Every student has a checklist when they begin studying for exams. Lecture notes? Check. Textbook? Check. Coffee? Double check. Past exams? TBD.
Using old exam questions to practice is a common study strategy among students if they can get ahold of them. Western currently lacks a campus-wide policy for old exam distribution. It varies between faculties and even between professors within the same department.
This has resulted in an informal exam black market, where students obtain past exams through other means: friends who’ve taken the course before, buying them off upper-year students or even purchasing them on third party sites.
Faculty sophs are one of the groups on campus that try to act as an informal exam bank for frosh who ask.
Brooke Grant, a science faculty soph, says there isn’t an official compilation of old exams for sophs to give to their frosh. It’s usually up to the individual soph to either find old exams or provide their own. However, there is a lot of communication within faculty soph teams, and sharing resources with each other is a team effort.
"Everyone's pretty close and tight-knit," says Grant. "So if someone has something that they think would help other people's students, they'll post it in our main Facebook group."
There are obvious problems with this system. Some students who aren’t lucky enough to get their hands on an old exam are at a disadvantage compared to people who are. And for the students who do find themselves in possession of an old exam, they’re faced with the ethical dilemma of who to share it with and how.
Elias Bacarro, a third-year BMOS student, says, “We have a very inefficient system, and it’s up to the student to circumvent that.”
He adds that it’s not unethical for students to use past exams; rather, it should be the teacher's responsibility to uphold a standard.
Some professors such as Tom Haffie, who teaches first-year biology, are conflicted about releasing past exams. While Haffie sees them as a useful tool for students to gain feedback, he is also worried about giving students the wrong impression about what will be on the exam.
“The danger of using old tests is that they’re old,” says Haffie. “Past exams make people think that their studying is more efficient or supercharged in some way.”
He explains that the course material changes every year, so questions on old exams may not be relevant anymore. Exams are also not comprehensive, testing only a fraction of the entire course.
While Haffie releases modified versions of old exam questions for term tests, with the irrelevant questions or ones with typos taken out, he prefers to write new sample questions for students to use to study for the final.
There are a lot of parties involved in the issue of circulating past exams — professors, administration, sophs, third party companies — not just current students, so the solution may not be straightforward. There is no quick fix, and there are many things to consider such as grade distribution, bell curves and academic dishonesty.
One possible option is to introduce a faculty-wide, centralized portal for old exams, like at the University of Toronto, where professors can upload their old exams as a resource for students, but the feasibility of a new policy such as this one is unclear for Western. Nevertheless, students are a resourceful bunch, and will probably find a way to get a hold of old exams anyway.