Double Take
September 3, 2009 2:30 PM   Subscribe

How ethical is it to look at previous years' exams?

I know that some students have access to previous years' problem sets and use them to extreme benefit. We have been told that exam questions are often like previous years' questions, and have not received any instructions that any material is forbidden.

On the other hand, I assume acquiring the actual exam would be forbidden. What is ethical here? Alerting them to the availability is not an option.
posted by gensubuser to Education (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know what "exams" (high school? university? US? UK?) you're talking about, but in UK secondary schools we were given tons of past exam papers to practice on in the run up to our GCSEs and A-levels.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:32 PM on September 3, 2009

It's perfectly OK. George Washington University used to have a service with old exams on file for student review.
posted by jgirl at 2:37 PM on September 3, 2009

it's completely ethical. The exam writers have a certain obligation to make the exams different enough. it should be assumed that students can get the previous exams, unless it's some specialized subject where every exam is the same. (even then, I'm not sure if it would be unethical)
posted by GuyZero at 2:38 PM on September 3, 2009

What is ethical depends on the group and the expected behaviours. At my university, some classes provided previous year exams with answers. Those classes which did not provide them were implicitly recognised as saying that you were not supposed to use previous year's exams as preparation material, so I would consider it cheating to do so. If acquiring the actual exam is forbidden in this case, then it looks like the same deal.
posted by jacalata at 2:38 PM on September 3, 2009

did this all the time in law school
posted by lockestockbarrel at 2:39 PM on September 3, 2009

sometimes, profs will use the same exam year after year....

did you get it from your prof or a ta? a-ok.

did you get it from your roommate or something like that? nope.
posted by chicago2penn at 2:45 PM on September 3, 2009

Your grades are based on how many questions you answer correctly, not on whether or not your ethics are any good. Study accordingly.
posted by jrockway at 2:48 PM on September 3, 2009

If the people administering the test are not actively working on test security and the test takers are not required to take a pledge that they will not divulge the content of the test, then using tests from prior years is not only ethical, but expected.
(spends way too much time with assessment tools)
posted by Seamus at 2:48 PM on September 3, 2009

If the instructor knows the exams are easily available then it's ethical.
posted by null terminated at 2:49 PM on September 3, 2009

My university library has a long rack of files labelled "Past Exam Papers".

They obviously think it's ethical.
posted by Sova at 2:49 PM on September 3, 2009

I know that some students have access to previous years' problem sets...

The some students here is the only bizarre part to me. Who does not have access to them, and why not?

If some students have access from some secret back-channel way that is not available to all students, then yes it might be very unethical.

Otherwise, no. If you're worried about leveling the playing field, be sure the professors or instructors realize that past exams are available.
posted by rokusan at 2:49 PM on September 3, 2009

Totally depends. What do you mean by "alerting them to the availability is not an option"? You should absolutely ask someone in a position of authority (department chair, your advisor, or the professor, depending on what sorts of exams you're talking about), and they can tell you whether it's acceptable or not.

If it's something you can't ask the people giving your exam, then you already know that it's not on the up-and-up.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:49 PM on September 3, 2009

I am unclear why alerting "them" of the availability of previous years' exam questions is not an option. The best way to determine whether or not it is acceptable to use this resource is to ask "them." Depending on "them" to tell you something is forbidden is kind of a low way to get around this issue. Asking "them" and respecting "their" wishes is the most ethical way to go, in my mind.

That said, presumably "they" know that you could gain access to previous years' questions -- as in, "they" let students leave the exam with copies of the questions. I'd feel fairly comfortable using the questions in that case (and if I were the prof, I'd expect students to talk to previous years' students and get those materials). If you have access to the previous years' questions because students wrote them down, and weren't permitted to take the test copies with them, then I think you're probably not supposed to have them, and should take the high ground by not using them..
posted by amelioration at 2:51 PM on September 3, 2009

Unless the professor sets a specific rule against consulting the previous year's exams, it is completely ethical. The point is to familiarize yourself with and practice the sorts of problems you will be confronted with. That means that looking at any sorts of sample problems from whatever source are fair game. Professors don't even particularly mind this. The ethics of the matter only come into play if the professor tells you not to do something and you violate his rule, in the same way that collaborating on assignments with classmates is allowed unless there is a specific rule against it.
posted by deanc at 2:51 PM on September 3, 2009

We have been told that exam questions are often like previous years' questions
The reason they are telling you this is to let you know that previous years' exams are a good study resource for you to practice with. They weren't just saying that because they didn't know what else to say, you know.
posted by deanc at 2:54 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

What is ethical here? Alerting them to the availability is not an option.

What's ethical is to ask your instructors or administrators what the rules are, and then follow them.

That said, at my law school we also had a practice of using old exams to prepare. In fact, the library bound them and put them in the stacks, so it was pretty clear they were fair game for us. How does your situation differ from this?
posted by rkent at 3:01 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't see this being unethical unless it's specifically prohibited. I know that several fraternities and sororities at my undergrad institution maintained huge file cabinets full of old exams and papers. Once upon a time, this was considered a big advantage to being in a frat, but as profs got wise to the situation, they took measures to level the playing field (like making old exams available). In the philosophy department, all papers are electronically submitted to a huge database to prevent plagiarism (a practice that is gradually extending to other departments as well). I would have loved to see the look on the face of the first frat boy to get busted using his older brother's recycled essay.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:04 PM on September 3, 2009

I don't think that there can be a determination of whether this is "ethical" without first asking, "is this against the rules?" Your question is no different than asking whether it is ethical to use a study guide. Maybe yes, maybe no--depending on whether study guides (or prior years' exams) have been forbidden as a resource. It sounds like your professor(s) have not told you that you cannot look at the past years' exams, so (absent your knowledge that the exams have been obtained by theft, say) I would think that their use is entirely ethical.

A word to the wise, however: while I was in law school, there was one professor who was famous for giving the same exam every year. The exam was always on file with the student senate, and anyone could see the questions in advance. Each year, the professor would say that maybe he would give a new exam this year, maybe not--and never did.

Until my year. A brand new, top of the line, kick you in the ass nail-biter of a final. People who studied only off of the past years' exam did very poorly. Thankfully, I was neurotic and actually learned the material and ended up acing the class (yay for me and my obsessive compulsive worrywort nature!). Moral of the story: by all means, get the past tests, but make sure you know the material.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:07 PM on September 3, 2009

I could be wrong, but I'm going to guess that the professor told you all the questions will be similar so that if you want to study in a more focused way, you will ask them or the TA to provide old exams.

I am assuming that "some" students are ballsier than you are (IE asked the prof) or just happen to know a TA/student who has the copies already, and are not doing anything unethical.
posted by shownomercy at 3:10 PM on September 3, 2009

I am assuming that "some" students are ballsier than you are (IE asked the prof) or just happen to know a TA/student who has the copies already, and are not doing anything unethical.

It could be that some dormitories or fraternities save their returned/marked-up exams in a file so that later classes could study from them. I know my dormitory had one of these Exam Files.

FWIW, my college had a simple but strict academic honor code that most students valued, and we used these past exams to study unless specifically prohibited by the professor from doing so. Of course, the value of doing this is debatable.
posted by muddgirl at 3:23 PM on September 3, 2009

Hell, I used to give out previous exams as study guides. And go over them the day before the tests. And tell them there was a non-zero probability that I would repeat questions. And sometimes give out the exact same questions in different order. And students would *still* fail miserably.

So yeah, unless your prof is a complete chowderhead, he knows the old stuff is available. If he does nothing about it, and gives the same tests, it's on him, not you.
posted by notsnot at 3:35 PM on September 3, 2009

Yes, it's completely ethical.

It's definitely unfair when some have access to this information and others don't, but it's public information, and unless a professor specifically says otherwise, you're perfectly entitled to review it before an exam.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 3:47 PM on September 3, 2009

At all three Universities I've been to if they don't want the exam to get to future students they prevent you from taking it from the exam room. You're not allowed to take in loose paper anyway so the only way to get the questions out is to remember them. I supervise exams at my current Uni and we're pretty strict with this (plus the exams are brightly coloured), copies don't get sneaked out.

The library also has copies of previous exams for many classes, if the lecturer bothers to submit it, but there's a sort of grey area in between where it's not in the library but was allowed out of the exam room. Any clued up lecturer knows they're out there though and takes this into account, so using them is definitely ethical. Good teachers don't rely on reusing exact exam questions and know how to test your understanding without leaving room for memorising your way through.
posted by shelleycat at 3:54 PM on September 3, 2009

The school where I did my undergrad had a university run online exambank for all the old exams. I understood that professors were basically required to post the exams a few months after they were done, if not everyone complained.

I structured most of my studying around these old exams.
posted by piper4 at 4:41 PM on September 3, 2009

In my high school/A-level classes that were geared towards external exams, we always had a large number of past exams (with answer keys) to study and prepare from.

On the other hand, I'm currently an undergrad at a major public university in the US and only a few of my classes have provided this kind of material; in fact, one or two professors here have specifically said that they consider acquiring or using past exams or class projects to be cheating. So your mileage may vary.
posted by teraflop at 6:07 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: This is not about the exams you are given. This is about the exams you aren't; the implicit rule (as jacalata noted) that no instructions means you stick to High Learning instead of muck around in the gutters. We were given material along with the hint that exams are like previous tests, but not everything. And some of that other stuff has a habit of showing up verbatim on the real thing.

I'm having a tough time reconciling a) disappointment that questions are repeated b) disapproval that others have been getting unfair advantage c) my unease at asking upperclassmen for this material. Of course the real answer is to loudly ask the question weeks in advance, but we all know the problem with that approach.
posted by gensubuser at 6:15 PM on September 3, 2009

Where I've been in school, there is no such thing as the implicit rule. Profs, as a rule, are not unaware of how university students act. Comes with spending their lives in that setting.

They know that people will get copies of past exams if they haven't been actively confiscating them - and realistically, that's only done in large classes, or in situations where a student has to write at a later time (conflicts, medical stuff) and the prof doesn't want them seeing it. Most of my profs would slap me silly if I didn't use their past tests. Like seriously physical pain would be involved.

What discipline are you in? In the physical sciences & math (my own field), the concept of being disappointed that questions are repeated is very weird. You'll get a question about finding the Sylow subgroups of a Group, because we spent weeks on Sylow subgroups. The exact question's numbers are different, but questions have to repeat, particularly in a lower-level course where exams are more common. They are the important facts & methods you have learned.

Also, could you stop being coy with things like Of course the real answer is to loudly ask the question weeks in advance, but we all know the problem with that approach.? What's the problem with that approach? I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Have you asked your prof about old exams?
posted by Lemurrhea at 6:27 PM on September 3, 2009

"Alerting them to the availability is not an option," presuming that they died after writing this years exam, in which case my condolences.

Otherwise, your premise is incorrect. The person writing new exams should know that old exams are public. I'm not sure why you don't want to bring this about, but the stereotypical reason of "I don't want to rat out my friends," would be unethical. It would also probably be needless worrying; unless looking at old tests is specifically forbidden then nobody is going to get in trouble for it.

In fact, if the new tests are properly unique then studying from old tests should be encouraged. It would be your professor's fault if the new tests are not sufficiently unique, but if you suspect that might be the case then it would be unethical for you to allow the other students' curved grades and/or class standing to be unfairly hurt by it.
posted by roystgnr at 6:33 PM on September 3, 2009

I'm seconding Lemurrhea that I have no idea what the problem with "loudly ask[ing] the question weeks in advance" is, please explain. Also, you have been extremely unclear about how the other students have past tests -- if the professor handed them back to students last year for them to keep, you can look at those. If a student kept one but the professor told them they weren't allowed to, you can't. We can't help you unless you give us something here.
posted by brainmouse at 6:37 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is one of those situations where unethical is whatever the instructor / school / what have you decides.

In my humble opinion, it isn't unethical, but if your instructor is recycling questions wholesale so that having one gives you a huge advantage, that's a bit dodgy.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:45 PM on September 3, 2009

In the setting I'm familiar with, exam copies were serialized and not allowed out of the exam room. Even previously given exams were controlled until destroyed, with one reference copy kept. You got to review your exam with an instructor and ask all the questions you wanted, but not keep even your answers after that was over.

The exam bank, the compilation of all approved questions and answers was fair game. You could get a copy of that by asking (and doing all the copy work, it was large.) It was the specific combination of questions for each exam event that was controlled info.

That way, you could study to find out what kinds of answers were acceptable and how much detail was required. You could maybe stumble across a question on a topic you totally forgot about and refresh your memory. Memorizing questions wasn't a good strategy, though, with such a large number of them compared to what would be on the exam.

You should ask. Your professor does not want you to be the person who doesn't take advantage of all the resources available to you.
posted by ctmf at 7:43 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: You can assume none of the material here is copy-controlled. Doing something in advance isn't possible because the exam is imminent. I had always thought this was a gray area at best (and lots of you seem to agree), but that's why I'm looking for a communal ethics evaluation.
posted by gensubuser at 8:20 PM on September 3, 2009

I had always thought this was a gray area at best (and lots of you seem to agree)

Really? The consensus seems to be that it's not a grey area at all. If it's not forbidden and not obviously restricted, then it's ethically AOK.

Look, imagine that the professor is really lazy and takes exam questions out of a book that happens to be at a library on another campus (yes, I have been in this situation). Is it unethical to check out that book and study from it? I don't think so.
posted by muddgirl at 8:36 PM on September 3, 2009

I wonder if this is a cultural thing? Whether professors and coursework worry more about the grasp of general concepts or about specific "plug-and-chug" style equations?

gensubuser - if you tell us what your discipline and university are, we might be able to provide more specific advice.
posted by muddgirl at 8:39 PM on September 3, 2009

I always thought it was very unethical for the following reason:
1. If I did not have the exam and just studied from my notes and the textbook and the HW's, I always did bad on the test. If I had the exam and just learned to do what I knew the professor was going to ask on the exam, I always did great. Obviously, I did not know the material enough when I studied without the exams, and when I did look at the exam I only bothered learning how to do the problems the professor was going to ask, instead of learning how to do everything.
2. Not everyone had the exam. It was all very hush hush, and you only shared it with your good friends. Because you wanted to have an advantage. If some people aren't getting the same advantages are you were and doing worse, it can't be ethical.
3. A lot of the professors clearly did NOT know about the past exams because they would have a lot of identical questions. Like, more than half the test. Really, all I memorized were the answers instead of studying.

But still, I definitely got exams no matter how unethical I thought it was because I didn't want to struggle and get C's when I could get A's easily.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2009

The ethics depend on facts about the situation that aren't clear here. Does the professor know that students have access to old exams? It is unfair if only some students have access while other don't.

Here is what you should do:
You should slip an anonymous note in the prof's mailbox (or get a friend who's not in the class to do it) saying that some students have a bank of old exams and could the professor release his or her copies of the old exams (eg, put a set of copies on reserve in the library) so that all the students will be on an even footing.

You could also include an anonymous throwaway email address where the professor could contact you, and let you know if it is acceptable to use the existing exam bank to study. It might be fine and expected; in many disciplines this is normal. In some it is not. In any case, you need guidance, and the professor will want to know that this exam bank exists even if they do not know who has it. You are correct that it's unfair for some students to get a source that other students don't have.

Finally, you say "I'm having a tough time reconciling a) disappointment that questions are repeated...." About this: In many disciplines, it's difficult to write good exam questions -- questions which are clearcut, interesting, answerable in the allotted time, etc. In many cases, that's why profs repeat questions. (Though of course sometimes laziness!)

Good luck!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:08 PM on September 3, 2009

Even if the exam is tomorrow, you could still send the prof an anonymous email (ie from an anonymous account) saying that you know some students have previous exams, so the prof should be sure that the exam doesn't include any repeated questions. This will make things at least a bit more fair.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:13 PM on September 3, 2009

I'm having a tough time reconciling a) disappointment that questions are repeated b) disapproval that others have been getting unfair advantage c) my unease at asking upperclassmen for this material. Of course the real answer is to loudly ask the question weeks in advance, but we all know the problem with that approach.
I see your problem: you need to get over yourself and adjust to university life. There is no point in coyly dropping vague hints about what's going on as though this is all some scandalous thing or that going over sample problems using previous exams is "unethical." It would help if you wrote more specifically. Professors are not stupid. They know people do this-- class material from previous years is considered relatively public information (heck, MIT posts it all on the web for free). They know that in preparing for an exam, people will try to practice all the sample problems they can get their hands on. This is not some violation of "higher learning" or some kind of "not really learning."

If there isn't a policy against this, it's no different than buying a study guide and practicing the sample problems. And not only that, you were specifically told (by the teaching staff, I assume) that this year's exams would have problems similar to previous years'. If using previous exams were against policy, that would have been the time to tell you. Instead they were saying, "look at last year's exam if you want to know what this year's will be like." Your writing is really vague and I get the impression that you believe there are all these rules and have very clear ideas of what you think should be going on, when in fact none of these rules exist. News flash: college is not a shining academic city on a hill where people absorb grand concepts and then get challenged to apply them for the first time when they see an exam. Material is difficult to master, and it takes practice for students to apply it and demonstrate their mastery, so they use exams from previous years and practice with all kinds of problems they can get their hands on.
I wonder if this is a cultural thing? Whether professors and coursework worry more about the grasp of general concepts or about specific "plug-and-chug" style equations?
I don't think it is. I think it's a personal bias on the part of the questioner. He's clearly really upset by what's going on and thinks this is a shady thing going on in the shadows. And he clearly has a hard time shaking this idea because he read all of our responses that were almost uniformally one of, "if it's not specifically against the rules, then it's ok," and responded with, "had always thought this was a gray area at best (and lots of you seem to agree)".

I can see this happening to a bright high school student who ended up in college surrounded by grade-obsessed grinds for the first time who are the type to make sure they never encounter any surprises going into a test. If you're not familiar with that way of studying, it must seem "wrong" to you. And if you think it's wrong, and everyone else is doing it while you refuse to, it seems unfair.
posted by deanc at 10:05 PM on September 3, 2009

When I was in law school, it was perfectly fine, and often expected, that students would look at previous exams. The library at my law school had these on file.

If you can obtain these from former students or through official channels, there's no ethical problem here. If you find yourself having to pick them up from a man in a smelly trenchcoat at midnight in a parking garage, it may not be on the level.

It's a judgement call is what I'm saying.
posted by reenum at 1:23 PM on September 4, 2009

I've been in plenty of classes where we were expected to look at the previous years exams. Sometimes the profs would put them on the web, sometimes they'd be available if you can to office hours. Sometimes they just expected you to get them, since that's the easiest on their end.

Mostly it was things like math and physics where "Oh, a Lagrangian" isn't surprising; it's just how hard the problems tend to be. Sometimes they just really want you to get something. If they say that the exams are very similar and don't tell you not to share old ones, then it's expected.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:47 PM on September 4, 2009

At the institution I work for, past exams are included on a website maintained by the library. Any student can access them and it is expected that you will use past exams to study for the final. In some courses you are also/instead given a sample exam that you can use to study for the final. In all cases, the questions are similar (cover the same material) but different. The exam just gives you an idea of the format and the general things that will be asked. There is NO problem with using these resources and the university actively encourages it.

I think there is one of two things going on here. Either a), you have access to a resource that not all students have access to because it was obtained shadily (snuck out of the room, written down from memory straight after class etc). If this is the case, then you should already know that this is not ethical and you shouldn't use it. You might also like to let the prof. know so that he can change the exam appropriately. You know this is the right thing to do, so why are you asking?

Option b) is that you just have some kind of moral objection to this type of learning through the use of practice exams. If this is the case, then you need to realise that this is the way it works at most institutions. Just because students are given a past exam doesn't mean they don't learn, it just helps them feel more comfortable, and some of them fail anyway, especially if they memorise the exam (see comments above). Also, see comments above about MIT providing past exams. If MIT (the no. 1 uni in science and engineering in the world!) thinks it's a good idea, then it would seem you need to heed deanc's advice and "get over yourself".

Oh, and stop being so coy about the whole thing. If you want good advice, you need to tell us what is going on EXACTLY. If you're not willing to do that, then you're just wasting your questions as we all waste time making guesses.
posted by ranglin at 3:59 PM on September 4, 2009

My university library had a bunch of old exams on file. Some of my professors would post old exams on their class websites to use as study guides. In one of my classes we were given back copies of the questions on the midterms and quizzes to use as study aids for the final.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:07 PM on September 4, 2009


There's no ethical problem here.

There's no ethical problem if a friend who's taken the course before sits down with you and discusses the material with you, and helps you learn it.

There's no ethical problem if a friend who's taken the course before showing you his notes from the course so that you can learn from them.

There's no ethical problem if a friend who's taken the course before discusses his recollections of the exams with you.

There's no ethical problem if a friend who's taken the course before shows you his exam from that course, graded and perhaps commented.

If the professor really wanted to prevent it, the means to do so are simple: do not return the tests to the students.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:07 PM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

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