The other day, I walked into someone’s suite to find one of my friends excitedly scrolling through a document he’d just received. The document, I learned, was a roughly 20-page study guide covering all the material for a class he’s taking: It contained all the information he needed to know, with the added perspective of someone who had taken each of the exams the professor would administer.
The study guide came from one of his friends who, in passing the guide along, mentioned that her sorority has a repository of such guides and that members get awarded points — which are required for full membership benefits — for adding to the collection. Though my friend was happy to be the inadvertent beneficiary of this system, both he and I questioned its fairness.
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered such a system of institutionalized study material sharing. These so-called “study banks” are not exclusive to the Greek system; rather, they can be found within myriad groups on campus ranging from academic organizations to athletic teams. Nor are they limited to study guides, as some even include scanned copies of old tests and quizzes. Their ostensible purpose is to draw on the collective knowledge and experience of older members in order to make life easier for the younger: an expression of teamwork and community support that goes beyond a group’s customary purpose.
It’s important to note that this kind of sharing is not explicitly outlawed by Yale’s policies on academic honesty. Notes and class materials are only barred from being distributed for commercial purposes. And though the language barring plagiarism and cheating could be construed as prohibiting this kind of sharing, it likely doesn’t have such far-reaching implications. The result has been that Yale students — as would be expected — have developed institutionally permissible systems for gaining an advantage over their peers by using others’ work.
And herein lies the problem: Though study banks may be a natural, easy and institutionally permissible way to help fellow members of a group, they come at the expense of those without access to these networks. They serve to reproduce advantages that the more socially privileged among us already reap, though in an explicitly institutionalized way. Students should not be punished academically because they chose not to go Greek or because they are involved in organizations with members who pursue different courses of study.
Those who support note-sharing systems certainly have plenty to argue in their favor. Comprehensive study guides and tests, provided by previous students of a class, likely allow current students to learn the required material of a course in less time and with less effort. And since learning the material is ultimately the goal of taking a course, it could be argued that the system is beneficial. But what this argument fails to recognize is that, in our classes, concomitant with learning per se is the evaluation of learning. We receive grades that, in many instances, are awarded relative to the performance of other students. If some have access to extensive guides that aren’t their own while others have to spend the time involved with making such guides, the playing field is no longer level. This far outweighs any marginal increase in learning that may come along with study banks.
One in favor of such systems might also point to the countless other advantages that students may have when taking a class — previous exposure to material, a rigorous high school experience, a lighter course load — and argue that study banks help to counteract these advantages for those less well-situated. Unfortunately, though, this kind of equity-driven sharing doesn’t happen in practice. Instead, access to study banks most frequently comes along with social capital, which often overlaps with other forms of privilege. Low-income students, who don’t have the same access to many of the organizations that act as purveyors of study materials — like Greek organizations and sports teams — are thus left to fend for themselves while their well-off peers cash in on extensive social networks.
Unlike other forms of advantage, though, this sort of privilege reproduction is completely avoidable. But currently, it eats insidiously away at the spirit of academic life at Yale. It not only consolidates an entire course into a single guide and some tests but also encourages people to shun in-depth and engaged learning in favor of boosting quantitative performance measures (grades). Sure, we all want good grades, and by no means should we be barred from pursuing that end with our utmost efforts toward real learning. What we should be barred from doing, however, is pursuing grades for their own sake through the efforts of another.
Billy Roberts is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.