Stockpiles stir concern

Kelly Cahill Nov 10, 2008

In various locations on campus, there exist the Holy Grails of study resources: organized files of old exams, papers, notes, and homework. The files are behind the locked doors of some Greek housing facilities and, curiously, down a nondescript hallway in the basement of Cyert Hall.

The long-standing rumor that Greek organizations have stockpiles of old course materials has proved at least partially true on the Carnegie Mellon campus. Members of the sororities Delta Gamma and Kappa Kappa Gamma reported that they house “scholarship” rooms or closets in which course materials are organized and shelved. A Delta Gamma sister spoke to The Tartan under conditions of anonymity. The member of Kappa Kappa Gamma who disclosed the sorority’s scholarship closet later rescinded her statement, citing a meeting with her chapter president.

No other Greek organizations on campus reported current, organized repositories of course materials. However, Delta Delta Delta, Phi Kappa Theta, and Sigma Phi Epsilon cancelled interviews and Clayton Crites, president of Beta Theta Pi, did not disclose whether his fraternity stored old course materials.
Although many students seemed to think that stockpiles of old exams could be an issue of academic dishonesty, administrators from Student Affairs and Student Life said that Carnegie Mellon’s academic integrity policy does not prohibit the use or collection of old course materials. Interim Dean of Student Affairs G. Richard Tucker, Director of Student Life Holly Hippensteel, and Coordinator of Community Standards Jamie Rossi are all in agreement that professors have the freedom to determine whether their students can use past course material.

Of the professorial discretion inherent to complying with the policy, Tucker said that it “imposes a burden on faculty members to ensure that they communicate their expectations to their students in writing via their syllabi and orally during their class meeting(s).”

Both Tucker and Hippensteel said they had no knowledge of any Greek stockpiles of course materials, but Hippensteel called possible Greek repositories “kind of resourceful” and added that they would not be considered a violation of the academic integrity policy.

“There’s no rule against keeping old tests,” Hippensteel said. “If a faculty member gives tests back, then they’re yours — but if the faculty member gives the tests back and says that they are not to be shared with other people, then I need to trust that students are doing that.”

Although the stockpiling and use of appropriate course materials is legal, many students and professors do not think it is fair.

Senior Brian Correia, a business administration major, worries that the academic advantage provided by access to stockpiles could impact business students’ employment options, as many companies grant interviews based solely on an individual’s GPA.

“Like it or not, we’re all competing for the same jobs, so any edge on test-taking and homework that Greek affiliates get through these stockpiles is definitely a factor,” Correia said.

Alex London, a Carnegie Mellon professor who teaches courses primarily in theoretical and applied ethics, felt that the access to papers through stores of old course materials could be academically damaging to students.

“My concern about having access to past papers is that it would be viewed as a substitute, rather than a supplement, for personal, critical engagement,” London said.

Others argue that the stockpiles are a great resource.

Dan Frank, a senior math and statistics major and president of Sigma Tau Gamma, does not think Greek repositories present an ethical problem, although his organization does not keep old course materials.

“To me it just seems like another way to study — I don’t see how that’s a bad thing,” Frank said.

And then there are some people who aren’t convinced that stores of course materials provide any distinct advantage at all. Professor Paul Fischbeck, who teaches courses in both social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy, thinks using old course material might even be a disadvantage.

“I pass out [enough] examples in class,” Fischbeck said. “If students spend their time going back too far, then they will end up studying material that is no longer covered.”

Although feelings about Greek stockpiles of tests are fairly mixed, what seems to have gone largely unnoticed by most students, administrators, and professors is that students can access similar resources outside of the exclusive Greek community.

Two filing cabinets filled with old exams and quizzes can be found in the Carnegie Mellon Academic Resource Center in the Cyert basement. The center, known to its small group of patrons as CMARC, regularly sends letters to professors and students requesting donations of old course materials that it uses to keep its repository up to date.

Not many students know that CMARC exists, let alone the resources it houses or the services it provides. CMARC was founded in 1968 as an academic support center for black, Hispanic, and Native American students, but after a 2004 Supreme Court ruling regarding affirmative action in higher education, the center became all-inclusive. CMARC currently is an advising center open to all Carnegie Mellon students.

Lynna Martinez, an academic adviser at CMARC, said the center does not advertise its stockpile of old exams.

“If you’re utilizing our services and then you want to use the test files, that’s one thing,” Martinez trailed off. She finished, “Our primary objective is to advise.”

Just two hours northwest of Pittsburgh, another university grappled with the issue of exam stockpiling. Case Western Reserve’s Academic Integrity Board heard complaints about the unfairness of Greek test repositories nearly every year, according to Case Western students Stephanie Ash and Ashley Berdine. Last year, the board decided it was time to engage the campus community in a discussion about the issue.

Ash, now a first-year law student at Case Western, served on the Academic Integrity Board for several semesters before being elected chair for the 2007–2008 academic year.

She and other members of the board had discussed the ethical implications of both Greek and non-Greek test stores before: Did access to these old exams really provide an academic advantage? Was the professorial practice of posting old exams on Blackboard enough to outweigh the years of tests stored by Greek organizations?

After interest was sparked in the issue again last fall, the board decided to put out a student survey to determine the overall campus attitude toward test repositories. Ash said that because the board recognized that any student or organization could theoretically form its own test repository, the board was careful not to frame the survey in terms of Greeks vs. non-Greeks.

But the survey only returned 144 responses, or roughly two percent of the university’s undergraduate and graduate population.

What was evident from the results was that most students knew about the existence of test stores and that they believed using old tests as study aides was effective. When it came to the question of whether test banks disadvantaged students who didn’t have access to them, the response was mixed.

“Some strongly felt disadvantaged, some did not feel disadvantaged at all, and others said they felt it was a disadvantage, but that they still did well so it wasn’t a big deal,” Ash reported.

The idea of creating a test bank available to the entire campus community was first brought up, albeit jokingly, in an executive board meeting in the fall of 2007.

“We were all talking about the results of the survey when someone flippantly said, ‘We should create our own test bank,’ ” Berdine said. After the laughter subsided, the board began to seriously consider the prospect. “We talked about it and decided that creating an officially sanctioned test bank available to all [Case Western] students and not any subsets would be a great solution to the ambiguous means of retrieving old tests to study from.”

The board quickly moved forward with the idea. In the early spring of 2008, they secured a Case-sanctioned website to host the test bank. The board plans to begin collecting materials this year and hopes to have the test bank fully operational by next school year.

Although feelings about exam stockpiles were just as mixed at Case Western as they are at Carnegie Mellon, and despite the lack of a clear consensus that stockpiles provided an academic advantage, Case Western’s Academic Integrity Board decided that creating a university-wide test bank would at least provide equal access to everyone.

“What we [did] agree on is that all students deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in their classes,” Ash said.

In a brochure promoting its services, CMARC says that it “serves as an advising and information center by connecting students to appropriate communities, services and opportunities.” The brochure never mentions its repository of old exams.

Although many students have never heard of CMARC, let alone its test bank, junior policy and management major Sean McMillan spoke about it matter-of-factly.

“You can just walk in, just ask about [the exams], and then they open the door for you,” McMillan said. Students are not permitted to remove the tests from the center, but they can make photocopies of them.

McMillan has used the test bank for a few classes, but said that because the bank is relatively small, he cannot always find the material he needs.

“If there wasn’t a lot of good stuff for the class I was taking, I’d put my own stuff in after the class was over,” McMillan said. Professors also contribute materials.

When asked why most students do not know about CMARC, McMillan replied that most of the people who come to the center are underrepresented minorities. According to McMillan, CMARC advertises its services primarily through minority groups, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the Spanish and Latin Student Association.

If the CMARC test repository sounds like the hard copy equivalent of the Case Western Academic Integrity board’s test bank and a simple answer to the debate over Greek stockpiles, maybe it shouldn’t. Although CMARC’s services are technically available to the entire student body, advisers at CMARC suggested that their test store doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the whole university community.

In other words, if Carnegie Mellon wants a university-wide test bank, it should look elsewhere.