Have you ever cheated in a maths exam?

While at high school I was given a unique opportunity to do the right thing. But did I?

At high school, I had a tutor, Debbie, that came round to my house to help me improve my skills in maths. I was good at maths, but I wanted to be even better. Debbie had been my tutor for several months.  

It was only a few weeks before the end of year exams. I needed the best grades possible to stand a chance of being accepted into Veterinary school in Edinburgh – a job I’d dreamt about for many years. 

One Wednesday later afternoon, Debbie pulled a formal looking paper from her brown and orange pinstripe backpack. 

“Do you want to see it?” Debbie asked.

“What is it?” I asked.

“This year’s exam paper in maths,” she replied. 

I said that I’d think about it. And we began my lesson of the day. 

For a week, I thought about that exam paper. Do I read it or do I refuse it? Maybe Debbie was testing me – will David do the right thing?  

I did less maths study than usual because every time I sat down to work on my algebra or geometry, that thought would overwhelm me. Why bother learning this when you’ve got the final year paper. I could study biology or chemistry instead.

Wednesday came around again, and Debbie was back. She placed her backpack on the floor of our kitchen, where we always worked. I’m sure I was staring at it, waiting for her to pull the exam paper out. 

“So, do you want to see it?” Debbie asked. 

I don’t remember if I hesitated or asked questions about the authenticity of it, but I do remember saying, “yes,”.

For our final three sessions, we worked through the exam paper, figuring out the answers and writing the proof for every question. I used to look forward to our tutoring sessions, but now I felt sick. But it was too late, I told myself. I’ve seen the questions, so I might as well get on with it. 

Once we had the questions answered with the complete proof I wrote and rewrote them out until I was confident that I remembered it all. And then I waited for the exam season to start. 

I turned up on the day of my maths exam with my usual two slices of bread to stop my stomach rumbling and a small bottle of water to prevent a coughing bout. I thought that perhaps the exam paper Debbie gave me wasn’t, in fact, the actual exam paper – it was just an elaborate ruse of Debbie’s to get me to focus on some areas of maths where I was lacking. 

When the examiner signalled that we could start, I turned the paper over…

It was the exact exam paper I’d been studying and memorising for weeks.  

I sat for a while, staring at the paper, wondering how lucky I was and yet how unfair and wrong it was of me to be in this position. But how else could I proceed? I knew the answers to the questions. 

As I finished writing out the proof and answer for the final question, I felt some relief wash over me. It was over. Usually, I double-check my proofs and answers before leaving an exam hall. In this case, I didn’t. I just wanted to get out, do something else, and put this whole incident behind me.

“Okay, it’s done. I’m going to get a fantastic grade, and I’m going to vet school, and that’s great.” I thought. 

When the exam results came through at the end of the summer, I saw that I did terrible in that maths paper—a whole grade lower than what my teachers expected of me given my grades throughout the year. 

I didn’t understand. I had the exam paper, and I’d worked with my maths tutor to write the correct answers, and I’d memorised it perfectly. And in mathematics, unlike English or Philosophy where there’s some room for interpretation, the mathematical proof is the answer. There was no way the answers were wrong. However, there was nothing I could do to contest this result – I’d cheated, and I didn’t want anyone to know what I’d done.

Maybe the police found out that this tutor had the exam paper and they penalised all her students. But how would they find out who her students were? And if they did know, why didn’t they question me? 

I felt doubly bad. Not only had I cheated on an important exam but I’d also gotten no reward for cheating. This low grade could have meant that I wouldn’t get the grades I needed to go to vet school one day. It was months before I was able to begin moving on from the terrible decision I made to read that exam paper. 

But I learned that although there can be benefits to cheating, in this case, I didn’t need to spend so much time studying mathematics, there will be consequences to cheating. As the English proverb declares, “cheaters never prosper”. 

A couple of years later, between high school and university, I was studying psychology and learning all about the human mind. While examining cognitive biases, I realised that we sometimes sabotage our actions, motivations and thought processes. And very often we don’t realise we’re doing it. 

I realised that what I wrote on the day of that maths exam may not have been the correct answers as I’d memorised them to be. Instead, I’d unconsciously written incorrect answers because I felt guilty. I punished myself for cheating.

I never cheated again. And I never did make it to veterinary school.