Preventing students from having copies of the exam

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I know a lot of people who prevent copies of their exams from leaving their classrooms. I think this is a bad idea.

I understand the motivation. I’ve taught several courses on a repeated basis, every semester or every year, for many years. Writing good exam questions is difficult, and it’s nice to be able to re-use questions.

But even though I understand the motivation, I also see a few major problems.

1. It doesn’t work. Even if you try to lock down your classroom as much as possible, copies of your exams are going to be getting out there. Trust me on this. It takes just a moment or two to take photos of an exam. Even in the days before everybody had a miniature camera or two in their pockets, exams got circulated. And the more adversarial you get about locking down copies of your exam, the more you emphasize their value to students, and the more these exams will circulate (which is the Tarkin Effect).

2. It’s inequitable. Copies of your exams will be getting out there (see #1), but not everybody will have ready access to them. They’ll be found in test banks associated with “greek” organizations and other groups, and in online test banks designed for this kind of stuff. If you’re not sharing them, you are inadvertently giving exclusive access to those who are working to game the system. Trying to prevent the circulation of your exams makes things worse for honest students.

3. Hiding what is going to be on the exam is bad for student learning. Leaving students guessing about what is or isn’t going to be on the exam detracts from learning. It fuels an adversarial approach to higher education that emphasizes gamesmanship over learning. You have the choice to point students directly to the content you want them to master. The more open you can be about what is and is not going to be on the exam, the more opportunity you give your students to learn this material. I’m not sure you can use attempt to keep your exam questions secret, semester after semester after semester, and be an effective instructor. Because if those questions have such high value for your teaching, then wouldn’t you want to share them more openly with your students so they could learn?

Then, how can we manage to create tests for a class that you teach repeatedly? I have some thoughts.

First, and foremost: if you think that knowledge of prior exams is of potential help to your current students, then you have one necessary course of action: make prior exams available to all of your students in your course, ASAP. Because some of the students in your class have access to those prior exams and some don’t. This way, you can help all students study for the exam and focus on the content that you think matters. And be more fair about it. If you use the LMS, just post the past year or two on the LMS. If you don’t, you can just email it to the class as an attachment.

Does this mean that you will have to keep coming up with new exam questions? I suppose so. Unless you’re perfectly fine with students taking tests with advance knowledge of what the questions will be. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. Because then they know exactly what you want them to study and learn! What’s the worst that could happen? That all of the students would learn what you’re teaching?

What do you put on your exams, if you can’t use the same questions over and over? I imagine that the solution to this problem depends on the size of the course, if you are fortunate enough to have any grading support, your expectations for the types of learning (e.g., recollection and understanding, or synthesis and application), and the specific content. (And if you’re teaching multiple sections of the same course in the same semester, then I do think that’s a situation that requires some sophisticated thinking and planning to keep exams fair for everybody involved.) I know about folks, who teach ginormous courses, who over several semesters will develop a large bank of questions, and draw from prior questions while including new ones every time. With slight modifications. And if students are studying the old tests to understand to be prepared for the new exam? All the better. Or, maybe, consider an open book exam.

I think the optimal fix to this problem is to simply stop giving high-stakes exams. It’s entirely possible to teach your course, and collect the information that you need to assign grades to students at the end of the semester, without having a big scary exam. Without writing one, without grading one, without dealing with all of the stress related to one. Perhaps consider specifications grading. Or contract grading.

The bottom line is: don’t fool yourself into thinking that copies of your prior exam aren’t being circulated by students. And if you’re finding yourself engaging in this kind of nth-level gamesmanship about exams and grading, it might be worth taking a step back to think about how you might reimagine how you assign grades so that learning might become a priority for everybody involved.

One thought on “Preventing students from having copies of the exam

  1. One of my lecturers in undergrad used to give exams that, for reasons outside her control, were worth 100% of the course grade. She would explicitly tell students at the beginning of the course that she was using the exact same identical question every year, so we could start thinking now about how to answer it. The question was: ‘write an essay about [overarching topic of course]. Include discussion of [extremely important fundamental principle], [how accreditation occurs and what steps need to take place], and [food-web effects]. Give at least three examples of [relevant organisms] and evidence of outside reading.’
    You could practice in advance and send her your proposed exam essay (once) to get feedback on improvement. Then in the exam, all you had to do was remember what you planned to say in your summary of ‘what I learned in this course’, and say it.
    I still remember ~90% of the essay and ~80% of the total lecture material, several years later, which is more than I can say for other courses I was taking at the same time.

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