study. by Bill Selak (CC BY ND 2.0)

Continuing my discussions of the ethics of various educational practices, this post finds its focus in what might be the only part students like about test-taking: study guides.  Study guides are an educator’s way to review material pertinent to the test, direct students in what to study for evaluation, and to provide assurance that studying for examinations is worthwhile.  Problems arise, however, when an unmentioned topic appears on the test, or when an exam becomes the exact replica of the distributed information to study.  Is the use of study guides ethical?

Speaking to this question of ethics, a survey of educators’ opinion of ethics in the classroom shows little to no consensus when it comes to study guides.  This comes as no surprise as teachers have run into both advantages and obstacles when using study guides.  In addition to potentially “spoon-feeding” students the information, students might view study guides as the only information for which they need to be held accountable.  On the other hand, study guides can trim down the amount of information students focus on, increasing the likelihood that students actually learn and process the targeted material. For these reasons, educators have been unable to agree on whether study guides are ethical.  Distributing study guides to students could increase test scores. However, whether the study guide helps the student or hurts them in the long run comes down to the make-up of the guide and how much they actually learn.

In our technology-driven world, however, new innovations have transformed this conversation around study guide ethics.  In a 2012 case at Harvard University, students given a take home exam were accused of cheating after collaborating through Google Docs.  Many students on DePauw’s campus have taken to using Google Docs as a way to save time, collaborate on projects and to share information without actually studying in person.  Google Docs are also a great way to create collaborative study guides, but it becomes difficult to gauge the accuracy of information added, as well as the fairness of addition between student editors.  This study guide example raises the question of whether ethical learning only includes individual learning, or if study guides and Google Docs are acceptable ways to prepare for tests.

What do you think? Should study guides be a part of every classroom? Or are study guides and studying information collaboratively inherently unethical?