Law Professors, Law Schools, Screw-Ups

Penn Law Professor Too Lazy To Come Up With New Multiple Choice Questions Causes Exam SNAFU

As David Lat said earlier this week, “Here at Above the Law, we’re trying to help you.” Honestly, think of Above the Law as the MPRE, but for situations people in the legal community are actually likely to face. Don’t conduct sensitive firm business on a crowded train. Don’t offer hand-jobs in school-wide emails.

And here’s a good one: don’t reuse exam questions just because you are teaching at a different law school. It’s called “the internet,” professors. Your students have access to it and can find your old questions. If you put in just a little bit of work, you can come up with entirely new exam questions.

It’s your job! You get paid for it!

And if you do your job with minimal diligence, you won’t end up like Penn Law professor William Wilson Bratton, and we won’t have to write about you…

Last year, a visiting professor at NYU got into trouble for re-using exam questions. It’s a mistake that’s so easy to avoid that I’m surprised to see it happen again. But maybe we just need to post one of these stories every year to encourage professors to demonstrate basic competence stay on their toes.

The exam issue erupted at Penn Law over winter break. We’ll let Professor Bratton explain what happened with his own Corporations exam, from an email he sent to his students back in December:

Last Monday’s Corporations examination utilized a set of multiple choice questions that I had used previously at Georgetown. I reused the questions in reliance on an understanding I had with the authorities there pursuant to which multiple choice questions from my exams would no longer be posted absent my express permission. It now turns out that, unbeknownst to me, the questions were posted on the Georgetown Law website.

It has come to my attention that the some but not all students who took the exam had access to copies of the questions. Indeed, a group of five students notified Dean Clinton that they had copies of the questions within minutes of the conclusion of the exam. It is clear that other students also saw the questions.

I understand the William Bratton’s explanation, but I don’t like it. Because really all he is saying is that he relied on Georgetown hiding his old exams so that he wouldn’t have to bother doing any work. He wanted to take a short cut, and he figured he’d get away with it.

There are a number of ways this situation could have been avoided. Professor Bratton could have just made up some new multiple choice questions. I’ve got multiple family members who teach classes. It takes them an evening or two to come up with multiple choice questions. Or Professor Bratton could have checked for himself to see if the old exam were available at Georgetown. If his students could find the old exam, he could have found the old exam. Again, all it would have taken was some minimal diligence.

In any event, to his credit, Professor Bratton didn’t blame the students for doing the work that he failed to do. Instead, here’s the elaborate solution Bratton offered:

We are left with a problem concerning the results of the exam. I have discussed the matter with Deans Fitts and Clinton.

We have agreed on the following protocol:

A) The results of Monday’s test will be graded based only on the essay question. Each of you will receive an email in the middle the next week that reports this grade to you.

B) Once you receive this report of your grade, you will have three choices as to how to proceed: 1) Accept that grade as your grade in the course; 2) Take the grade of Pass for the course; or 3) Take a retest to be administered on Friday afternoon, January 14, 2011.

C) If you choose to take the retest, your grade for the course will be the higher of your grade on the retest and your grade on the original test. The retest will follow exactly the same format as the original test—one-third multiple choice; two-thirds essay; time of three and one-half hours.

The registrar’s office will be processing your choices.

The protocol does not get us back to Square One, because that just cannot be done. But I hope you find it a reasonable and fair way to proceed under the circumstances.

Today is the day for the re-test; how many Penn students are taking that option? Let us know if you are happy with this solution to the problem.

And, for all you other law professors out there, please take our simple advice: Come up with exams unique to the class you are teaching. I know that after a while all the students look the same to you. But come on, humor your students, and come up with new questions. It’s the right thing to do — and you’ll be glad you did.

Earlier: Visiting Professor at NYU Makes a Mess of 1L Contracts Exam

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