Law Schools

How To Handle A Final Exam Screw-Up: Law Professors Take Note

Look, we can’t have a final exam screw-up season without something happening at NYU Law School. For some reason NYU is like the ground zero of exam mishaps.

But not all screw-ups are created equally. Today we have a story of a professor who didn’t screw-up his final exams out of laziness or carelessness. Instead there was an honest clerical mistake. One that the professor took responsibility for and moved to correct as quickly and as equitably as he could.

Mistakes are going to happen, but law professors need to take this guy’s class in how to handle them…

Our screw-up comes from NYU Con Law professor Rick Pildes. Step one in good screw-up reaction is to make sure the problem doesn’t happen because you were too lazy to care. A tipster explains it this way:

Prof. Pildes accidentally used a widely-distributed 2007 exam for his Law of Democracy class. One of the questions actually started along the lines of: “Fast forward to 2011, and imagine” …he really did write a new exam for 2013 but submitted the wrong one to whoever copies and organizes the exams, which might make this different from the usual case of professorial laziness.

In fact, we reached out to professor Pildes and he gave us additional information on the clerical mishap. Here’s the email he sent to his class explaining what happened. Note that his first response to the students is apologetic and sympathetic to the unintended victims:

I just learned 20 minutes ago about the enormous mistake made with our exam today. First, I want to convey my deepest apologies. You were not meant, obviously, to retake one of the prior exams I had posted for you (or any other prior exam). I can only imagine how miserable this experience is for you and I cannot adequately convey how sorry I am that this has happened, especially after such a wonderful semester we had together.

Second, I feel you are entitled to an explanation as to how this came about. I have tracked down what happened. I did, of course, write a new exam for you. I printed that exam out and left it in my office for my assistant. I do not send exams to anyone, including my assistant, by email, for security reasons. We also needed a new cover sheet for the exam. I took an old cover sheet and modified it appropriately; I needed my assistant to add the number of the course and the time of the exam to that cover sheet. I emailed that cover sheet to him and asked him to make those modifications, then attach the new cover sheet to the hardcopy of the exam that was in my office. The file with the cover sheet, however, contained the prior exam starting on the next page. My assistant simply made the changes to the cover sheet and then printed the whole efile out and did not use the hardcopy of the exam in my office that I instructed him to use. That appears to be how this happened.

Third, the question now is how we rectify this terrible mistake. As soon as I finish this email, I will resume talking with the relevant academic authorities and administrators so that we can figure out the fairest and most decent way of resolving this, given all the other constraints you have with other exams and the like. You will not be graded on the basis of the prior exam alone, of course, and we will try to be as accommodating as possible about the solution, or solutions, we develop for an alternative. We will let you know as soon as possible about the structure of that alternative. Since there are several institutional figures who must be involved in resolving this, I cannot make the decision on my own.

I take full responsibility for this unfortunate situation. Again, I apologize deeply to all of you and we will be in touch as soon as we have a concrete alternative solution.

Let me explain this letter in bullet points for law professors who are too busy with their law review articles to appreciate this method of addressing students:

  • I’m sorry.
  • I feel your pain.
  • Here’s exactly how it happened.
  • But the point is, I’m sorry.
  • We’re going to figure out how to fix this.
  • Again, I’m really very sorry. My bad.

The solution is what has become the somewhat standard amalgam of a new exam, an old exam, and pass/fail options. I’ve reprinted it in full on the next page. When you read it, you really get the sense the professor is sorry and is totally willing to do extra work in order to fix this.

And, the class won’t be graded on a curve.

See, it’s not hard for a professor to show a commitment to his students even in the face of a problem. I hope other professors read this instead of just copying and pasting the last Exam Screw-up article into their news feeds.

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