Hundreds of students enrolled in General Physics 2206 will congregate for a mandatory re-test on Thursday after the department became aware that a portion of the students may have used last year’s test as a study aid.
The original multiple-choice exam took place on April 3 — by the next day, instructor Kriton Papavasiliou sent out an email to his students saying that there had been “numerous complaints about (their) second midterm regarding solutions circulating online.”
According to Professor Leo Piilonen, chair of the physics department, Papavasiliou noticed some “irregularities” in the way students were completing and submitting their exams.
The issue was also brought to the department’s attention by students who “were concerned enough to report it,” according to Piilonen.
Piilonen said that the questions and solutions to an exam found online were “very similar, if not identical,” to the questions and solutions on the recently given exam.
The solutions came from an exam in Papavasiliou’s same Physics 2206 course that was taught in spring of 2013. It was found on Koofers.com, a website that allows anyone to upload and view past exams and homework assignments for nearly any class at Virginia Tech.
After hearing concerns from students about the solutions, the department decided to void the exam and schedule a retake for April 10.
Papavasiliou said in the email on April 4 that the new exam would not be “very much different” from the previous exam, contending to his students that “if you did well yesterday you should still be able to do well on Thursday.”
Piilonen says the department has no stance on students’ use of study aid sites like Koofers.com and has no control over what students find and use, and that “this (situation) is not an honor code violation at all.”
Virginia Tech’s undergraduate honor code defines cheating as “the actual giving or receiving of any unauthorized aid or assistance or the actual giving or receiving of any unfair advantage on any form of academic work, or attempts thereof.”
The student response to the retake has not been positive.
“I just felt like no one even thought of the majority of students in this case and thought the simple answer was to just re-take the exam, when all of us had already done so and prepared in the weeks prior,” said Caroline Joseph, a junior biological science major. “I just don’t think any of these administrators put themselves in the students’ shoes and made the decision to cover up the mistake the professor had made initially.”
Joseph also contends that the complaints came mainly from students that didn’t view the previous test.
“It seems like the complaints came from students who probably didn’t see the practice exam online before the test in class,” Joseph said. “I think that’s the fault of those students and they had just as much access as the rest of us to Koofers and online practice questions.”
Students who oppose the retake have contacted Piilonen, as well as both the dean and associate dean of the College of Science, according to Joseph.
The reason for the retake, according to Piilonen, reflected the department’s aim to have their students comprehend their material rather than just memorize it.
“By (having students retake this exam) we can then do what we are supposed to educationally on behalf of all of the students, and to make it a level playing field for everybody,” said Piilonen.
Piilonen’s statements echoed those made in Papavasiliou’s emails, saying that the studying students have already completed in preparation for the initial exam “has not gone to waste; in fact, it will do them quite well on this retake.”
“No new preparation is required,” Papavasiliou said in a second email, sent on April 7, which urged students not to view the retake as a punishment.
Technological developments like Koofers are changing the landscape of exam preparation in academia — for the physics department, Piilonen says this incident has become a “very good teachable moment for our faculty.”
According to Glynn LoPresti, the co-founder and CEO of Koofers, the original purpose of Koofers was to use technology as a means of “leveling the playing field” for students in exam preparation.
He noted that before Koofers, access to old exams was limited to “membership only” groups like fraternities, academic clubs and the Corps of Cadets, and that the site enables more students to access open study materials.
When discussing the evolution of technology in higher education, LoPresti described the introduction of new resources like graphing calculators and laptops as both advantageous and problematic for college instructors, and stated that sources like Koofers are just another step in that evolution.
“Technology is a little bit of a mixed blessing with its history in education,” LoPresti said.
Piilonen also noted that this incident can be a teachable moment for all instructors in academia; he said that this complex relationship between technology and academia extends past the physics department and even Virginia Tech, dubbing it “a national debate.”