27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Should schools or departments require profs to deposit their old exams in a database/bank?

Should schools or departments require profs to deposit their old exams in a database/bank?

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.


November 2010
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Back when I was in college, and in even high school, one of the main questions my classmates and I had days before an exam was what kind of material would be covered/tested. Our questions would range from “is it a multiple choice/fill in the bubble type thing”, to “do we need to memorize how to derive the quadratic equation or will we be given the stupid equation in case we forget?”. But something I only experienced in college (and later in grad school) was the amount of people asking what the content of the exam would be. I would immediately roll my eyes thinking, “you gotta be kidding me! are you stupid or what? have you been missing class?” I mean, for me, whether it was a mid-term and a final, or 3-4 exams spread all over a few weeks, I always though/knew that everything a prof discussed in class was fair game when it came time to take an exam. I didn’t question or gave input to a prof on how he/she should to the test. That was(is) their business and my business was to prepare as best as I could to answer the darn thing.

We had a student help centre in college that would have copies of some of the old exams, something particularly useful for the first exam one takes with a prof, you know, to get used to the style and see what types of questions  are asked and gauge the level of difficulty of the exams. I used old exams to gauge the level of difficulty or detail a particular prof would test or want to see in the answer. And it was not the end of the world if the exam was not posted. Sure, it would be somewhat inconvenient not to know how deep a prof would want an exam or question to be answered, but at the end of the day I always knew that anything and everything was fair game and that I needed to know my stuff backwards and forwards if I wanted to ace the exam regardless of whether there was a study guide and old exams available or not.

Why am I bringing this stuff? Well, at my current place of work there are many thousands of students (seriously, I’ve never been part of a school with well over 20k student). And occasionally I hear them complain about this prof or that prof or about how unfair it is that X or Y prof is not depositing his or her material in the exam database and how hard it is to study from the notes … and many, many other things. This situation leaves me scratching my head as I cannot being to understand why they are complaining about. Sure, it is a different generation than mine. Most of my profs until, I got to grad school, used the blackboard (yes, the blackboard, and chalk and the eraser thingie, and yes, you had to get up and answer (in a full sentence) after solving the problem or drawing the cell’s phospholipid bilayer and showing a couple of integral and peripheral proteins).

Einstein wrote his own stuff, and so should you!

Some of my college profs used *.ppt slides and overheads, some had notes with them, or if they’d been teaching the class for 20 years the stuff was an integral part of their brain. It’s something I admired … and I did even more if they inserted new/recent findings that either proved or denied what was known in the field at the time. It’s something I still treasure.

And as far as computers and slides go, I’m all for it. I like computers and I think that there are tricks and things you can do to not only wow your audience, but truly illustrate a point (like a kick ass animation, see this one for instance). After all, presenting and doing cool stuff with the data and slide should be part a part of every structural biologists’ tools of the trade.

Some of my profs put their slides online. Sometimes it required you to sign up to see the stuff with your school ID and passcode, or sometimes if was freely available.

But going back to the starting point. Should profs put their materials online or in a school repository for students to get and study from prior to an exam? Should departments create policies to enforce and or keep an eye on this?

My take on it is no. Universities shouldn’t have policies that go over a profs authority and force them to put every single bit of their material online. It should be something they want to do … and if you really liked something the prof said or presented in class, say hi during office hours, ask the prof to share the stuff with you, more than likely he or she will want to do it, or direct you to where you can find it. I think it should be up to the prof to upload material, and simply he or she should say to the class that everything is fair game and that they shouldn’t neglect any sections while studying for an exam. You may think that I am an asshole  of epic proportions for saying this. But I think not. See, most of the PhDs or MSs I know didn’t get to where they are the easy way. By this I mean, they got to where they are not by skipping class, sleeping in class, or going to a database and downloading everything the night before an exam. They got there because they studied the stuff, not only from textbooks and classes but by sweating the grades, researching, doing lab work, etc. I don’t think that studying from just the online notes and exams is 100% wrong, but attending the class, participating in the discussion, engaging in a conversation with the prof or classmates, doing your lab work and writing your own reports are necessary skills that all student should have, whether or not they become scientists later on. This forces you to  think, to produce something, to question a paradigm, to challenge an opinion. Studying just for the sake of getting an A or B, or barely passing, without asking, questioning, engaging can only result in creating or maintaining a generation that is used to having things the easy way, one click away. And when they don’t, they cry a little, protest and call the prof  nazi for making them study because “hey, it’s free knowledge, why should a prof keep the stuff from me when my parents and I are paying for his/her salary.” It’s this “I deserve”, “I must have now”, “I need to gain access at whatever cost” mentality that irks me.  Your tuition does not guarantee that you will automatically bypass the profs judgement and rules to gain access to “privileged” information. Did you know that if your prof is conducting research and has a lab, his or her salary are mostly paid by grant money he or she brings? And it is not paid necessarily by your tuition? Did you know that most of your money goes to pay for services, and staff and administrative people? Well now you know.

I say this because I know the amount of work it takes to prepare for 1 lecture, 1 stinkin’ 45-50 min lecture for your peers. It can take weeks of reading and researching, and developing a study and class plan to present thing in those 45-50 minutes. Do students even think about the process a devoted prof or TA goes through in order to adapt the material to a class, come up with useful examples, engage people in a discussion and teach them skills that will be put to good use when you get out? Do student know the amount of reading a prof or TA has to do in order to answer questions in a concise manner and be ready to have those answers at hand …. because if he or she doesn’t then he or she is automatically judged as an idiot for not having ALL the answers at hand in two seconds. And how about when people cheat and pass the key or part of the key to those who they know or who can pay? Is it fair that just because you can afford it you must get it and then say without any kind of remorse “well, screw the prof, screw the school, screw the rest of the class., I’ll get ahead and that’s it.” It is fair to those who studied their heads off and attended class and did everything by the book? I think not, and I would think that any reasonable person, with a bit or morals and ethics would agree with me. Like this very recent example, I don’t think students should complain so much about an exam being super hard and not having a key or study guide. I have news for you … not everything in life revolves around you and your ability to get ahead because  you have the means, motive or opportunity.

It is your and my responsibility to study for an exam, to prepare for it … because when you are in the middle of a reaction in a BL-3 facility with your critical cells and/or virus and you can’t access Wikipedia, or the database, or when you are in the middle of fixing that 10 million dollar instrument and you can’t have the internet or database next to you, that is when you are truly tested. That is when your ability to gather the info from your brain comes in handy. That’s when you know that working with Ebola or radioisotopes requires a certain knowledge and training, if you cheated … well, you’re on your own, and once you’re fined and kicked out, there’s no cheat code that’s going to bail you out.  If you and I rely on the easy method to get ahead, and let the thinking be done by others, we are perpetuating this lifestyle of letting things go by, without asking, or actively thinking about them. Plus, there should be a minimum level of accountability and knowledge that you should possess without having to reach for a textbook or Wikipedia at every step of the way.

I used to reason that taking exams was the stupidest thing in the world because guess what, textbooks and the web will always be there for me if I need them, and they would be there once I was free from the confines of school and profs. I was wrong. Had I had to rely on those alone I would have never collected a single piece of data for my thesis, or made figures and calculations in a matter of seconds when I was taking my qualifying exam or defending my thesis. The internet and textbooks were there, just not a my reach, and had I relied only on those sources alone my committee would have gladly given me a fail, no questions asked, because the basic knowledge that helps things flow would not have been there.

So, my plea is to stop complaining and put a bit more effort into learning and taking tests. Sure, there are assholes along the way, and you should voice your complains about those people. But overall, profs don’t hate you and make you take exams just because they have nothing better to do. Some of the things that really stuck with me were the answers that I’d repeated a thousand times only to forget the second the exam sheet was handed, or those that drew from all my 4 years of knowledge in biology to extrapolate and come up with a great way to test a system or new hypothesis. The ones that truly stuck with me were the ones that proved the most difficult, those, almost 10 years after finishing college are still with me. And during that process of memorizing and learning I gained the ability to really think through a process, explain it to myself and others, and write it concisely, and follow instructions. Because grading 95 exams, written in single space about the BCR-ABL mutant, or how make your dominant negative mutation is  the best way to test that system. That is totally fun and I love grading those 95 papers every day of the week after being in the lab from 8am to 6pm. Total fun indeed … woo hoo!

If I hadn’t learned those things I wouldn’t be able to critically examine a paper,  and challenge an expert in my field regarding what’s the best way to  grow that labelled protein or collect data with this totally hot script I wrote, let alone a protocol and know what DTT or beta-mercaptoethanol do or which media is more appropriate for my cells (2xYT is richer than LB and obviously M9 media, but I like M9).

But more than anything, it is the ability to build upon that knowledge  and create something, to know that something I developed or improved is making other structural biologists breathe a sigh of relief, or that I wrote an original piece of research … that I produced the whole thing with those skills. That gives me the utmost satisfaction. And that is something that no exam key, or cheating scheme will ever give me.


  1. DF says:

    A bit long of a rant today, but more power to ya! Great subject. I will try to focus my comments on the title topic.

    First, one has to understand that many professors never had teaching experience prior to being a professor. If they are lucky, the course they are assigned to teach has a syllabus and a few notes from the previous prof. Or, even better, the previous prof is still there and the new prof can ask a few questions about the class. Each time someone new takes over a class, a reinvention of the class occurs. Some of that is good, but a lot is unnecessary.

    I am in the belief that a prof. should submit good exam questions to a test bank run by their dept.; one that will compile well crafted exam questions for use on future tests. When a prof wants to design an exam, the prof can then use the class objectives to select and adapt questions retrieved from the bank. Of course, new questions will have to be introduced, but this prevents a new prof who has no experience and perhaps bad exam writing skills from the difficulty of writing a new, untested, exam.

    As far as giving students access to previous years exams, I am for it. The qualifier is that these exam questions are used throughout the course as examples of how the class/text information should be applied to the exam. These could be introduced as mid-class clicker quizzes or parts of in-class discussions (especially if most of the class is wrong). It helps expose misconceptions held by the class and gives the professor time to respond and potentially correct these misinterpretations.

    Should the students see the test verbatim, as a study guide right before an exam, such as, here you go, study this and you will do well on the exam… probably not. Not only does it show laziness on the part of the prof. but it also does not fully engage the student, it is a passive gesture of help.

    I always liked seeing the exam when I was a student, but that was because I did not have the most engaging professors. I would go to the library to get the previous exams, not to understand the material, that I could do on my own, but to know how the prof framed their questions.

    Now, another thought, are exams the best way to evaluate a students grasp of knowledge and ability to apply it to new situations? Could professors use alternative measures of assessment that incorporates the higher levels of bloom’s taxonomy? I do believe exams are a tool of evaluation, but should not be the only one. What do you think?

  2. Dr. 29 says:

    Great comment DF! Thanks as always for your insight. I agree with most of what you’re saying. My point is very well summarized when you wrote this: “Should the students see the test verbatim, as a study guide right before an exam, such as, here you go, study this and you will do well on the exam… probably not. Not only does it show laziness on the part of the prof. but it also does not fully engage the student, it is a passive gesture of help.” My boyfriend and I were talking about this exact point, and I feel that maybe older exams or parts of it (maybe the parts where most students fail over and over) could be shown, or at least adapted for discussion in class, or in a review session. And I totally agree that exams should not be the only way in which to test knowledge or how well the class understands a topic or concept. I think that labs, reports, group discussion, quizzes and field trips are other tools that could be incorporated to gauge whether things are understood.

    My main point is that students should not rely and/or expect that a prof will post something and depend on that to ace an exam. Ii think that a lot of effort should be put into doing well in a class … and having an easy way out is a sleazy way to get ahead in class and in life. I also think that universities or departments shouldn’t force profs to put all the material online, or make it too easily available for people to copy it and use it as an excuse to not go to class, or do the work that is expected from them.

    Thanks for your comment and for visiting!

  3. Dr. 29 says:

    Oh, also, I almost forgot … I think it is genious to have a dept. database where profs can check what the previous prof asked in an exam and how things progressed. I think it would be/is a great resource for new faculty or those who are teaching the subject for the first time. I think that my current department doesn’t have it formally, but my PI has shared his notes with others who are teaching one of the subjects he’s taught.

  4. Alexandra says:

    I’m all for giving students access to previous exams. My Genetics teacher in college went through her past exams with us and it helped us a lot. It helped us understand what she wanted us to prove/write/comment on, we could have easily missed some of the aspects even if we did know the course very well.
    That being said, profs shouls vary their exams from year to year so that students understand that there isn’t just one subject that they’ll be questioned on.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      I think that maybe old exams, or an example of questions students tend to do bad over and over again. What I’m against is this feeling or attitude of “just because I pay, I need to have everything now” … you know, this entitlement issue. I do think that profs should vary, and adapt to how their students are learning and how they’re graded. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  5. […] and his going MIA without his PhD and the measures taken by his PI to try to get him back on track. Wrote about whether faculty should put all their materials in a class/databank to make things easier for their undergrads. Hon and I bought tickets to go home. Figured out what […]

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