Study Old Exams?

Opinions differ. There are at least three good reasons for a professor’s calling back exam papers after an exam:

  1. Exams are hard to write, and good questions which separate students fairly into groups represented by a letter grade are long in preparation. Safeguarding exams saves the professor much time if he can safely use old questions over every few years. 
  2. Some special group (a fraternity or sorority) may build up a file of old exams, thus giving an unfair advantage to a privileged group – privileged because the students who cannot or will not join are discriminated against. 
  3. The true aim of an education is not simply the answering of exam questions. The exam serves several purposes, one of which is evaluating a student’s ability to comprehend a body of knowledge and think critically about it.

The practice of studying old exams has a deceptive result: The student often becomes over-confident after glancing through a few old exam papers. If he does not actually write out the answers and compare the results with the “official” solution, he may not study the entire subject as faithfully. In other words, a false sense of security is built up.

Studying old exams also obscures the broad outlines of a course which are usually necessary to answer new questions intelligently.

Perhaps the most important reason for not studying old exams as a substitute for organized study is the shift of study emphasis it tends to give. Exams are only check-points along the road to an education. In the end, the results of an exam can be represented by little marks on the record books. But you as a person are the important factor, and you must face real-life problems.

As an example, if your ignorance of bridge-building were to cause a bridge to fall due to errors of calculation, it will be small satisfaction to anyone that you answered 85 % of the questions correctly on some distant exam. The exam is obviously a valuable rating device, but it is also a means of showing you your weaknesses so that you can take steps to remedy your errors. We cannot all be perfect, but we can strive toward perfection by recognizing our weaknesses and correcting them where possible.

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