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I took an exam which was very difficult. I am a senior in college and this is the first time I failed an exam. I was surprised to find out most of my classmates, which usually don't do as well, got an A on the exam.

Apparently, I found out after the exam that they got their hands on the solutions from last years exam, which happened to be exactly the same. Nothing was changed. It seemed that a little more than half the class had the solutions to the exam since everyone was talking about how it was exactly the same as the review. The review was never online or posted by the professor, he only gave us a review which was very different than the exam and didn't include solutions.

Is it fine for me to feel upset, I feel like I put in so much effort studying for nothing. I was planning on talking to the professor, bring it up slowly and tell him how I feel. I know my university has an honor code but, I'm not sure if professors can do this since I have never seen it done before. Is it okay for me to talk to him, or am I exaggerating? I feel like he is going to go against me.

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    The professor likely hasn't broken any official rules, but this is gross negligence in my opinion. I say complain to the professor, and when he brushes you off (because if he cared, he probably would have made a fresh exam to begin with) go over his head. – user37208 Apr 25 '16 at 20:18
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    @StrongBad provoking backlash sounds like a good idea in this case. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 22:06
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    The sad thing is it doesn't even necessarily sound like the other students cheated. Reviewing off past exams is expected to be OK, IMO and my experience, and obviously this invokes the assumption that exams change each year. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 22:08
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    @StrongBad The grades may not be changeable, but if I'm the department chair, I would still want to know so I could make it very clear to the professor that he shouldn't reuse exams in the future. – user37208 Apr 26 '16 at 0:03
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    Ask yourself this question => Would you still post this question if you were one of the students that got a very good grade? or if you were one of those who had the questions before hand? – The Guy Apr 26 '16 at 15:03
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If the class is graded on a fixed scale (e.g., 90% is an A, 80% is a B, ...) then I do not see how you have a complaint. Your grade is simply a reflection of what you know (or in this case didn't know). The behavior of the other students (studying the past exam solutions) means their grades are not necessarily a reflection of what they know, but that is not your concern.

If the class is graded on a curve, then your grade would be unfairly influenced by the students who had the exam ahead of time. I would be concerned if I graded on a curve. If everyone had access to the exam in advance, but not necessarily the solutions, I do not see this as manifestly unfair. That said, I would suggest mentioning your concerns to the teacher. If only some students had prior access to the exam (and possibly the solutions), than this is manifestly unfair. I would mention your concerns to the teacher and escalate from there.

As for possible outcomes, this is messy. If the teacher is unaware that only some students had access to the prior exams, they may attempt to fix the issue. What they can do depends on the department/university regulations and what the syllabus says (e.g., they might invalidate the exam, grade on a fixed scale, identify students who may have colluded). If the teacher is aware and does not care, going over their head, is likely not going to be productive, but should still be done. For example, if no rules were broken by the professor, the department chair would likely face major backlash from the faculty if they attempted to interfere with the teaching of another faculty member. More likely the chair might through out the exam or attempt to punish students for colluding. In reality, it would likely just go as a little unwritten black mark against the teacher.

  • Thanks for the response. I agree that it is not manifestly unfair but, since the class is graded on a curve and half the class had access to the exam and solutions, I feel like it is unfair for the other half of the class. Do you suggest I talk to the professor about it or stay in silence? – Robert Santos Apr 25 '16 at 20:38
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    "As other students may have cheated" - the question merely describes other students knowing the questions and their solutions because the questions were used in a past exam. Rather than as "cheating", I'd consider informing oneself about the previous iterations of a given exam as due diligence of every student in exam preparation. (Of course, as a result, this mirrors a comment above, in that it's really a bad idea from the professor's side to exactly reuse any exam questions.) – O. R. Mapper Apr 25 '16 at 21:18
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    @O.R.Mapper you are right, I didn't mean to cheat to imply academic misconduct as much as reducing (destroying) the validity of the exam. – StrongBad Apr 25 '16 at 21:55
  • @O.R.Mapper to an extent. I'd consider it due diligence if if the tests are presumed to be available to everyone (that is, the professor posts the previous year's tests online or makes them available to all who request it). OTOH, if the only way to access an old test is to convince someone from a previous semester to give it to you, that's not really fair because it relies on knowing certain people on campus and having them be willing to provide you with such tests (advantage: greek life). – user0721090601 Apr 25 '16 at 21:58
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    This is wrong; there is still systemic unfairness. When the professor sees all A's and a D; there will be no extra credit, the professor will not do anything to make up for the gap, the professor will assume they have graded fairly, the student will never receive a good rec letter and will be ranked lower than the other students in recommendations, etc. – user18072 Apr 25 '16 at 22:05
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Well, that is extremely common in Turkey.

When I discuss this with a professor, I got sort of this reply:

"A lecturer has a pool of questions for exams, and in a few years there may very well be repetitions of those questions, you can not just continuously prepare new questions for every exam."

There maybe such lecturers but it is rare and, as I understood, very time-consuming activity both in terms of preparation and evaluation.

Open ended assignments, like class presentations might be a better idea to both reduce workload for a lecturer and still keep originality, though it may not be suitable for especially preliminary courses, like Calculus.

All in all, in this World at least there are two ways to accomplish something, with honesty and with shortcut. The arduous way, of course, much better in long run. Don't consider much about others easy grades.

  • While it may be true that in certain courses there can only be so much variation of questions that are suitable for an exam, I would expect the professor would at least pull out a sample of question from a larger question bank. That way the set of questions won't be exactly the same, so that while a few questions here and there may correspond with past exams, it wouldn't give an unwarranted advantage to the lucky students who just happens to pick a particular past exam to study on. – Lie Ryan Sep 7 '18 at 7:16

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