[UPDATE (9:28 p.m.): After talking with some people about this story, I have a new theory that maybe these questions weren’t taken from the Internet, but from a hardcopy book making this more of an unfortunate perfect storm for the professor.]
Crafting exam questions must be the hardest part of a law professor’s job. Even the mind-numbing process of grading exams can’t measure up to the intellectual challenge of putting together a fair set of questions that evoke answers to properly reflect mastery of the course material. And while the lectures may not change year after year, the questions must constantly evolve else students accrue an unfair advantage by reviewing old exams their classmates can’t access. Maybe that’s why some professors eschew this process and just ask whatever racist or homophobic thing that pops into their head.
So it’s no wonder that professors often look for a shortcut in writing exam questions. Earlier this year, Northwestern had an incident where Torts questions were taken from a commercial outline that some of the students had already taken in a pre-law class. Oops.
Now comes University of Colorado Law’s Professor Craig Konnoth, who scoured the internet to find some quality exam questions for his students. There’s nothing wrong with that of course — it’s the wisdom of crowdsourcing. Others have tested on this material before and they’ve graciously shared their results. It’s like drafting an agreement by checking the language against what’s market.
But when you build an exam off of Internet questions… you can’t really give your students access to the Internet while they take the exam. There’s this thing called “The Google” that the kids are all into these days and it makes it pretty hard to take something off the Internet and keep it a secret.
The questions Professor Konnoth borrowed from online were all multiple choice (again with the multiple choice… why is multiple choice in vogue at law schools all of a sudden). Copying and pasting the questions into Google points the user to a commercial prep book. The answers aren’t necessarily all available online, but one need only hop down to the bookstore (the exam is completely open) and grab a copy to get full access.
[UPDATE (9:28 p.m.): The fact that this outline was available online, but with a number of questions and answers unavailable in the Google Books preview, it strikes me that Professor Konnoth may have had no idea the questions were available online — thinking he’d just borrowed a few from a hardcopy that only he had. At which point, this would be less a mistake than just being done in by the perils of the digital era.]
Some students surely did this. Others slogged through the exam the old-fashioned way. Since it’s impossible to tell who got the unfair leg up and who didn’t, Professor Konnoth’s mistake resulted in throwing out 21 percent of the exam and basing everyone’s grade on the remaining portion of the test.
Some might argue that the school should have followed Northwestern’s lead and issued a Pass/Fail mark for the course, but Colorado clearly felt that some flawed multiple choice questions worth less than a quarter of the available points wasn’t worth invalidating the whole exam. For those of us who think that Evidence is the only subject worthy of a multiple choice exam, at least this puts the entire grade back on essay questions.
Still, for the student who excelled on the multiple choice portion without resorting to looking up the answers, this result surely stings. A hefty portion of the grade is out the window simply because the professor took a shortcut and, worse, left a roadmap behind.
Let this be a lesson to the other professors out there trying to mine the web for exam questions: always tweak your questions from the original source material to keep them different or at the very least impossible to Google.
Or, you know, don’t give open-Internet multiple choice questions. Come to think of it, that one might be the best move.
Earlier: This Is One Of The Dumbest Law School Exams Ever… But At Least It’s Also Racist
A Mild Defense Of The Dumbest Law School Question Ever
Law School Professor Goes On Homophobic Rant For The Ages
Law Professor Totally Screws Up This Torts Exam By Taking The Lazy Route