Who Put Your Exam on the Web?

The year was 1997. During a graduate school take-home exam in abstract algebra, one of my fellow students emailed the questions to AskDrMath.com and received answers before the exam was due.

Fast forward to 2005. One of my international graduate students showed me a website hosted in his home country (in a language not based on the Roman alphabet, therefore not easily searched by most westerners). Students post homework, exams, and solutions for many North American universities, indexed by class and professor.

I was happy to see that the Wall Street Journal wrote about these issues in their 9-April-2009 article “Do Study Sites Make the Grade?” by A.M. Chaker, pp. D1-D2. [1] If you aren’t aware, online study sites give students access to homeworks and exams posted by hundreds of thousands of registered users. They are the old sorority/fraternity files in the Internet age. According to the article, solutions to 225 textbooks are also now on the web. Furthermore, students post and answer questions from fellow users around the globe.

According to Chaker, arguments for such sites include: “With the Internet, the sites say, it’s inevitable that all this information will be available to students anyway. It’s up to the schools, they say, to come to terms with modern times. ‘We’re just putting things out in the open,’ says Koofers’ Mr. Rihani, who says his site is making old tests previously accessible only to fraternity members, available to more students. Mr. Rihani notes that putting old tests online can help force more professors to refresh their old exams periodically. The study sites are likely to propel schools to rethink the way they teach.”

When NYU’s Aswath Damodaran spoke in our Master Teacher Series on 24-April-2007, we learned that he writes every exam from scratch and posts all old exams with solutions on his website. I think there’s evidence in the above article that more folks should consider Damodaran’s model, or at least rethink the way we embrace the technology.

[1] If the link to the WSJ article does not give the full-text version, use this Google search instead.

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6 Responses to Who Put Your Exam on the Web?

  1. Arthur Lewin says:

    Will, this reminds me of the fierce battle put up by the record companies when people began “pirating” songs on the web. And then they began to make money from charging for downloads. This is also reminiscent of how the movie industry feared the impact of TV until it incorporated TV into its operations.

    Similarly, today, newspapers are wailing about the internet knocking them out of business, even as they morph into a new amalgam with the internet. Likewise, academia must, and will, adapt to the seismic changes wrought by the net.

  2. glenn petersen says:

    I give my students all the questions for their take-home essay exams at the beginning of the term. In theory, if they know what they’re going to be examined on—that is, what I think are the most important issues—they’ll pay closer attention when I’m covering that material. I’ve tried to design the questions so that they require students to draw equally on classroom lectures and discussions and assigned readings. What this means, of course, is that slipping my exams into an online “study site”/test bank would serve no useful purpose for my students. At least that I can think of—our students are pretty resourceful, so who knows what they might come up with.

    It’s always been my experience that this approach cuts way down on students’ attempts to download material from the internet and then cut and paste. It’s my sense that in many—perhaps most—cases, Baruch students cheat not as a means of avoiding work so much as they do it as a way to garner higher grades, which they hope will translate into better jobs and higher pay (and thus greater life satisfaction—oh, the irony). When they’ve got the questions beforehand and have ample to time to write, though, it is the written quality of the answer, and not merely information plopped down onto a page, that determines the grade. The ones who want to earn high grades actually have to work at writing good answers. Or at least that’s my theory.

  3. steve4322 says:

    I think Damodaran is on to something — revising problems and test equations each year helps to ensure that someone is not looking for the answers online.

  4. Avatar of Tomasello Tomasello says:

    I’m with Glenn on this one. I’ve found that giving intro students the questions (OK, a bank of questions) well in advance ensures better performance and less cheating. Also, the students who prep, prep the correct material. About 25 years ago a failing student tried to prove to me that he had studied for a quiz by reciting the number of symphonies each Classical composer wrote and the birth and death dates of same (information that I have to look up). I then realized that I was teaching budding accountants who saw everything in terms of digits and statistics. That’s when I began giving out the questions.

    No surprises. No excess anxiety. No “need” to cheat. Focused learning.

  5. Dennis Slavin says:

    Like Glenn and Andrew, I distribute my exam questions in advance; they make explicit what I believe my students should learn. Distributing learning goals from the start also helps, but having the actual questions seems to lessen students’ anxiety about tests; and I can reasonably expect better answers.

    At Friday’s symposium of the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?) told a story about Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook. (Apologies if I get any of this wrong.) During his one year at Harvard, Zuckerberg had to take a final for an art history course that he had barely attended all semester. He put together a website with photos of all of the paintings that had been discussed in class, leaving space for discussion of each. He then emailed all of the students in the class, asking them to discuss the paintings as a way for everyone to review for the exam. Evidently, many did post what they knew and excellent discussions ensued. The result: not only did Zuckerberg do just fine, but everyone in the class did very well. They all actually learned the material.

  6. Here’s another technology gimmick that students are using: corrupted files (thanks to my colleague Don Schepers for pointing it out):

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/06/05/corrupted

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