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My professor reuses old tests. I have no idea why she told us this, but she did. In class today I noticed someone reviewing last years test, with the answers circled, on their computer in google drive, along with several other tests for this course that have not occurred yet. The test is in two days, and I know that this person will most likely have the answers memorized so it will be impossible to prove anything unethical is happening during the exam to a proctors perspective. Not only does this student have the exams, though, but many others. Apparently fraternities hold onto these and share them amongst each other.

When posting about this on Yik Yak, and my irritation with this, I received many yaks back threatening me should I turn people in, saying they would find me and hurt me. I have no reason to believe anyone knows what class I noticed the cheating in, or who I am, but this has me unsettled.

I have been studying and will continue to study for this test, and I find it infuriating that others don't need to bother with studying at all. I work hard for everything, and I do not want to get screwed over for this. The tests are curved so that the mean score for every test is a C+, and a large group of students who score well through cheating will undermine those who did not cheat on the curve.

What do I do?

  • 8
    I don't see how anyone could hurt you if you disclose this. However, I am unsure if what happens is against the professor's intentions. If she openly says that she re-uses old tests, without adding to please not look up old exams or to warn that she might slightly modify old questions, she might want to (and does) encourage going through old tests - maybe as that act still teaches you something, or as she hopes that it helps her course evaluation. As I read your question, I understand what your co-students do. – gnometorule Sep 14 '15 at 21:06
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    Note that reusing old exam doesn't mean using the same exams every year. By reusing old exams, some people mean reusing the same problems after x many years. Your instructor could simply use for the test in two days a problem from 5 years ago, another problem from 8 years ago and so on....Memorizing all these answers is almost impossible, and reviewing all her exams from the past 10 years in detail is actually a very good practice for the exams, irrelevant of what she tells you. If anyone just memorizes the results from last year exam, he/she/it will likely get a surprise. – Nick S Sep 14 '15 at 21:35
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The professor is free to decide to reuse questions from previous exams. It's a bit sloppy, but it's her business. She can't forbid students from learning the answers by heart, she would have no ways of enforcing this rule.

It would be unethical only if the previous tests were obtained by stealing them or any other dishonest way. If it's previous students making them available, it's just students investing efforts in a dubious way.

My answer is that you should suck up your furor, try to make the best learning out of the content (why not use these previous exams as an exercise?), and ace the exam your way. You will be much happier with yourself on the longer haul than those who will just have the quick thrill with the (false) impression of "gaming the system".

Also, don't take any more of her courses, and maybe mention in the teacher evaluation that you think the exam is not efficiently testing for understanding.

As a side note, people who succeed by learning answers by heart are only tricking themselves. They invest time and money in an education but don't take advantage of the learning. I think it's idiotic.

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    "The professor is free to decide to reuse questions from previous exams. It's a bit sloppy, but it's her business." I'm very sorry but this is simply not true. See the part of my answer where I refer to the Code of Academic Conduct at my institution, which says clearly the professor has a duty not to create opportunities for cheating. You have a valid point that memorizing past exams is a gray area and arguably isn't cheating, but repeating past exams, and certainly telling the class that you're going to do so, is more than "a bit sloppy" and IMHO crosses the line into unethical behavior. – Dan Romik Sep 15 '15 at 7:25
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    Let me qualify what I said, since it came out a bit harsh. It is common practice for professors to reuse old exam material. There is no harm in this if done responsibly by mixing in new questions with the old, changing some data, and not telling students of your plans. But when exams are simply reused verbatim in whole or large parts, that's when it becomes wrong, as it enables the students to succeed easily without knowing the material. I'm not sure whether the OP's prof crossed that line, but it should be pretty easy to tell the difference between a proper and improper question recycling. – Dan Romik Sep 15 '15 at 8:24
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    @DanRomik: even if you don't tell the students your plans, they probably know them already through student-lore... – Massimo Ortolano Sep 15 '15 at 9:06
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    @Karolina that is very bad publicity for your university. I think people should consider another institution if they envision an international academic career. – Cape Code Oct 2 '15 at 9:56
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    @CapeCode Not my university, but whole Poland. It's not that other universities are better. Things are slowly changing, but the post-communistic feel "authorities are opressing us, so cheating them is a good thing to do" is still strong in us. We were growing it this reality. We knew we couldn't repeat what our parents said at home, because they could get in trouble for that. We were taught to keep things to ourselves. People who would denounce others were seen as the worst kind of scumbags. And now we are being taught it's the other way around. We're learning, but it takes some time. – Karolina Oct 14 '15 at 9:31
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Yes, you should report it, although given the threats against you and other related concerns of retribution or ostracism, it may be understandable if you choose not to. Certainly reporting it would benefit you personally by allowing your work to be evaluated fairly compared to that of others, similarly benefit other honest and hardworking students in your class, benefit your institution's academic reputation, and benefit your own conscience. I feel there is a strong case for reporting.

As for how, there are various means, each with their own pros and cons depending on how involved you want to get in this story, how much certainty you want to have that you can remain anonymous, and how much time it would take for your complaint to be acted upon.

For the most rapid response (which seems important given that the exam is in two days' time), I would draft a polite email to the instructor, along the lines of:

Dear Professor ExamRecycler,

I am writing to express my concerns that some students in our class have been memorizing solutions to your class exam from last year after you indicated that you plan to give the same exam to our class. I saw some students doing this and have suspicions that the phenomenon could be a lot more widespread. As an honest student who studies hard, I think I have a right to expect that my performance be graded based on a comparison with the true performance of other students, rather than a fake performance attained through dishonest means. I would greatly appreciate it if on Wednesday you can give us an original exam that does an honest job of testing our knowledge. I also know that there are many other honest students like me in the class and I'm sure they would all share my sentiments about this.

By the way, thanks for a great semester! I really enjoyed your course and learned a lot.

Sincerely,

[your name]

You can make some small variations to the email depending on how much you trust the professor to follow up on your request (and how receptive she would be to the shameless flattery at the end...). For example, if you feel she is not likely to bother preparing an original exam despite your request, cc'ing the email to her department chair could greatly increase the chances that she would comply. Alternatively, you can indicate as diplomatically as possible that you are considering complaining to your university's Student Judicial Affairs office, etc.

Another possibility, if you really don't trust the professor to take kindly to the request, is to go directly to the department chair (or undergraduate program chair or advisor), or to Student Judicial Affairs. Note that this would likely mean a delay in getting the problem addressed, so in particular it's unlikely that anything would get done before your exam on Wednesday.

There is also the question of whether you want to expose the names of the students who you believe are cheating. I don't have good advice to offer about that. Note that they can reasonably claim that looking over old exams is not cheating but a form of studying. It is really your professor who is behaving somewhat unethically by reusing the same exam and openly declaring that fact. In my institution, the Code of Academic Conduct explicitly says that faculty have a responsibility to "Use examination formats that discourage academic misconduct". As a member of my institution's Campus Judicial Board, I attended hearings for students accused of misconduct, and on more than one occasion felt that the faculty had been negligent of that responsibility and therefore bore part of the blame for what happened. I have an impression that this may be the case in your situation as well.

Finally, although you didn't ask about this, I must say I am very strongly bothered and concerned by the fact that you received threats (of what sounds like physical violence or other serious harm) on Yik Yak. This behavior is much more disturbing and egregious than the cheating, and if I were you I would immediately report it to Student Judicial Affairs or another unit on campus that could provide you counseling about keeping yourself safe, protection if needed, and who would be strongly motivated to seek out the people who threatened you and take disciplinary action against them. Such behavior has no place on a university campus and must absolutely not be tolerated.

  • So it's dishonest even if the past exams are obtained legally? – BCLC Apr 12 '16 at 6:28
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This practice is, unfortunately, extremely common in my institution. I do not report it, nor I ever will, because I know the professors are extremely aware of the fact that the students often study by previous tests.

Since they have never taken any action against it, and do not bother with making new tests or even telling us not to read older exams, I then assume that they want us to study by old tests. I have talked to a few about this and they have confirmed it.

I study Law and one of the most effective ways of getting a good grade on the bar exams is studying older exams. The professors tell me that, in reusing a pool of questions, they are preparing us for our reality.

I know some are just lazy, but others have made me study hundreds of questions, because they reuse questions, but not whole tests.

Based on this, I do not report such occurrences.

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