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Last semester, I was doing well (A+) in three of the five courses I was taking, but had a problems with two others:

  1. For one course, the professor supplied a long list of study materials of several thousand of pages. And, the lecture material was way too extensive for a four-month semester. I downloaded lecture materials from other universities to cut the load and still found it very extensive. Then, from the end of April, 2019, my brain was signalling an SOS. Finally, I failed in the theory part of this course, and as a result failed in the course.

  2. For another course, I obtained A+ in labs, and projects. But, I found the time inadequate to prepare for the theory test.

These two courses increased my stress level, and that stress level caused an anxiety attack in the first week of May, 2019. As result I failed in four courses.

Later I found that successful students were actually massively cheating in those two courses.

  1. For Course 1, they were actually not following materials supplied by the professor at all. they have developed a massive database of all old questions.
  2. For Course 2, they uploaded all the assembly language programs to the server before the lab sessions. Also, they have developed a massive database of all old questions.

I have two questions regarding this:

  1. Is my experience very common or normal?
  2. Is it a must to collect old resources from previous students to be a successful student?
  • 3
    This really depends on your school. Often the answers are both yes (and why should this be cheating?). Most people here will howrver tell you that they always were great without looking at old questions. – user111955 Aug 18 at 20:39
  • Do you have a counselor or adviser at your school with whom you can speak? Even with your explanations, those of us here on the internet won't know what is considered normal for your school. However, I will say that, even for a grad program, having several thousand of pages of study materials seems to me like the professor doesn't know how to cut the required work down to manageable levels. I'm not at all surprised that 'successful' students were the ones that skipped this pile of material in lieu of actual examples of work from previous classes. – Van Aug 18 at 21:03
  • @Van, Do you have a counselor or adviser at your school with whom you can speak? - Yes. But, talking to him was totally useless as I already failed in the semester, and now I know how things work in the school. ;-) – user366312 Aug 18 at 21:06
  • How many passed? How many failed? Any course will have some students who pass with top marks and others who fail, with a chunk in the middle passing. A course where everybody fails tends to have an issue, but you don't suggest that everyone failed. Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your study techniques and look at the time spent on each of those modules. Did you focus on the "easy" ones then play "catch-up" with the harder ones or did you spread your time evenly across all modules? While some modules can be passed with a "24 hour" cramming session, others cannot and they need constant input ove – Solar Mike Aug 22 at 6:40
  • It depends on the situation. Of course it shouldn't make a big difference, but sometimes it does. That's all anybody can really say here. – knzhou Aug 22 at 6:53
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+50

No. It is not normal for students to use a student-collected database of old questions. I know this is done at some universities, but personally I have never seen one.

The proper thing is for faculty to supply sufficient quality and quantity of study material that students will not benefit from these databases of old questions. Faculty also should not reuse test questions which might be in a student-collected database, but not in the study materials.

When faculty reuse tests and keep the content "secret," then student-collected databases create unfair advantages for certain student groups. These groups often exclude minority students. This is an unacceptable practice.

  • May be worth getting experience of universities that do have that type of practice... – Solar Mike Aug 22 at 9:58
  • @SolarMike I knew about it because colleagues who were education researchers at a certain engineering-oriented university told me about it. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 22 at 10:00
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, which country was that university from? – user366312 Aug 22 at 13:58
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    I think you're confusing "normal" with "accepted". In my experience, this practice is far more prevalent than most faculty want to believe, even when faculty supply enough good study material that it isn't (or shouldn't be) necessary. I completely agree with you that sharing good study material is the proper thing for faculty to do, but not all faculty do the proper thing. – JeffE Aug 22 at 15:19
  • Can you explain why this is not normal? – user111955 Aug 24 at 20:59
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In some areas it is not uncommon for students to have collected old assignments/exams. What is highly regrettable is that this information is sometimes accessible only to some at the expenses of others. Unfortunately plagiarism of this kind is difficult to detect by its nature so difficult to deter. It should not be required for you to do this and in fact it seems some courses are poorly structured. If you can substantiate the allegations in your post, you might consider a formal complaint (although it’s not clear what can be done to prevent access to such “secret” resources short of delete this data bank.)

You will not get much traction with the stress issue unless you were in a position significantly different from most other students, i.e. unless your workload was significantly different from other students. If this is the case the first question to ask is why was your workload so different? Unfortunately some courses/programs seem to have impossible expectations and make it some kind of badge of honour to test the breaking points of students.

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Whether students having access to old exams or not is cheating, depends on a few things. If the instructor knows that it is common then s/he will probably act with that knowledge and not overly use old exam questions. In such a case, it would even be valuable for the professor to make an exam bank available to everyone. See this recent question for more perspective on this particular part of the issue here.

But there is more involved.

Every situation is different. When I was a student it was common for fraternities in the US to collect old exam questions. None of the three top math students at the college I attended were members and so didn't have access to these, nor other similar resources. But we all did (better than) fine and all ended up with PhDs. While the exam banks may have helped a few avoid failure, it had no real effect on things when looked at from a wider perspective.

Also at that time it was believed (possibly apocryphal) that at a certain very top graduate school in the US, no student would consider taking a course for credit unless they had already audited it once. I don't know if that was true, but it points to the pressure to succeed that students often face.

Next, I believe that no course that you ever take will ever be able to tell you everything about that subject. It will only be a surface skim that covers the important points and techniques that enable you to go further. Moreover, it represents, even in traditional subjects, only a snapshot in time of the thinking in that field. History moves on. Mathematics moves on. Hopefully a course will give you the tools to move on with your chosen field. But it is unlikely to be a lot more than that.

For the above reason, I have saved nearly all of my notebooks from courses I then considered important. I wrote on paper (not very good paper, actually/sadly) and took care of them, so I still have access to notes from math courses I took more than 50 years ago. I have a copy of a paper I wrote in secondary school (around 1960) and consulted it recently for another project. I have a deeper understanding of all that now than I did then.

The reason for saying the above is to comment on your professor's giving you such a "load" of supplementary material. You should ask about it, but I suggest that s/he is helping you build an archive that will be useful to you over your professional career, not just resources to pass that particular course. I once took a writing course from one of my "great" professors. He would seldom talk about writing (though he made us do a lot of it), but would spend lecture time recommending books to read. In a week, he would recommend 30 or more books. Who could keep up with that? And no, we didn't need to read them to pass. We needed to write and write and write.

Finally, though I may supplement this after some reflection, every student is different. You may or may not need to have access to a gigantic exam file, but I doubt that you will provided that (a) you are serious about your subject and (b) you practice with the knowledge you are gaining by doing exercises and getting feedback. Doing more than the minimum number of exercises, in fact.

That said, it is useful, and the prof should support it, if you are able to see one or two old exams, just so that you have an idea of the kind of question that the professor uses, if not any actual upcoming questions. In some places that would be against the stated rules, unfortunately.

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