I had to take a group oral exam on Microsoft Teams. The exam situation that we received was exactly the same as one of the practice situations that the professor had given us during class. The examination officer was in the room with us during the exam. She told us the reason she couldn't send us the pdf of the exam was that they apparently reuse the same situation every year. We did get different questions about the situation though. So it was not entirely the same, but we definitely benefited from having worked on it before.

In another class, the professor gave us all the open book exam questions during class as exercises. So during the exam, I literally just copied all my work into the exam. Some questions were a bit different but not many. Needless to say, if you had done all the exercises and attended class, you would've passed with copy-paste.

In other classes, the professors just change the numbers or the questions a little. Again if you attended and did all the exercises, you would've passed.

Is that normal?

Sometimes I have the feeling that high school was harder. At least that teachers had higher expectations and came up with new exams each year. It felt way more intense but I also had more classes in high school than now.

Thanks :)

  • 22
    Define normal… Also, as a teacher i hear complain every single time when I give a problem which were not discussed enough in detail, we had not enough howmeworks covering exactly the same situation etc. Student complains generally contradict to each other, because students can always find a point to complain.
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 1:00
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    (close vote) What difference does it make whether exams are easy or hard? The point of a course is to learn something. Exams are an unfortunate byproduct of standardized mass education. They don't mean anything by themselves. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 1:05
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    As an undergrad physics major, I had one professor who gave the same question on the midterm exam, on the final exam, and even on the comprehensive exam (a cumulative exam over all the required courses, which all seniors had to pass before graduating). And he did that every year, with the same question. He thereby made it clear that he considered this topic extremely important, and we were (obviously) motivated to learn it thoroughly. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 1:25
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    Maybe the average student is very weak in your class that they need spoonfeeding? Exams objectively have drastically gone down in difficulty since my times. With the expectation that 50% of the population gets a degree, you cannot set the same exams as when you expect 5-10% of the population to get one. If additionally failure rates are supposed to stay low, that's what you get. In my time, failure rates of 70% on first rounds were distinctly possible. I did not feel exams were specifically designed to weed out, but they were definitively not easy and definitively stretching. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 3:08
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    I suspect your professor's answer would be similar to your own remark: "if you attended and did all the exercises, you would've passed". If you've (successfully) completed the exercises (which I suppose doesn't necessarily require attendance, but it probably correlates fairly strongly with success), and, of course, assuming your professor has constructed the exercises to be relevant to the learning, then surely you've learnt what you need?
    – DPWork
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 8:31

9 Answers 9


The situation in an exam is quite different than in real life. In real life, you usually have much more time to think. You can solve problems in your home or office, in a relaxed atmosphere. You can consult friends, search the Internet, etc. In the exam, you cannot do all this. So, arguably, the homework assignments are the true measure of your ability.

On the other hand, grading only based on homework assignments is problematic, since some students copy or buy solutions. So the compromise is to have an exam very similar to the homework, with some small technical changes. If you did your homework on your own, then the exam should be easy; if you copied / bought a solution, you will most probably fail due to the small technical changes.

To sum: your teachers probably regard the homework as the real challenge; the exam is just a way to verify that you did the homework by yourself.

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    +1 Probably the closest to what is going on here. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 16:21
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    @ErelSegal-Halevy Yes, you summed it up quite well. I just didn't expect it. Since school was the opposite and no exercise was identical to the exam.
    – lexis
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 17:22
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    @lexis Then you probably were at a rather difficult school. I mostly hear the opposite complaint from starting students - they sometimes expect the exam to be like the exercises with different numbers, since that's what they were used to from school.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 8:41
  • In my country’s teaching schedule(s) for secondary eduction, exam tasks are required to fall into one of three categories: 1) recollection and reproduction of factual knowledge, 2) application of that knowledge to familiar types of problems, and 3) application of that knowledge to unfamiliar types of problems. Some post-secondary exams, especially for course modules regarding foundational knowledge, may follow the same recipe. The kind of tasks mentioned in the question fall squarely into category 2). Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 12:11

Unless the main goal of "education" is gate-keeping and filtering, I think there is no mandate for teachers to create difficulties for students.

I do realize that there is a huge tradition of challenge-and-response, and other combative stuff. (I'm in math in the U.S., ...)

It was an epiphany for me to see, in grad school in math at Princeton in the 1970s, that genuine math [Edit:] at the edge of what is known, active research [end-of-Edit] is already so challenging that there is no point in creating fake/artificial challenges. Rather, senior people should help beginners dodge difficulties. Not create difficulties for them.

Also, as in the design of our Written Prelim exams for grad students here at my univ, there is really no sense in coming up with crazy questions. Rather, there is a fairly short list of iconic (and important!) issues that we'd hope our people can respond to reasonably. [Edit:] Even though at a graduate level, this material has been worked-over and refined over the course of years, and operates smoothly. [end-of-Edit]

That is, in fact, [Edit:] well-established [end-of-Edit] mathematics is... if done well... quite simple, useful, memorable, etc. Not hard.

(I'm not a fan of its use as a filter/gatekeeper...)

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    Plus an exam doesn't give you any information other than whether the student prepared for that exam, which in turn depends mostly on whether the instructor did a good job communicating expections and/or the student was adept at decoding the instructor's expectations. And that last characteristic is much more strongly correlated with social class than it is with intelligence or motivation. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 1:12
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    @ElizabethHenning I have the feeling that the "communicating expectations" is a distinctively Anglo-Saxon thing. Having studied in Germany, it was self-understood that the student is responsible to develop a flexible mindset readying them to handle whatever is thrown at them. Exams were hard - not necessarily for filtering, but because it was clear you had to demonstrate you can stretch. They were pass-able if you had done your exercises diligently, but it was not a walk-through. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 3:13
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    I find expectations that material should be simple hiding complexities and misleading about real life; where it's not hard from the outset, making it simple is hard. I am considered to be one of the toughest lecturers in our program. I do not hide difficulties. Students initially complain about the difficulties, but once they have accepted the challenges of the material, appreciate that they have moved out of their comfort zone and are able to see things from a completely new perspective. They become grateful to discover themselves able to do things they had no idea it would be in their power. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 3:21
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    @ElizabethHenning Everything. We weren't told what would be in the exams. We had no idea. You had to keep a flexible mind. Note that OP complains about the spoon-feeding (if I may thus paraphrase their concern), so they likewise seem to think that something is off. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 3:23
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    Please remove the edit tags. It makes it difficult and jarring to read. If you want to make improvements, just make the improvements.
    – Kat
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 22:52

Different professors have different ideas/philosophies about the relative place and merit of exercises vs exams. I don't think that what you are seeing is ubiquitous, but some will see exercises as nothing more than practice for exams. Another factor that is related is the relative importance of exercises v exams in grading.

I am, however, surprised that you've run in to so much of this already. I'd expect that most students will see some of it, but not repeatedly.

It may be, but I can't predict, that the professors put a very low value on teaching in relation to their research. There might be other explanations, such as too many part time faculty.

My advice is to do what you have to do to learn. Read. Do a lot of exercises. Ask a lot of questions. I doubt that you will have much success in changing this situation. Hopefully you will find more challenge as you go along.

  • 6
    I'd add to this that many instructors don't believe in the value of timed, sit-down examinations as a useful metric of how well the students have understood the subject, but they're forced to give these kinds of exams by either departmental or university policy. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 15:15

Normal when? Where?

When I was in uni (in Germany), studying CS with a side dish of maths, some decades ago, there was no concept of preparing for tests by using previous tests (or even exercises), at least in the smallish group of fellow students I was regularly in contact with. You would listen to the lectures (or not); you would go to the exercises (or not); you would do your homework (or not). Except for some specific profs, nobody cared either way what you were doing, as long as you passed the exams.

It was on the individual to both pick their courses of interest (with a few mandatories), and to learn as much and as deep as they wanted. In the actual exams, it was understood that all topics of the semester had a chance to come up.

I do not recall if I ever had a déjà vu during a test; certainly I did not repeat all the exercises before the exams. To give you a comparison regarding the difficulties: The exams were no pushovers - I did go to the lectures, I did my homework, but was otherwise quite chill back then, having the good fortune that those topics mostly came pretty easy to me due to interest and previous experience. I finished quite nicely, but at the exams which today would be called "bachelor" roughly 50% of my fellow students were removed mostly through mandatory maths courses (CS was and probably still is part of the maths department at my uni, and it showed). My state was (back then, before the madness of PISA came along) considered to have a tough school and uni system.

So, no, what you are asking was not normal in my area at that time, and I would consider what you describe as either foolish or lazy. I do not know exactly how it works today in my country, but what I witness from school and early uni education from my children, I wouldn't be surprised if things like that happen here these days as well.

  • 1
    "there was no concept of preparing for tests by using previous tests (or even exercises). " Really? I find that hard to believe. I wouldn't be surprised if other students in your class were secretly preparing by using previous tests, but they didn't tell you.
    – Stef
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 12:38
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    Possible, @Stef; I have made that statement more subjective.
    – AnoE
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 12:43
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    @Stef In our place, there were prior exam samples collected by previous student generations, but I always found them distracting and never used them for practice, as you could never really predict the next exam and I was wary of overtraining to these samples. In any case +1 for a good description of the dilemma. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 16:25
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    @CaptainEmacs If "anything and everything" is fair game for the exam, then using past exams seems equally as valid as any other method of picking which questions to study next (throwing darts at the book, perhaps) and does offer some benefit on top of that--even if the questions change, a teacher is unlikely to change their entire style of exam building overnight, so things like how much material do they think is good for an n hour exam and what style of questions... As long as you don't conflate studying from past exams with memorizing past exams. Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 13:43
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    @user3067860 In the German system, many lectures, esp. undergrad ones were given by the top professors, but this would rotate from year to year. So, already by virtue of that the exams would be quite different. Secondly, I do not criticise anyone studying old exams. But it would definitely have primed me towards existing questions. From my experience as a teacher, I also think it encourages rote learning rather than understanding. Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 16:53

She told us the reason she couldn't send us the pdf of the exam was that they apparently reuse the same situation every year. We did get different questions about the situation though.

That sounds like your course might be using a standardized exam. Your instructor may not have any control over the content of such an exam. The department mandates that all sections of course X use these pre-written tests and the instructors just have to go with it.

In my own personal experiences, courses with standardized exams like that tended to be taught such that students had the best chances to score well. A standardized exam means the department can compare results between sections to evaluate how well an instructor is doing relative to their peers. That gives instructors an incentive to teach to the test and ensure the best passing rates possible. It's debatable whether the results of such instructor comparisons are meaningful or whether any of this improves student learning, however it can explain your instructor's "teach to the test" attitude. This same sort of thing is also extremely common with standardized tests in high school (it's one of the biggest arguments against standardized testing).

You didn't specify what year you were, but the courses like this that I experienced were first-year courses. Students are coming from different high schools and different locales, each with a different curriculum and level of rigor. A course that seems easy to you might be much more challenging for a student from another state/country where high schools demanded less than yours did or had a different curriculum. Courses like this allow the difficulty to ramp up slowly instead of just jumping into the deep end (which can disadvantage students who were unfortunate enough to attend a lower-quality high school). By the time I got to my third or fourth semester, though, courses like this were long gone.

  • yes it was in the second semester so you're probably right and your explanation makes sense. My group was just so surprised since we worked on the exact situation beforehand.
    – lexis
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 18:47

There is only so much different stuff you can prepare students for in the expectation that they'll be able to deal with different material.

That being said, I remember a multiple-choice exam in Theoretical Electrical Engineering where a lot of questions were quite similar to those in old exams (which students collect and do practice runs with) while subtly differing in a few words. Make no mistake: the principal person responsible for that exam was out to get students in more manners than just that.

I think there was a non-trivial number of students scoring below the third of correct answers you were expected to get by just making random choices.

Note that this was in Germany (and a university considering itself an elite university) where passing ratios are not proscribed and there are no tuitions that would entitle a student to anything. Even then, that particular mandatory course was somewhat singular in its reputation.

The question is what kind of goal you are trying to achieve with that kind of testing.


If you did your homework and you did actually learn the material covered in those home exercises then you should do well in an exam. Why not? And that applies even if the homework isn't graded and does not count towards the final mark. Ours (20 years ago) was just voluntary. Only exams counted towards the credit and only the final exam counted towards the final mark. But if you did all the exercises from the book and you understood how they are solved, you were well prepared for the final exam. I think it should be like that.

That means not just to test that you did the graded homework you submitted yourself. Even if the exercises are to be done without anyone checking them and grading them for you, if you just follow the exercise book, if you do your exercises and you do understand the math or other logic behind them, you should be well prepared for the exam problems. It would be bad teaching, in my opinion, if it wasn't the case.

  • It's one thing to be well prepared to answer questions that rely on approaches that are similar to those seen in exercises. It is an entirely different thing to be fed the same exercises you already did (or even tiny perturbations of the latter). The exam should test the student's understanding, and repeating (or marginally adapting) previous solutions is not a proof of that. Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 9:19
  • @YvanVelenik "and you do understand the math or other logic behind them" Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 9:25
  • Yes, I saw that. But the exam should test this understanding, which resorting to previously solved exercises does not. Commented Aug 6, 2021 at 9:30

In addition to the other answers…

The first thing to realise is that in many universities the lecturers are researchers first and lecturers second. They are also not usually held to the strict standards that the majority of school teachers have to attain (e.g. University lecturers in the UK do not need to do a PGCE whereas all state school teachers need to have that qualification or equivalent), this means that the lecturers haven’t always been versed in the various methods of teaching (although arguably those courses aren’t always that useful at educating on day to day teaching).

Universities also tend to set their own standards, as do the individual lecturers, so there is much more variability than there would be for a school which takes part in national standardized qualifications.

Having said all that, there is very real criticism that education in many areas has evolved from being teaching to learn skills, to teaching to pass exams, and there are papers in educational research which are highlighting this problem.


Yes. It might encourage rote-learning rather than understanding, but good "results" make the boss of the professor happy because the boss is judged on producing good exam performance data. If this sounds horribly corrupt to you, I can only say: Welcome to planet Earth!

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