Something I never understood is how in so many undergrad classes North America, the students are allowed to have past exams that they are allowed to study over.

It never made sense to me because it is apparent that this practice could cause so many problems, especially as exams accumulate over the years, e.g. leading to inflated grades. I do not exclude myself from this practice.

As an example, in one of the classes, I knew only a small number of students had access to an exam around that was given around 5 years ago (literally gotten through one of the student's relatives who took the exams years before), and one of the question from that past exam was very similar to another one that was given in the actual exam. This doesn't seem very fair to me.

Finally, I always felt that my work was delegitimized with access to these resources, and over the year sort of adopted a pessimistic view on learning and knowledge, seeing that so many of my peers became arrogant and prideful despite having had access to these external resources. It was not until I did grad school much later on (where past exams are virtually non-existent) did I "let go" of those feelings and regain a bit of confidence in my own capabilities.

Should students have access to past exams or an exam bank that they can study? Why does it not constitute as cheating? My background is in STEM.

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    Possible duplicate : academia.stackexchange.com/q/19477/72855
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 9:31
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    Answers in comments and anecdotes have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 6:08
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    Why would having access to old exams be a problem? Which subjects are you thinking about? Because in STEM subjects it's pretty much irrelevant... you can always write new exercises or disguise old stuff in a new envolope. So dumb students, that simply learn by heart questions& answers, will fail but this will not be a problem for proper students that actually study understanding the subject instead of just memorizing specific exercises. And if your whole subject can be reduced at learning by heart few exercises/questions than there isn't really that much to test in an exam anyway... Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 6:50
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    I had this course with Professor would give the exact same (two) exams every time he gave the course. And still most people would fail. In fact, some people who took the course a second time didn't do that great either...
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 22:25
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    I feel the same about driving lessons. Surely it's cheating to sit a driving exam when you've been shown how to drive before! (sarcasm). Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 9:20

18 Answers 18


As a professor, one has to assume that all past exam questions are available to students. Some student organizations debrief members after exams and capture the questions for such an exam bank.

Some professors realize this and take action accordingly, not reusing questions, or not using enough of them to matter substantially. Others think, probably mistakenly, that they can set rules forbidding the use of such "resources". The rules will be broken by at least some of the students. I don't know of any effective way to actually prevent access to old questions. So, just assume that they are available.

My own opinion is that the professor should just assume that it will happen and, if they want to make the test taking "fair" will make old exams available for study. Some even go so far as to give out the final exam on the first day of class, to be taken later, though I suspect that not many do that.

But old exams are useful for honest students to study from if they don't expect to get those questions on their own exams.

Of course, coming up with new questions each term/year adds a bit of work, but if the course is so "stagnant" that an exam from a few years ago is still being reused then the prof needs to do a better job.

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    +1 Although it's been several years now since I finished University, I'm still extremely grateful for the professors that made copies of old exams available as study guides. They're one of the best resources a student can have for studying. They're great for collaborative learning as well, since I remember multiple times where students would meet up, and go over the exam together to make sure we all understood how to solve every question. And, naturally when explaining an answer to another student you wind up understanding it better yourself, so it's win-win for all involved.
    – Wipqozn
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 12:14
  • An alternative to coming up with new questions is, if you begin with the same assumption, create exams that cannot be prepared for by memorization, such as an essay or performative task. For example I've used a kind of case study analysis format before. The questions were the same each year, but the case study to analyze was new each time.
    – workerjoe
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 14:19
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    There's also the old economics joke about the professor who gives the same exam, because the answers change over time.
    – chepner
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 17:16
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    I agree that professors should make past exams available for students to study from -- it helps even the playing field AND students don't have to guess what the exam may be like. When I became a professor, I followed the example of one of my professors, and I would give a practice exam about a week before the real exam. On the real exam, 40% of the questions were almost word-for-word from the practice exam. Guess what: I still got a bell curve in the grades! At best it pushed some B+ students to an A, and some A students to A+ Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 19:43
  • I would also add that this helps make sure you are testing a student's knowledge, rather than how well they can adapt to the form of your tests.
    – Tezra
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 18:53

I think the point is, or should be, that having diagnostic question be "secret" is perverse. That is, why not tell people directly what we want them to know?

And why not let them see representative examples of what we want them to do?

Sure, some students are not so much interested in learning as in the grade... but should we corrupt the scholarly aspects by gaming merely to thwart this? I don't think so.

It is true that some of my own colleagues have "criticized" my composition of PhD Written Prelims by observing that there is no secret about the general scope of the questions on the exam, so, "gosh, people can study the stuff and then everyone passes!?!" Um, well, if you tell people what you want them to know, and if they can demonstrate that they know it... and can do things with it... what is the problem?

... do we need to have a significant number of "failures" to prove that "non-failing" is significant? I'd say "no", but quite a few people would say "yes". This becomes perverse when we have a stringent admissions system, so that really everyone admitted to our grad program is capable of doing a PhD. See what I mean?

As with sports: if one can do the thing well, good; if not, not-so-good. But to create fake/artificial strictures by withholding information is just silly. Not even an interesting game.

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    You, sir, are a hero. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 10:16
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    I good exam question does not test what a student "knows", but how well they can think. One can imagine questions that when asked in an exam, require imagination, synthesis and critical thinking, that if provided beforehand could just be memorized. That said, providing students with the questions of the same type/same topics beforehand obviously allows them to prepare better for the exam, and therefore better demonstrate the skills you would like of them. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:31
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    In STEM fields particularly, seeing past questions will not help you memorise this year's answers, because it's trivially easy to swap out the numbers to get a "new" question. Seeing past questions just lets the students memorise the procedure they should follow to figure out the answer... which is the whole point, isn't it? Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 15:32
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    @IanSudbery if students are replacing memorizing with critical thinking then the test questions are insufficiently varied. Hopefully the topics an exam is covering are interesting enough that memorizing everything is not possible, in which case the Prof should ask questions that are representative of this fact Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 17:52
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    @einpoklum That's kind of my point. For example, I studied aerospace engineering, and on one paper, there was always a question where they showed you a jet engine, its characteristics, and a flight condition, and asked you to determine its thrust output. If, when faced with that, you "go through the motions" with the numbers on the page, and it gives you the correct answer, then congratulations, you know how to calculate the thrust of a jet engine. Yes, it'd be better if you understood how those formulae arise from the phsyics, but there are other questions to test that too. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 7:54

If it bothers you that a small group of students had access to previous exams then you should understand that a professor is giving all students a fair opportunity by posting previous exams. If a bad student with access to unauthorized past exams gets the same score as a good student with lecture notes only, then there is a problem. If both have access to past exams then the better student will prevail. The point is that cheaters wont stop looking for shortcuts so the best option is to remove that option by making them available to everyone, but write exams that require thinking not memorizing.

Also I find it unusual that you are in STEM, but feel pessimistic about learning. I am trained in engineering and we were given past exams and dedicted tutorial sessions to do practise problems yet only a handful of students got higher than an A and many got Cs. It's so easy to twist an old problem that can't be solved by memory.

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    +1. If we outlaw past exams, only outlaws will have past exams. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 12:41

Being in a STEM field, I am sure you're familiar with extremely difficult examinations such as the Putnam exam and International Olympiads in Math and Physics. These definitely are exams, even though they're called "competitions". They all share the feature of having open access to all past year questions - solutions, often with multiple methods, are also posted online with alacrity by various enthusiasts.

Why, then, isn't everyone doing fantastically well in these exams? The answer is that the exams are of a sufficient level of difficulty and also set with sufficient creativity and originality (to distinguish them from the previous years' questions) that it's not at all trivial to just practice old papers and hope to ace the new one within strict time controls.

And that's your answer - if your exam was challenging and original enough, you wouldn't have to worry about students having access to questions from previous years. In fact, it's almost imperative that you give them that access, so that they can be prepared for an exam of that difficulty.

Of course, "standard" exams are not designed to be as challenging as competition or olympiad problems, but the same general principle applies. There are also other considerations - students will often create and distribute their own informal past year question "banks" as hand-me-downs, maybe even sell them to their juniors. These practices will make it almost impossible for you to ensure an even playing field for your students since some will have more access than others to previous questions. So, it's actually more equitable for you to simply make all your previous exam questions open to all and just focus on setting a new exam that's interesting and challenging without obvious repetition of any of your old material.

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    Even if the questions are not too creative, arguably, if you know how to answer 10 years of exams questions, then you did your job of learning the course material and you deserve to pass. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 9:20
  • @FedericoPoloni I agree.
    – Deepak
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 9:21
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    To me, the value of looking at an old exam is not that it gives me the answers, but that it tells me whether I have a grasp of the subject matter.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 17:53

Access to past (or practice) exams is good test design

Any test or experiment will have "noise". That is, beside the thing you want to test, there will always be other factors affecting your results. This is, of course, also true of exams.

As others have explained, there are nuances to any question that the examiner might not even be aware of. Local academic culture, implicit biases and assumptions, the level and scope of a specific course. A student hoping to do well on a test has to take all of these into account. However, these details are usually not what you're testing for. You want to know whether a student understood and memorized the subject matter, not if they remember which notation a specific professor prefers.

The more noise you introduce into an exam, the more effort is required from your students (if they want to do well) to mitigate its efffects. "Secret" tests are especially noisy because the student, by design, cannot know which aspects of the course material will become relevant. This includes things only tangentially related to the subject matter.

Did the professor choose axiom X on purpose or can I also use the more generally applicable Y? They mentioned Y in a lecture, but didn't go into detail. Do they always use this notation or only in special cases?

In my experience, this often leads to last minute "cramming": immersing yourself in the course material and (indiscriminately) memorizing as much as possible shortly before the exam. This allows the student to guess secondary details ("in this kind of question, we used axiom X, but we didn't cover Y so that's probably out of scope") more easily since they're fresh in their mind. However it is usually not a good learning technique. It is something students adopt to cope with the uncertainties that come with the test method*.

You can reduce noise by exposing students to the types of question, the expected scope of the exam and the answer style you expect throughout the course. Letting them practice on old (or mock) exams will allow them to test their knowledge, assimilate the cultural details over time and concentrate on understanding the subject they're actually supposed to study.

What if, after releasing past exams, almost no one fails anymore?

Congratulations, you have made your students more successful by allowing them to prepare better. This is a good thing. If you feel that the exam is too easy now, add more challenging content. You'll produce more competent graduates.

Caveat: This line of reasoning assumes that you prepare a "fresh" exam each time and that it is reasonably well designed to test for understanding of the subject matter in the first place. Reusing previous questions with minimal changes will defeat the purpose.

*Yes, laziness is also a factor.

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    I strongly disagree with the final part. You are making them better at passing your exam, not at the subject in question. You can achieve the same goal by publishing the solved exam 24 hours befeore it takes place, but this of course makes the exam itself pointless
    – David
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 7:13
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    @David - The point is to identify the aspects of your exam that aren't really about understanding the subject matter and minimizing them. No, this will not automatically make your students better learners, but if it leads to higher test scores, this means that you have made "room" for adding something of value to the course in place of the distractions, i.e. more of the subject matter, in breadth or depth. Your proposition removes the "understanding the subject matter" part of the exam along with everything else. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 7:58
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    I don't see why at all! Getting better grades and understanding the subject matter better are not the same thing! I've seen people get awesome grades without even having a clue of what they're talking about "thanks to" mechanical repetition
    – David
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 8:02
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    ideally, we want grades to reflect understanding — No. We want grades to reflect mastery.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 12:50
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    @JW “Understanding” is a mental state, which in my experience falls somewhere between irrelevant and distracting. “Mastery” is what you can actually do.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 16:35

Setting rules on the ban of those ressources will only help those who won't respect them even further. After all, how would those rules actually be enforced?

Instead, professors should make exams that actually measure the students' understanding of the subject, rather than their ability to memorize previously posed questions. If a student can pass an exam by just copy-pasting answers from previous one, I'd say it's the professor's fault rather than the student's.

So, yes. As many other answers have pointed out, "exam banks" will appear whether you like it or not, so maybe it is a good idea to make past exams public so that everyone plays by the same rules. Reusing questions is, in my honest opinion, a very bad practice

  • If you consider "Reusing questions is, in my honest opinion, a very bad practice" then what about reusing answers?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:02
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    @SolarMike Sure! But I am trying to watch this from the professor's perspective. I don't think the answer to this question would be to just say "cheating is wrong" and go on with our lives
    – David
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:05
  • Reusing questions can be good practice, depending on the subject. For example, if the important thing is not just conceptual understanding but understanding a specific technique, then having a pool of questions that test those techniques is fine. When you reuse the questions you change some of the numbers, so that last year's answers won't work, but if the student has memorised the method - great, mission accomplished!
    – Flyto
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 18:02
  • @Flyto If that technique is really important, then there will be a great variety of situations in which it can be applied. This allows for some variety. You could use a problem that needs that technique at some step and change the context each time, rather than a full exercise consisting on just that particular technique
    – David
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 7:11
  • Indeed, and I'd encourage having a pool of a few different questions to help students recognise different times when the technique is applicable - but I don't see anything fundementally wrong with reuse.
    – Flyto
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 17:16

There are implicit differences across fields, examiners and countries. It is not fair to test students on knowledge without them knowing precisely what you're asking. No matter how specific you think an exam's questions may be, there will be certain expectations which have not been laid out.

I came from a physics/mathematics background but studied some softer science subjects and really struggled with some exams because I answered in the wrong style. What was technically correct was not necessarily what was being asked.

If an exam asks:

  • "Give an example of symbiosis in nature."

Do you give a specific example, referring to two named species? Does this question refer to a mutualistic, commensalistic or parasitic relationship? This was covered in the class, should I use the example given in the lectures? Do I need to include a specific definition of symbiosis or can I just write two species?

If an exam asks:

  • "Give the Taylor series expansion of sin(x)."

You might happen to know the answer off-hand; is it ok to just write that? Is some working expected? Do I need to write it as a sum or can I just write the first few terms? How many terms of the sequence are needed?

You may think you write perfectly concrete exams where every question has an exact answer but I can guarantee you do not because in my experience, no one does.

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    Very true. As someone with extensive prior knowledge in my chosen field, I've always struggled with determining the expected "level" and cultural details of a course rather than the material itself, e.g. which notation they used in which case and which material they did and didn't cover. I got a lot of "technically correct, but zero points because we didn't cover this in the course" comments on my answers, while someone new to the material would just answer the one way they learned. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:02
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    You really should provide all terms, explicitly, of the series expansion. Now, that might take a lot of paper and time, but if you want to answer correctly...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 15:05
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    This is possibly the most important answer. It's frustrating to possess the required knowledge but lose points because your answer was not what the professor had in mind when asking the question. The most difficult courses were not those with difficult material but those with difficult professors.
    – user31389
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 15:14
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    @Ruther Rendommelrigh: If you were in my class you'd get extra credit for using stuff that was correct and not covered in the lectures. Any sign that suggests a student is thinking, considering or doing extra work outside class is to be rewarded. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:39

It really depends on where you are. I have never understood why many in North American can't see past exam papers.

I did maths at the University of Cambridge (England). Most of the work we did during the term to learn things was to answer questions from past exams and have these answers reviewed by our tutors.

The last 20 odd years past exams are actually available to all from the maths department web page https://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/undergrad/pastpapers/past-ia-ib-and-ii-examination-papers

OK the examiner has to do more work to invent new questions, but the students can never learn answers by rote as they do not know what the questions will be.

  • Small anecdotal counterpoint: in my time (1997-2001) on the same degree, it wasn't the case that every college took the line that most of the work done during term was coaching based on past exam questions. At least one college was quite well known for this, so perhaps the practice has caught on since then. (Or perhaps you were at one of those colleges, at the time?)
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 16:39
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    I was there around 1980 so the latter
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 16:52
  • not T Hall by any chance? (I think in my college, at the time, they were just more laid back and merely asked if we could do the exercise sets)
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 19:40

At my university in Sweden it is common practice to have previous exams available. I would almost like to state that they are required to due to the university's rules, but I am unsure about this; I strongly seem to remember reading something like it once.

I can let you know that the passing rate is not increased at all due to this; there are still the "Moby Dicks" of courses around there, gathering some 70% fail rate each year. As someone else said, it is good to know what is expected of you.

Some professors even hand out best student answer to questions from previous exams as well to have a reference to go after.

I am also in a STEM university, MSc and BSc level so far. (Let's hope for PhD as well!!)

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    At my University in Italy it is a university rule that the exam questions must be published after the exam. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 9:22
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    Then I'm most likely right about it being a rule at my University as well. I'm quite sure I've heard/read it somewhere. On top of this rule, i know that besides the answers provided by the professors, we can go to the department and request previous years best student answers, and they have to provide it to us.
    – DakkVader
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 9:31
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    As I wrote in a comment to the question, in Sweden old exams and solutions are considered public information. It's not just university rules, but a consequence of law.
    – Anyon
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:04

Yes, of course.

They already are available. There were students there, present and able to remember, or keep copies. Which means, if you keep them "secret" - there will be a bias among your subjects, err, students. Those who have the old tests and those who don't. Likely there is a correlation - this bias is higher among those who either A) have money or B) have academic connections. So unless you find it perfectly acceptable that your meritocratic system (which in my view, is academia as it should be) degenerates into a nepotic or oligarchic system - you need to make that information available to all.

Besides, reusing old exams, by parts or whole, is an abhorrence of lazyness and shoddy workmanship. Be better. How can you be outstanding, if you accept such ineptitude.

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    Yes, I do think it is this simple. :) Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 22:41
  • "Besides, reusing old exams, by parts or whole, is an abhorrence of lazyness and shoddy workmanship. Be better. How can you be outstanding, if you accept such ineptitude." seems strongly worded to me. Perhaps I have misunderstood what you are getting at, but it is debatable whether reusing old questions (in small doses) is always a bad idea. Also, being pragmatic, instructors may simply lack the time to create a full array of new questions. This might not be a good situation, but lazyness isn't necessarily the reason.
    – J W
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 10:47
  • @JW There is no such thing as a lack of time. Time is given to everyone, every day, approximately 1440 minutes of it. How to spend that time is a choice - if you choose to reuse old exams so to spend the time on something else you are doing shoddy workmanship by being lazy. In my honest opinion. I may be alone in meaning this, but in order to be excellent, you have to limit yourself to the things you have time to achieve excellence in. Drop something else or get someone else to teach the class (or write exams). Or accept ineptitude. Sorry for being a pedant.
    – Stian
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 12:00
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    Thank you for clarifying your thoughts. I see your point of view and respect the firm position you take. My experience in education is that institutional policy and life circumstances can put limits on what is acheivable in practice, in spite of one's ideals.
    – J W
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 10:43

Not necessarily past exams, but practice tests with worked solutions would help. Actively discourage students from just memorizing the answers at the last minute.

Look at MCAT prep. It's basically all practice testing. If you took the SAT or ACT or AP exams, did you take practice tests?

Here are several reasons to provode practice exams.

  1. Practice testing helps students learn. Students are quite literally practicing the things you would like them to know.

  2. Practice tests help students gauge their level of understanding. How many times have you heard a student say, "I thought I was going to do better on that test?" That would not be as likely to happen if they took a practice test or two well in advance.

  3. It is more effective than other studying techniques. A lot of students, if they don't have questions to practice with, will reread the book, flip through their notes, and say they get it. They could be fooling themselves because they don't know if they can answer questions about the subject.

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    Many students moan about their performance on a particular exam but only "revise" for 2 days... the ones who do better tend to work at the subject for the duration of the course...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 5:03
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    @Hermann "students adjust to the particular testing method" - Huh? What else do you expect intelligent students to do? Are you suggesting that the "testing method" for a course should be completely unknown to the students before the "test" takes place?
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 10:20
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    @Solar Mike - "the ones who do better tend to work at the subject for the duration of the course" - I have the opposite experience with "secret" exams. Understanding the subject matter only gets you so far. Indiscriminately memorizing all your notes the night before the exam enables you to guess the implied variables in a question, such as scope, expected level, favoured notation. Making these things clear beforehand with mock exams etc. means the student can concentrate on their understanding instead. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:20
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    @Solar Mike - I would posit that "properly" studying the topic is better for pretty much any student, but my observation is that last minute cramming is often a response to uncertain test conditions. Beside the common issue of laziness, of course. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:36
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    @Solar Mike - What I'm trying to say is: Cramming is good for passing tests, and obscuring your test methods encourages it. Cramming is bad for understanding and remembering the subject matter, which should be the point of the course. Thus, a good test method should aim to minimize noise so stundents are encouraged to focus on the content. Questions like "Gosh, I wonder what the test will be about" and "I hope this is the right notation" are noise that can be dealt with before the exam by e.g. practice tests. (Hmm. That might be worth an answer.) Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:47

I think it's absolutely necessary to allow students to view past exams, at least in my subject (law). Students with good connections will get the past exams either way. It wouldn't be fair not to give the exams to everyone else, allowing those few with good connections to prevail without learning while everyone else struggles.

Past exams are also a good way of getting a feeling for what answer a professor wants to read when asking a certain question. Many professors have their very own style in HOW they ask questions if they want to hear a certain thing. It's only beneficial.


Two points here:

How do students prepare for an exam?

  • Read textbooks.
  • Read course materials.
  • Attend class and take notes.
  • Review their own notes.
  • Review notes taken by other students, of the same or previous years.
  • Do homework assigned in class and have it graded.
  • Do extra exercises from textbooks.
  • Do extra exercises under exam-like conditions. (Regarding quantity and time, allowed materials, etc.)

Thinking back to my university days, the last was more energy than the average student would spend on the average exam. But it would be a sign of dedication, not cheating, if one did it. Now what is a legitimate source of these exam-style exercises?

What do exams test?

If the ability to memorize the previous half dozen exams means one can pass the next one, either the lecturer is recycling questions, or the course is really basic. In that case, wouldn't a textbook contain all the things one has to memorize to pass?

  • That's the exact opposite to my experiance. We always got previous exams and the last couple of lectures were an overview of what to expect and some worked examples. For many students studying the previous exams was probably the bulk of their study (Engineering in New Zealand). That and getting a photocopy of someones notes who actually went to the lectures (I suspect it's changed but back then lecturers were very opposed to handing out printed notes, you were expected to attend lectures and transcribe your own notes) Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 11:24
  • @DavidWaterworth, what my last bullet point means is doing an old exam under the extract time constraints, etc. of the real thing. That's different from doing exercises taken from an old exam.
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 8:34
  • Ahh right yes that is different to what we did for sure. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 22:36

One thing that always works, but is a hard sell with students, is that they should work out as many problems as possible without looking at solutions. I'm for having lots of problems available, I'm very much against having lots of answers available. My exams are often modified (simplified) homework questions, and so the book generally has tons of sample exam questions to begin with.

I teach Mathematics, it may be somewhat different in other fields. In math it is also common, at least in the US, to not teach the same class over and over, so being able to come up with new exams is not so bad.


I am not sure there is a universal answer to this: the correct answer may depend on the discipline, the level of the course, the number of students in the class, etc.

Amongst arguments in favour of this:

  1. It levels the playing field for students: by making sure that all students have access to exams, there can be no subset of students with a putative advantage of having some exams while others do not,

  2. In principle, if a student can correctly answer most of the questions on the previous 3-4 final exams, this student should do well on most questions of the current exam (assuming the core material is the same). Thus, past exams provide guidelines on the topics covered in the exam, the emphasis of some of the material, and also allow students to become familiar with the style of the instructor.

  3. In principle it forces the instructor to produce some additional questions every year and thus keeps the finals more “current” than old ones.

The major argument against this is that some students will study the past exams rather than the whole contents of the course, so that any parts of the course not emphasized in previous exams will get comparatively less attention, and the student will have a narrower grasp of the material. This can set up some students for disappointment and false claims that questions are overly different from previous exams.

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    The "major argument against" can be mitigated if students look over multiple years' exams and see that the professor changed things up regularly (as you suggest in point 3). If students see a variety of different questions in the past, they know that they can't predict exactly what the questions will be, and have to learn the whole course material.
    – craq
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 23:16

Yes, in the current state of US university education, every student should have explicit, formally-accepted access to all available former exams for every class.

Why? Because of three problems.

Problem #1 - former exams are the only decent resource for studying for university-level exams. Quoting from Trylks' answer: http://academia.stackexchange.com/a/23128/56720 on what to do about students acquiring old exams:

The questions in an exam and the exercises done before the exam should not be more different than an exam and a previous exam, actually old exams make for perfect exercises and practice

The point is that studying the courses and making a few exams/exercises to practice should be easier and lead to greater success than checking the whole compilation of past exams, which should anyway lead to a good knowledge of the contents of the course (in a more tedious way than reading the theory and checking this with a few exams).

Personal story: When I was in high-school the homework would be much harder than the exams, anyone making the homework (optional) would get good qualifications and the qualifications would reflect actual good knowledge about the subject. In the university there were exercises, but they were explanatory and very basic, the questions in the exam were much harder. This made the exercises useless, students needed exams from previous years just to practice in answering the questions, and I hated that.

I agree wholeheartedly with Trylk's assessment of modern university exams - they are written so differently from the rest of the coursework that they are often impossible to effectively prepare for without former exams. Professors don't provide students with any better alternative for study, so students have to rely on the tedious practice of reviewing every former exam they can scrounge up.

Problem #2 - some students will always get ahold of former exams.

They simply will. Some frats are able to consistently find recruits on the strength of their extensive record of former exams in verious courses. Some students have brothers, sisters, friends, etc. that took the course last year. Some are willing to outright buy former exams. There's simply no stopping it, and even a dedicated effort to prevent it will still only catch a few.

Problem #3 - because of problem #1 and #2, students who can find a former exam have an unfair advantage that's unlikely to be addressed

If professors upped their game in terms of coursework and exam writing, then you might not need this policy. But, as things stand, I think that the only way to create a fair playing field is for former exams to be made available to everybody.


The exam should be written with awareness of what resources the students have access to. If that condition is met, and all students have access to essentially the same resources, there's no problem here. For example, if a professor plans to re-use a question from a previous exam, then they should either closely guard their old exams or make the exams easily available to everyone. I've had professors do things like tell the class that a homework problem was going to appear on the exam verbatim, but not tell them which one; since it wasn't practical for students to just memorize every homework problem with its solution, this forced the class to work hard to understand the method for solving each of the homework problems. It would be reasonable to try something similar with past exams, e.g.:

Here are all the exams I've written for this class in the last ten years. One of the problems on the exam will be exactly the same as a problem from one of these examples.

It's also worth noting that exams are often different in format than other means of evaluation in the same class – homework questions are usually very different from test questions, and (at least when I teach) weekly quiz questions are very different from exam questions. But it doesn't seem fair to evaluate a student based on how well they handle a completely new style of question, if the goal of the class was to teach key concepts or techniques – to take an analogy, imagine if a student had a hard time reading the exam because it was printed on blue paper instead of white. Would the lower score they received as a result accurately reflect their understanding of the material, or just their discomfort with the way the questions were presented?

Because of these factors, I generally supply my students with past exams, with solutions, and with a "mock exam" that I write fresh alongside the actual exam. This seems to improve student success significantly – and by that I don't mean it just inflates grades, which is definitely a legitimate concern. What I mean is that my students typically demonstrate stronger familiarity with the material after preparing for my exams using resources like these.

That said, there's another style of teaching that would make perfect sense, in principle. If you're teaching something that would be reasonably easy to memorize, or if having to deal with an unfamiliar format is a key skill you're trying to teach, then it might make sense not to release old exams. In that case, though, the professor would need to make sure that none of the students got hold of old exams, because otherwise the exam would be unfair to those who didn't; that means they'd have to disallow students from taking their exams home with them after they've been graded, and they couldn't release solutions after the fact. The example you gave sounds like a situation like this going wrong - access to old exams was intended to be controlled, but that control failed, resulting in an unfair situation. In the modern era of the Internet, controlling information like that is difficult, and probably not worth it; prohibiting students from using old exams is more likely to lead to more cheating and more unfairness than anything else.

In short, a professor needs to pick an option and embrace it. Either make old exams available to everyone and write the exam with the expectation that students are looking at previous ones, or make old exams available to no one.

  • 2
    You should clarify that one of these options is actually impossible, and therefore the other option is the only reasonable one. That is: no educator can guarantee their assessment questions will remain totally secret, it is impossible to prevent past exams being available to anyone.
    – Nij
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 7:46
  • @Nij I'm not sure I want to go that far - it is possible to control the usage of past exams in such a way that it can be treated as cheating (in the same way as getting ahold of the current exam is cheating), and if you're prepared to prosecute accordingly, that can be an effective deterrent. It's not impossible, just not advisable either. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 20:01
  • 2
    It's clear from the experience of educators worldwide that "can" has not transferred to "is", in this case, though.
    – Nij
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 23:30

It's best to ignore this issue, whether some students get an advantage over others at exams this way is irrelevant, because exams are at best only a very crude way to assess students' ability anyway and those students who focus too much on exams tend not to become the best experts in the field later.

So, this is just yet another aspect of the "teaching to the test" problem that should be tackled comprehensively instead of looking at one symptom at a time and trying to invent some ad-hoc band-aid for that. The best solution i.m.o. is to get rid of exams and degrees altogether. Universities should be places where students buy an education of their choice out of pure interest or to get qualified for a job of they later want to do. How does an employer find out whether a job applicant is suitable for the job? By letting the job applicant sit an exam that tests the specific skills required for the job.

The employer can then choose to outsource this to some specialized testing company, or to a university. So, universities may still end up taking exams, but this is then not directly related to the courses given to students. Students can, of course, sit voluntary exams to test whether they can be confident to pass an exam set by a prospective employer.

  • 4
    But the problems of question banks etc still exist...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 18:35
  • 2
    This isn't an answer to the question of whether students at the university should have access to that university's past exams or quest bank.
    – Nij
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 23:31
  • @Nij I've added a more direct reply to the question. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 19:21

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