn't good, we should treat it about the same way we treat most of the rest of bad questions.


And of course, the standard disclaimer; these are all just my opinions, and I'm happy to be convinced otherwise on any of them.

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    $\begingroup$ In the case of problem statement questions, there are consequences for those who answer such questions, whether they be homework, exam, or contest questions. Answering such questions violates the Enforcement of Quality Standards, and such answers should be flagged for moderator attention. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    May 6 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ I think we simply have to accept that online exams are not a good idea. I felt frustrated when I found out that my fellow students succesfully cheated in the exams. $\endgroup$
    – Filippo
    May 11 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Filippo I agree completely, and I'm very sorry for the completely understandable frustration you felt. $\endgroup$ May 11 at 13:11
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The goal of Math SE is to create a repository of high-quality questions about mathematics with corresponding high-quality, authoritative answers. We do not have the capacity nor the mandate to police potential cheating—the closest thing that the Math SE community has to an anti-cheating policy is the Contest Problem Policy, which seeks to provide guidance for dealing with questions from ongoing, publicly viewable mathematics competitions.

As such, from the point of view of enforceable policy on Math SE, we must remain agnostic with respect to suspicions of cheating (even if an asker outright states that they are trying to cheat).

That being said, I think that a responsible community action is to attempt to avoid answering questions which are likely to be attempts to cheat. Fortunately, such questions typically don't meet the standards for a good question, so they can be closed and deleted. Moreover, policing attempts to cheat is a matter for the community to handle, rather than the moderators.

What should I do if I think that someone is trying to cheat?

  • Don't answer the question. Don't post an answer, and don't answer in the comments. Don't give hints. Simply don't engage with the asker.

  • If the question fails to meet the quality standards for the site, feel free to flag the question as "Low Quality", or (if you have sufficient reputation) vote to close the question. You are also free to downvote the question, but there is no policy on downvoting—you have to decide for yourself how to cast up or down votes.

  • If the question fails to meet the quality standards for the site and it has already been answered, do not insinuate to the answerer that the asker might be trying to cheat. Instead, follow the EoQS guidance: suggest that the answerer reserve their answers for higher quality questions and, if you believe that it is merited, flag the answer for moderator attention (including the string "EoQS" helps). You are also free to downvote the answer, but (again) there is no policy on downvoting—you have to decide for yourself how to cast up or down votes.

  • Do not accuse the asker of cheating. Yes, they might be trying to slip one past you, but they might also be asking the question in a context where there is no issue of academic integrity. Making accusations is unfriendly. Judge the question on its merits, and leave speculation about motivation aside.

  • If a question comes from a publicly viewable source, and this source also includes language about not seeking outside help, the moderators can and will lock the question until the end of the exam / competition period. Again, see the Contest Problem Policy.

  • If the question does not come from a publicly viewable source, do not flag the question for moderator attention. There is nothing we can do about it. Of course, as noted above, if the question is of low quality, standard flags / votes-to-close apply.

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  • $\begingroup$ It seems your "answer" is irrelevant in this particular case, as it was a psq, and you yourself saw to its deletion. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    May 7 at 16:17
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"How to avoid that someone provides a complete solution to exam questions too early?"

Perhaps the same as for homework questions; there has been discussion of that problem here.

Some of our users propose downvoting such solutions (with a comment explaining why). Some over-eager answerers may be influenced by downvotes.

If someone does such answers too often, our friendly moderators can even award a suspension to that naughty answerer. (It has happened to me.)

I would be interested to hear of any other techniques that might work.

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    $\begingroup$ We simply have to accept that online exams are not a good idea. There is no way that you can 100% distinguish between an "exam exercise" and other questions. And even if we could, people will always find new ways to cheat. As a student I was shocked by the amount of students that cheated by working in groups. $\endgroup$
    – Filippo
    May 11 at 10:56
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There's a huge difference between the policies of each university regarding online exams. At the institution where I'm currently studying, students are asked to join a zoom session with cameras that show their upper body and their screen. With such precautions I believe no one can, in the time of their exams which is usually 2-3 hours, typeset an entire question on Stackexchange and expect to be answered really quickly, so ultimately it falls down to how much you trust each student and how far the university is willing to go, to prevent students from cheating. And for me, although I am a student myself, I don't trust students not one bit.

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  • $\begingroup$ that sounds annoying to implement. were the cameras provided? $\endgroup$ May 11 at 3:08
  • $\begingroup$ @CalvinKhor Nope. I as a student had to find my own camera, and place my phone at a position to shoot my computer's screen. But I'd say having a camera that connects to your computer is nearly a must nowadays, since my institution has classes that require attendance. $\endgroup$
    – Cissalc
    May 11 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ well, checking that Im attending would be easy enough with my laptop's webcam, but the webcam is part of the screen so can't show my screen :) but good to see that there are solutions on the admin side $\endgroup$ May 11 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ I like this policy, but people will always find new ways to cheat. $\endgroup$
    – Filippo
    May 11 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Filippo well there were ways to cheat before online examinations anyways, I'm just saying that there are ways to make specifically "cheating using MSE" nearly impossible, hence if someone IS cheating using MSE, that's because the university is not observant enough. $\endgroup$
    – Cissalc
    May 12 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Cissalc Were they able to see your hands? $\endgroup$
    – Filippo
    May 12 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Filippo Yeah, pretty much. $\endgroup$
    – Cissalc
    May 12 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Cissalc Okay, I didn't consider that. But even then I think that online exams allow more extreme ways to cheat. $\endgroup$
    – Filippo
    May 12 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Filippo askamanager.org/2022/01/… Although it's not impossible to do this in person, as well, of course--there is a reason why some exams require students to show their student ID before sitting it. :( $\endgroup$ May 17 at 18:32

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