The multitude of testing procedures set in place to avoid cheating is, as we all hope, benefiting those who took the time to study materials prior to class.
And while TAs scanning lecture halls in search of wandering eyes has undoubtedly led to the reduction of incidences of blatant copying, a more subverted strategy is allowing some students to come into a test already knowing what to write.
Test banks are copies of exams saved by students and used as a study tool for others. Fraternities, sororities and other student organizations take pride in their extensive backlog of tests and allow members to freely use these exams for studying.
“One person is in charge of organizing the tests. After rush, an email goes out asking for brothers to bring their old tests to the house to allow others to have access to them,” said Blake Hamilton, a second-year environmental science and management major and Sigma Phi Epsilon member.
Sigma Phi Epsilon follows the same general procedure as the other Greek organizations. Those which have been affiliated with UC Davis for many years can have an extensive number and variety of tests. Some sororities even go as far to create incentive to turn in their tests — to gain ‘points’ toward social events.
Hamilton uses his chapter’s test bank when he needs to supplement his studying.
“I found that seeing how old tests are put together really helps, and there are teachers who recycle answers year after year. Looking at old tests helps me get better grades,” Hamilton said.
While sharing old tests is allowed by Student Judicial Affairs (SJA), an advantage comes into play if students memorize answers.
“If an instructor chooses to allow students to keep exams, the student may choose to retain them,” said SJA Director Donald Dudley in an email. “Fellow students are allowed to study from them, but may not memorize or borrow answers from those exams.”
Memorization marks the point where an unfair advantage begins. Old tests can contain identical questions to that of current exams, which can represent a major boost in the grade of the user.
Despite SJA’s stance, some, including chemistry professor Matthew Augustine, said that monitoring the difference between memorization and diligent studying proves unlikely.
“It’s one thing to memorize ‘a-b-d-c’ on a scantron, and another to understand the mechanisms that are going on because they saw an old test. [On memorizing answers,] it would really come down to he said/she said. It’s a position that’s impossible to enforce,” Augustine said.
Restricting the unfair advantage of those with access to past tests comes down to instructors.
“An instructor can take preventative measures such as changing questions sufficiently so that a student is still required to use their own abilities to demonstrate their understanding. Changing parts of a question can also make it easier to detect if someone is recycling an answer from a previous test version,” Dudley said.
Although professors are expected to add variety in their exams from year to year, a fair degree of overlap exists.
“This year’s midterm was the same format as last year’s. The material warrants it,” Augustine said. “What I did this year was to go through and change all the acids to bases — overall, it was the same exam. The average was only 10 percent higher [than last year].”
Augustine went on to explain that in derivational classes such as chemistry and physics, having an idea of what is on a test does not necessarily lead to a higher grade.
“I think it’s irrelevant [if students utilize test banks]. It’s about putting the time in to study and understand the material. Years ago, I didn’t have time to write an exam. I went into the review session, went through every problem on a practice exam and some other stuff, went home, changed the cover on that exam and gave it the next day. The average was [only] 5 percent higher.”
With such an infinitesimal change in the class average after essentially walking students through their exam, Augustine decided to post practice exams and keys (albeit in the basement of the chemistry building, so that students would have to put in effort to see the answers). In applied classes, test banks represent nothing more than resources from which to study.
In other types of courses, however, where specific concepts are targeted year after year, seeing what instructors focus on is less of a tool to study with, and more of an exclusive peek behind the curtain.
“There was definitely similar questions on there that showed up again on the midterm. It was helpful to study [using the old test],” Hamilton said after viewing a previous test for his biology course. “I use it as a study tool — people do try to memorize answers, but they’re screwed if those questions aren’t on the test.”
The advantages of test banks varies from course to course and from person to person — time and effort is still required, even if a student is simply trying to memorize answers.
Those with access to these exams don’t see them as providing an advantage over their peers, only as an available tool at their disposal.
“I don’t think it represents an unfair advantage,” Hamilton said. “I think that everyone should try to take advantage of the resources available to them — that’s part of being in college in the first place.”