Web Site Tests Students' Ethical Boundaries The Internet has given unprecedented access to information, but where do we draw the line? The Web site Postyourtest.com invites users to share old college exams online. Is it cheating — or democracy?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

So, pencils down. Time's up. Turn in the exam. The terrors of test-taking are almost universal, but hey, no sweat this time. You've seen this test before. Not only have you seen it, you've downloaded it. Some college students are now using websites like postyourtest.com, places where they can see the exams their professor put to students in previous semesters. And since a lot of professors give the same tests year after year, some say this is cheating. Others say it's a way to democratize test-taking. In a moment, we'll hear from both sides. So students, have you used one of these sites? Is this cheating? We also want to hear from professors. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the controversy on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. We begin with Demir Oral, he's the creator of the test archive website postyourtest.com. And he's with us from our member station KPBS in San Diego. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. DEMIR ORAL (postyourtest.com creator): Hello. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: So if somebody visits postyourtest.com for the first time, what do they see?

Mr. ORAL: They'd see our general splash page. It features some of the newest exams that are on portyourtest.com and a little bit of what postyourtest.com is about.

CONAN: And they can then enter and search by college and by professor?

Mr. ORAL: They can search as wide an area as country, or they can search as narrow an area as professor and class.

CONAN: And this is something that you argue has been done for years on a sort of informal basis by sororities and fraternities.

Mr. ORAL: Yes. During my junior year, I passed by a couple of students that were talking about an exam they just took. One mentioned to the other he had access to an old exam from this class. And I believe he was part of a fraternity, but I honestly can't remembe,r but he did much better on the exam. I believe he said he received a B. And he said that he understood the structure of the exam, not necessarily that there were similar questions or even the same questions on that test. And that's kind of when the idea of postyourtest.com came to me. I did a bit of research and found out there wasn't any university or worldwide sharing system and again, besides the occasional student getting lucky enough to come across an older exam and in some cases even pay for it, I also found out that some school organizations charge members.

CONAN: To look at old tests?

Mr. ORAL: Yes.

CONAN: And do you charge people to look at old tests?

Mr. ORAL: No. I actually believe that this sort of site should be free, and this goes along with the - academic equality, I believe, is a cornerstone if not serious portion of the foundation for academic integrity so no, I do not charge for any exams.

CONAN: And the dot com part, what do you have? Advertising?

Mr. ORAL: It's just pay-per-click advertising.

CONAN: And do you make money?

Mr. ORAL: Yes. A little bit.

CONAN: OK. And some of the people who object to this say, what makes this different from those perhaps slightly less reputable sites where you can pay $10 a page to download a paper?

Mr. ORAL: The sites for paper downloading, I think, are actually very unethical in the sense that they give the answer to the question without that student understanding why that answer exists. This site, students can download exams and still use them as a study tool. The best examples I can give would be the ways to study for an MCAT, the ways to study for an LSAT and even the DMV will give back older exams and they say, you can use to study and sample our questions. But don't just study from the test or you'll fail.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Teddi Fishman. She's director of the Center for Integrity at Clemson and with us now from Clemson University. Nice to have you on the program as well.

Dr. TEDDI FISHMAN (Center for Integrity, Clemson University): Hi, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, do you regard this as cheating?

Dr. FISHMAN: Well, whether or not it's cheating depends on the relationship that exists between the teachers and the students. I mean, all testing situations, the teachers and the students have rules, have guidelines that have been put forth to set the boundaries as far as what is and is not acceptable for the students to use in their test preparations. So if the teachers and the students have agreed that they can look at all the old tests, then no, this wouldn't be cheating. If the teachers are under the impression that the students will not have looked at the old tests, then yes, it would be.

CONAN: So it depends on the rules set up by individual professors with individual classes.

Dr. FISHMAN: Exactly.

CONAN: And in general, how do faculty members respond to websites such as this?

Dr. FISHMAN: Well, I have to tell you that most of them aren't even aware of them, but the ones who do know about them generally regard it as a breach of trust. They regard their tests as something that they produced, it's their work product, and they don't expect it to be uploaded for a web audience without their permission.

CONAN: And what about Demir Oral's point that these have been available, sort of, to sororities and fraternities for a long time?

Dr. FISHMAN: We'll he's right, that's absolutely the case. And I also take his point about fairness, that students do sometimes perceive that other students have an advantage that they don't have, and that does create a market for something like this. But the problem is that this doesn't actually solve that unfair advantage, you know. This is going to be utilized by a relatively small percentage of students and so, it hasn't really democratized anything. It just gives the advantage to the students who take advantage of a program like this.

CONAN: I see. Well let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation, 800-989-8255, e-mail us, talk@npr.org. And I have to begin with an email we got from Albert in Campbell, California. With regard to this topic, I was a professor of engineering at Dartmouth for over eight years. During that time, I taught a math-intensive course on engineering systems. As my approach, the course evolved, I determined to make all tests and test solutions available in the library at the reserve desk along with many past homework problems and solutions. My reason: Given the nature of the course, I felt the responsibility not to ask questions I had asked in the past. The course was much more about the process of solving problems in scientific and engineering systems rather than the exact answer to a particular system. So giving the students answer keys to past homework and tests became part of the educational process. If they were smart enough to assess these resources, read them and understand them, they'd be in a better position to answer the new questions I would pose to them. Frankly, for any course involving processes and not just stem courses, science, technology, engineering and math, but humanities and social sciences, too. He writes: It is sheer laziness on the part of any professor who uses, re-uses verbatim questions from old tests. And you have to suggest, Teddi Fishman, that he's got a point.

Dr. FISHMAN: Oh, he absolutely does. And first of all, I'd like to point out that that's an excellent example of the professor who has made the agreement with his students that that's going to be part of the course. The second thing that I really liked about that letter is that he emphasizes that his course is about teaching processes, analysis, other higher-order thinking skills. That significantly lowers the chances that students are going to be cheating anyway because you're asking for something more than rote memorization. I think that person sounds like a wonderful teacher and for students in his class, this kind of a site wouldn't be a problem at all.

CONAN: I, for one, never did very well in courses where there was only one right answer. With a little fudge room, I was much better. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Ben, and Ben is with us from Cincinnati.

BEN (Caller): Hi. I have few comments and then a quick question. I was actually an engineering student as well and had a similar experience with professors as your emailer. And that is they were quite often very, you know, open to the idea of sharing tests, supplying tests and, you know, if you knew other people with tests then that was great, too. And that was - majority of my experiences. Also had kind of the same idea for a website after undergrad, it's good to see that somebody had the - I should have acted on it.

CONAN: Too late, Ben.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEN: Yeah, thanks. But my question, well, I guess last comment is, I think it helps to understand what to expect with regards to format, etc. And I was actually a student with ADHD. And one of my bigger problems through undergrad was just calming down and realizing that, look, this is the test and if I had another test to look at beforehand that just got me used to the format and the wording and that professor's style, particularly, the first test would be much more calming experience and not so high anxiety.

CONAN: So you would feel that using one of these websites would be fine?

BEN: Oh, absolutely. And the only question I'll have about them would be how do you validate the tests, that they're real and from the same professors and that sort of thing?

CONAN: Demir Oral?

Mr. ORAL: Yes. There's no actual way to validate the test with the exception of comments that people can place under the exam, and a lot of the times we'll received comments like yes, this is a very well-versed test or no, this is not actually the exam that the professor uses or - it can be a variety of different ways to validate it, but mostly through comments.

BEN: So you rely on postings from ...

CONAN: From other - from users.

Mr. ORAL: It's user input. That's all user input.

BEN: Great.

CONAN: OK, Ben. Thanks very much.

BEN: Great idea.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. ORAL: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go now to Michael. Michael with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello, good afternoon, sir. I am calling in regards to the comments right now. I feel that it's - with the test validations, it's not a form of cheating necessarily academia, but more cheating yourselves out of the education. I recently graduated from a master's architecture program here in North Carolina, and a lot of the students did go and participate in sharing tests. I believe that by not sharing answers to tests and just studying on my own, asking the professors questions and as well as my peers, I retained more information, especially when it comes to structures, from complicated subjects like that. And because of that, I feel that I've placed better in the job market immediately following graduate school.

CONAN: And will presumably be a better architect. Was this one of those course where this was not allowed, this was definitely a beyond the pale?

MICHAEL: It was under the sight of the professor - outside of the sight of the professor, that is. He definitely did encourage - go and speak with him after class. However, test sharing, I believe he did not consider it a wise move.

CONAN: And Teddi Fishman, this would have fallen on the other side of that ethical boundary.

Dr. FISHMAN: Exactly.

MICHAEL: I believe so.

CONAN: Teddi Fishman, go ahead.

Dr. FISHMAN: The problem here is that, as one of our dean here, Jeff Appling(ph), says: When I ask students a question, it isn't because I don't know the answer. It's because I want them to have to go through the process of finding the answer. And if you take someone else's answers, especially if you know that that professor is going to give very similar tests, then you really don't develop the skills that were the purpose for the test. And the other that I wanted to point out is that there is a big difference in a professor deciding to share his or her own test and other people uploading that information. That professor has worked on that information and uses it for a particular purpose. And for somebody else to take that away and put it up on the web and then especially benefit from it financially, you know, that's an ethical problem.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Michael and good luck in the architecture field.

MICHAEL: Thank you, sir. Enjoy your day.

CONAN: We are talking about the ethics of sites like postyourtest.com. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get, this is Michael. Michael with us from Elizabethtown in Kentucky.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, second Michael. Actually, I have a comment and an anecdote. I've often had professors that will save their test from prior semesters and pass them out as a study guide, which I think is a wonderful tool. But secondly, I also had a professor who - he didn't recycle his test questions but he did recycle his, I guess, his scantron sheet or the answer code. So by the end of the semester, if you had taken enough tests you could almost throw away the questions and fill out your scantron sheet by a stair step here, pyramid there. In my mind, that almost invited cheating. Not only was it sheer laziness and almost insulting to the class, but very nearly just kind of invited the student to not do the work.

CONAN: And Teddi Fishman, the existence of sites like this and the more they get known, will they not encourage professors or maybe forced professors to change their tests a little bit more often?

Dr. FISHMAN: I hope so. And frankly, I think that the best possible result of sites like this is that A, they'll open up the conversation and B, we'll really start to put the focus back on those higher-order thinking skills. And in my opinion, at the college level, it's very hard to ask meaningful questions that could be answered on a bubble sheet anyway. And we've gotten very used to standardized testing and, you know, this might be an opportunity for us to go back to that processed-based education that really is going to serve the students better in the first place.

CONAN: And Demir Oral, have you had examples of professors going to this site to see what kind of questions their colleagues are asking?

Mr. ORAL: Actually, yes. This happened in the first couple months of the launch. I had a marketing professor come to me and say, hey, this site is great for professors that want to understand how professors across the world teach their classes and administer exams. And I think sites like this can really evolve higher education to a newer level because postyourtest.com does exactly what it says but - as well as allow professors to exchanged this information online.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Michael.

MICHAEL: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And here's an email from Nicole in Tempe, Arizona. I am a college student who one day hopes to become a professor. My personal opinion is that there is nothing wrong with a site like this. However, it does create a problem for professors who have enjoyed the luxury of not creating new tests every semester. Then again, I've always thought that professors who used the same test over and over are stagnant and don't bring anything new to their students. And this from Laura in Sacramento, California. Most law professors provide law students with old exam questions from past years, including Harvard. I never saw any law professor use the same exam twice, though. Students who got high scores also shared their answers to the exams, no names allowed, to help learn how to write a law school exam. This is common practice from what I saw when I went to law school. And again, I guess that goes back to Teddi Fishman's point - it depends what the culture is in that class or in that school, in terms of sharing tests, sharing answers, sharing process. Let's see if we can get one more caller on the line and this is Jason. Jason with us from Florence, South Carolina.

JASON (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

JASON: I am a former member of the United States Air Force and as an enlisted member, we were tested for promotion. If there was any chance that the test scores or answers might get out, the member that let those scores get out or those answers get out would be actually removed from the military and could lose that promotion. And I'll take your comments off the air.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jason. And I guess that goes to the point, Teddi Fishman, a lot of places have honor codes.

Dr. FISHMAN: Exactly. And if one of the things that you've agreed to as a student is that you're not going to share this kind of information, then it is a huge, you know, breach of trust again. And it really comes down to what the climate has established as what's normal and what's acceptable, and what the relationship is between the teacher and the student.

CONAN: Teddi Fishman, thanks very much for your time today.

Dr. FISHMAN: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Teddi Fishman, director of the Center of Academic Integrity at Clemson University, with us from studios on the campus there. And we'd also like to thank Demir Oral, the creator of postyourtest.com, who was with us from member station KPBS in San Diego. Interesting idea.

Mr. ORAL: Thank you very much for having me on, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, Bob Woodward joins us at the Newseum to talk about his new book, "The War Within: A Secret White House History." He'll also take your calls. Join us for that. This is Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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