Reference to older questions in a syllabus, if in an ideal situation, is indubitably a mutually beneficial course of action for both the students and the instructors in a high-level academic course in a school that wishes to brand itself as a value-adding science and engineering institution. After all, that’s what the new Waterloo logo and YouTube channel is supposed to contribute to, right?
With regards to the scope of our discussion, let’s not have any delusions here; a large proportion of the course instructors’ time and efforts is not just on the students, but in research work. That is what makes the university a vibrant academic community that’s not just about the student’s grades or the architectural awesomeness of the campus buildings. With that in mind, the formation of tests and the considerations for producing an acceptable level of test results and hence the practical concerns that are associated with it (such as instructor access to exam banks) should not be of significant concern to the instructors themselves. It would be worrisome if my Calculus professor had to refer to past year papers to formulate my next midterms, because that makes me wonder about the validity of his academic credentials. With the scope defined, let’s continue on to explore the validity of propagation for the status quo.
A point to note is that the end decision will truly affect those courses where there is a considerable volume of old exams in storage, such as an introductory calculus or economics course. This is because these courses cover material which is not likely to change in time, so the utility of pre-existing exam material will have a genuine impact on the participating parties. With respect to new and upcoming courses or in high-level technical electives, the utility of existing exams can be considered to be marginal due to either the constant change in material, or due to the need for complete understanding of the material anyway so either parties focusing on analysing old exams won’t really get anywhere. Hence to apply a resolution with a focused effect on a wide range of courses each with their own course attribute may inadvertently catalyze the evolution of new issues that will need further treatment. That is not sound economics.
The relegation of a systematic implementation to solving a problem, be it social or technical, to an “underground” or, some may prefer “ad-hoc” approach, is many times a more cogent means to resolving the issue due to the speed and rapidity of normalization forces that interacts with the corresponding parties. The analogous issue here is the highlighting of the fact that we students get old course material all the time even if we aren’t offered them by our instructors.
Students get old materials from those have taken the course previously. That’s something that smart people do: they acquire inputs from their social environment so as to increase the efficiency and efficacy of their own learning experience, with the end goal of creating value to themselves via a strategic transformative process. Though I am cautious to accuse our professors of copying their colleagues’ work, I am pretty sure that being the intelligent people they are they will get their hands on whatever they need to get the job done in a timely manner and with an acceptable level of efficacy. If that includes older test papers or any other means of reference to formulate new tests, than I’m confident of their ability to obtain it without excessive trouble.
The old adage, if it’s not broken why fix it, applies accordingly in this case. We are in essence a learning community, and if a particular methodology has been observationally functional for the history of the organization, then there is no point in injecting change which, as previously mentioned, could lead to other worrisome issues which we will have to contend with.
In summary, the status quo allows for the effective generation of new exams that tests the students’ understanding of the course material, because obviously it has been doing so up till now. Any injections of change would need to be monitored closely and with utmost caution to prevent the formation of new organizational caveats that will become a bump in the road ahead, no matter the well intentions of the participating parties; and it appears that the cost benefit ratio for that operation may not exactly be what we want. We need to look no further than the shining bastion that is PD-Eng to see why.