Ben Habermeyer (E ’20) looked at the Statistical Inference (STAT–431) exam in front of him with a sense of mild panic. Not one of the textbook practice problems recommended by the professor looked anything like the questions on the page in front of him. He looked around. No one else seemed to be struggling nearly as much as he was. As the clock ticked away, he scribbled in what he could and turned in his exam feeling decimated.
“I hadn’t been destroyed by a test like that since freshman year,” he says.
A week later, Ben got his exam back. He scored a mere 56 points out of 100. The class average was 80.
He wondered if he still had time to drop the course. But on his way out of the classroom that day, he asked around about other people’s scores and study methods. All of his questions were met with the same answer: “Oh, you didn’t have access to the Google drive?”
This Google drive was an example of an academic archive, more commonly referred to as a test bank. Loosely defined, academic archives are logs—digital or physical—of old exams, homework assignments, and study materials for a given class over a period of time. Sometimes these archives contain only materials already provided by professors. But other times, they hold previous years’ worth of exams, assignments, and solutions that professors don’t release. For instance, a professor may provide students with one exam from the previous year as practice, but a test bank might hold exams from the past several years, giving those with access to these banks more study material.
Ben had never used an academic archive for a class before. So when he asked his classmates for help in studying, he was astounded at what they sent him. “I was only asking for old exams, but what I got was a whole drive of years’ worth of tests, as well as every single homework solution and all kinds of study materials for the class,” he says.
Most shocking of all was that the practice midterms contained the exact same questions from the exam he’d just taken, only with slightly different numbers. “That’s when I realized that everyone else knew ahead of time exactly what was going to be on the test.”
Stories like Ben’s are ones that the Office of Student Conduct (OSC) and the University Honors Council (UHC) hope to someday eliminate. Executive members of the UHC spent the last year and a half drafting an Academic Archives Report based on a 2018 spring school–wide survey of 301 students, conversations with professors, and advice from academic administration committees. Nearly a quarter of students admitted to having access to academic archives, though the report acknowledges that this number is most likely an undercount, as students may be reluctant to admit to having that access.
One reason that students are so hesitant to admit to having access to academic archives is because the policies regarding them make the situation blurry. “Most students are afraid to come forward because they just don’t know what might happen,” says current president of the UHC, Jesse Liu (C ‘21). “And to be frank, most students at Penn don’t know the rules.”
Max Grove (W ’20) agrees. After serving as the Academic Initiatives Director on Student Government during his junior year, he witnessed meetings on test banks between OSC, UHC, and the deans of all four undergraduate schools.
“The problem with trying to codify what a test bank is, is that it’s so broad and so far–reaching, which makes it harder to define whether it’s fair or not,” says Max. These vague definitions and unclear policies prevent students from being able to make an educated decision about whether or not they want to use test banks for a given class. “It’s not that test banks are unethical, but I wouldn’t say they’re ethical either,” Max remarks. “It’s a very gray area, and gray areas are scary.”
This gray area isn’t isolated to students. Julie Nettleton, the director of OSC, says that students are technically only allowed to use test banks if professors officially grant permission to do so. Though the Code of Academic Integrity doesn’t define what academic archives are or how to address them, Nettleton says that the issue falls under the jurisdiction of individual faculty members.
“Class by class, there are different policies, and the Code of Academic Integrity requires students to follow the policies of their class,” she says. “If a faculty member doesn’t address it specifically however, students sort of fill in the gaps in terms of what they think is appropriate or not.”
Kevin Myers (C ’19), a former president of UHC who helped spearhead the council’s initiative on addressing academic archives, knows that some professors are still unaware of how extensive the issue is on Penn’s campus. In one of the several meetings Kevin had with professors in the early days of drafting the council’s official recommendation, he remembers one stubborn professor who insisted there was no way his class had been affected by students’ use of academic archives.
“This professor told us, ‘I keep my exams under lock and key. There’s no way anybody has them. This can’t be a problem,’” Kevin recounts. “Then, during that meeting, he looked up his exams, and found them posted on a site like Course Hero within five minutes.”
While Nettleton thinks this story is an anomaly and that many professors do have a sense of the prevalence of academic archives, this instance illustrates a gap in communication between students and teachers.
She says that professors increasingly understand that when they hand out an assignment or post something on Canvas, these files will probably be collected into some kind of drive on the Internet somewhere. “Now, does this mean that it’s okay for students to access those? No, that’s not what it means,” says Nettleton. “But does that conversation always happen between students and faculty members? No, it doesn’t.”
Nettleton and Jesse both think this lack of communication is what puts students at greater risk of discipline when they choose to access and use academic archives. According to Jesse, the current proposed solution is to mandate that all professors make a statement in their syllabi regarding individual class policy on the use of academic archives.
“We want to codify a policy in the Code of Academic Integrity thats says, ‘You’re allowed to use academic archives, but it’s completely up to professors’ discretion,’” he says. “That’s our recommendation for now.”
But Jesse acknowledges that this solution might seem too simple. While this policy might be useful as something concrete for OSC and UHC to refer to in disciplinary hearings involving academic archives, this new codification doesn’t do much to address the equity issues behind access to academic archives.
One proposed solution to the problem would be to create a universal test bank—a place where professors could upload every old exam, assignment, or solution so that every Penn student could have equal access to them. Some students are calling for this universal test bank across all schools and classes at Penn to allow everyone the same access to different archives.
But Jesse and Nettleton think students often underestimate the difficulty of that solution. “I hear and understand the equity challenge of how things are today,” says Nettleton. “But the challenge I can’t seem to wrap my head around is how to actually change it, if that makes sense.”
It’s hard to picture what exactly a universal academic archive would look like. “Who’s overseeing this bank? Where is this bank? What goes in the bank? Who puts it in? How do you find it?” she asks. “I feel like an entire department would need to be created to handle this.”
While the vision some students have for a universal academic archive might be impossible, at least for the foreseeable future, Jesse hopes that there are smaller ways of achieving equity through department–wide or class–specific archives. “The economics department has a rough universal test bank on their website,” he says, “but the tests aren’t always consistent.” Some years in the economics bank are missing solutions for provided exams, or only have one midterm instead of two.
Though the UHC’s first goal is to roll out the mandated syllabus statement policy regarding academic archives, Jesse also thinks a good next step might be to work on establishing archives at the departmental level, especially for those that offer introductory courses for a lot of students.
Professor Nakia Rimmer, a senior lecturer in Penn’s math department, already does something similar for his introductory math courses. Rimmer, who began working at Penn in 2006, remembers the first time he realized academic archives presented an educational issue.
“When I first started, I gave an exam for one course, and then the next semester, I gave a similar exam,” he recalls, chuckling. “The results were much better the second time I gave it, so I was like ‘Hm, what’s going on here?’”
This slip–up was an awakening for him. Penn’s math department already posts a log of old math finals on its website, but from that moment on, Rimmer wanted to give students more. “I made a conscious choice not to reuse exams, and to give my old exams away to students as practice ones,” he says. Soon, he took this notion to the extreme, creating workbooks of old problems with full solutions for his introductory calculus courses.
Despite Rimmer’s openness with his own materials and commitment to writing unique exams for every semester, he acknowledges that a large academic archive might not make sense for upper–level courses.
“In lower division courses, the purpose of this is to provide students with more resources to help them make it through the course,” he remarks. “But as they move on to the upper level, students shouldn’t need as much.”
But according to some, even departmental test banks like what Rimmer suggests wouldn’t fully solve the unfairness of academic archives. Max openly discusses the advantages he’s received from academic archives. Through his membership in the business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi and friendships with students in programs like the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology (M&T), he says that he has easy access to multiple test banks.
Max thinks he would’ve had to work a lot harder for the grades he received in some classes without this access. And when Ben retells the story of his STAT–431 class, he says that if not for his friendships with people in M&T or professional fraternities, he would have been forced to drop the course.
“The first time I heard about test banks was through my roommate in M&T,” Max says. “We were really close, and he was like ‘Oh, you’re taking ECON–001 right now? Let me send you this collection of old exams.’”
Max says the trend continued for other exams, and that every time he needed help in a certain class, his roommate gave him files from the M&T drive.
Ben, too, says he became familiar with parts of the M&T drive in his statistics class. He says he was lucky to have friends in the program that were willing to share the materials with him. “If you didn’t have that drive, you were just so unprepared,” he says. “You were at such a disadvantage.”
Four students from the M&T program were unresponsive to requests to comment, and five students, including the president of the program’s student board, declined to comment. Professor Gad Allon, the director of the program, also declined to comment.
Both Ben and Max acknowledge that there can be social and economic barriers to accessing test banks. “If you’re not part of a fraternity or student program that’s pretty large, then you probably won’t have access to a full test bank,” says Ben. Even though he says he’s never been a part of an organization with a test bank, he knew who to talk to in order to gain access to one. “I know people in the right positions,” he recalls, “but I think there is a barrier if you’re not a part of that scene.”
Daniel Gonzalez (C ’20) sees this barrier all the time. As a former peer mentor for the Penn College Achievement Program (PennCAP), he has firsthand experience with the academic disadvantages that come from limited access to test banks for first–generation, low–income students like himself.
Gonzalez says that students from these backgrounds undoubtedly have limitations in their ability to join social groups like fraternities that come with expensive dues, even though they could benefit from the access to test banks these groups provide. Though he never wanted to join a fraternity, “it sounds like it can be very beneficial to join them for access to extra academic resources,” he says.
Beyond financial limitations for joining social groups, though, Daniel thinks there are also limitations on low–income students being accepted into prestigious academic programs like M&T, as they couldn’t easily afford the tutoring sessions or Advanced Placement (AP) courses that others could in high school.
Originally a pre–med student, Daniel says a big factor in his choice to pursue a different career path was the immense academic pressure and time commitment required of pre–med majors. “When I was a sophomore and junior, I had to work 20 hours a week to get the money that I use to provide for myself,” he says. “If I didn’t have to work, I could’ve spent more time studying.”
Daniel had access to what some students might refer to as test banks through a minority pre–med group, but he says these test banks “weren’t the most helpful, as they typically provided what the professor already gave you in class.”
He realized that if he wanted to stay on the pre–med track, he would need to find time for a lot more tutoring and study sessions, since he didn’t have access to the kinds of test banks other pre–med students might have. “I can only imagine how much easier all of those classes would’ve been for me if I’d had access to these resources that people with fewer barriers can have.”
Daniel thinks that if students have social connections that grant them access to a test bank, they might not have to worry about developing new study skills for college classes or fitting a rigorous study schedule around a part–time job. But he says test banks are only one example of the way socioeconomic advantages can give way to academic ones. “I don’t think test banks solve all of the problems for people, but they definitely help.”
To him, the presence of test banks points to the fact that students are looking for academic help, and that some of this help isn’t available to everyone. “We need to give people more access to resources, and people who have access need to be more willing to share.”