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Con Law Disaster

Now that the grades have been posted, I think I can feel free to vent my frustration at the worst thing that has happened to me academically last term.

Kind reader, you may remember the level of terror I had of the Con Law exam? Entries like this? I'd not had such gut-shaking trepidation since my undergraduate finals. But now, I don't feel anything but a numb anger.

When I and my colleagues opened up our exam packets, we found that Professor Con Law had almost exactly copied, word for word, over a third of the exam from questions on his past papers. Moreover, he'd copied them from exams that were available on the university share drive, with model answers, in an open note exam. Needless to say, a lot of people had the model answers with them.

Indeed, I had the answers to one of the questions in my satchel, and considered taking it out. Then I remembered that before each exam we sign a sheet of paper saying that we swear to abide by some code of conduct that I doubt many of us have ever read. Certainly I hadn't. So I kept the answer far away, fearing that little hidden clause that would fail any of us who admitted to having used the model answer.

In the event, it didn't matter that much. One third of the exam was a question that my study group had used as a mock examination three days previously. As such, I had quite a lot to say about the topic. And as such, it probably doomed me.

By the time I got out of the exam, I was nearly livid. Forget the fact that after reading over 1,200 pages of bloody Gunther and bloody Sullivan, Prof. Con Law couldn't find it in him to get up off his duff and come up with some new questions. (Those that hadn't been lifted directly from past exams were for the most part thinly-veiled paraphrases.) Forget the fact that this was going to skew the curve unfairly in favor of those who practiced a certain style of study--review of past exams. No, simply put, I was enraged by the fact that a professor of Constitutional Law at a major university, who is old enough to know better and should appreciate his responsibility, put many of us in an ethical dilemma in the middle of the exam. After all, if we had the mock exams with us, would it be unethical to look at them? Whatever side you come down on as to the question, it does exist, and it was needlessly distracting.

I didn't think I could be so upset: after all, this was the exam I'd poured my heart into, the one that I felt real physical concern about. To a great degree, this was my semester. And then it got worse.

We'd all wondered what would be done about this situation. A few ideas were floated, ranging from the extreme (re-sit the exam) to the nuanced (give no points for anything that was on the model answer) to this resigned (do nothing, everyone had the same chance). I'll admit at this point that I doubt there was a good answer, just a choice of evils: whatever was done would hurt someone.

A few days later, we got a letter from the academic registrar, explaining that Prof. Con Law had heard that we were concerned. He apologized, but explained that he hadn't realized that we had more than two years of mock exams on our share drive, or that the answers to those questions had been published.

Let's take a look at just how weak that explanation is. First of all, if you're a professor, you have access to the same share drive we all do. And this particular professor had three very competent TA's--and please, none of this should reflect upon them, they were paragons of diligence--any of whom could have told him what was and was not on the share. But even if he were working alone, isolated, and techno-illiterate this would be no excuse. Anyone who has the responsibility for a law school class, particularly a bundle of hyper-competitive first years, should bloody well realize that its their responsibility to know what's been released to the public, and what's available.

(Indeed, given the persistence of online storage space, the fact that various societies keep their own archives, and the competitiveness of 1Ls, an argument can be made that it's unwise to reuse any question that's been on a released examination or had a model answer posted. But this wasn't a case of prior answers being posted on the Journal Of Bohemian Esoterica Law Review's internal academic archive: these were documents on the university's official server, documents that had Prof. Con Law's name in the filename.)

His solution to this wholly avoidable boondoggle? He was going to remove the offending sections completely from the examination.

Now, to those who haven't taken a law school examination, some explanation may be in order. This one was a three-hour exam, with multiple essays divided into three parts. Needless to say, it was unlikely that any but the very best would do perfectly on all of them. But in order to maximize your chances, you put more time into the areas you feel you'll do best at, and give your weak points a cursory examination. Or at least, that's my strategy, and it's typically successful.

In this case, it was a disaster. I almost certainly put more time into the sections that were dropped than the ones that remained. And statistically speaking, I can't be the only one who did so, even amongst those who didn't use the model answer, or hadn't been exposed to it. (Some students didn't even recognize that this was a past exam question.) Far from being a good strategy, every extra second I took from a 'valid' section of the exam was simply a waste: it amounted to nothing.

As solutions go, in no way could this be considered nuanced. Then again, it didn't take much work to fix it this way.

Please don't feel that this is a grade complaint. In the end, my Con Law result will be only a very fractional drag on my average, and perhaps not even that. What annoys me is that every grade that was given in that class is de facto illegitimate. No one was graded on the exam that they actually took. Instead, we earned our results based not on our knowledge or our skill measured by a test that we approached strategically, but how lucky we were to choose certain questions on which to concentrate. (After all, each question's weighting was labelled on the exam, and most of us wrote with those expectations.) Even if you did well on all the sections, the grade is curved: you can't know that someone who did very well on a deleted section shouldn't have done better than you.

Of all the ideas bounced around after the exam, the best one I heard was just simply to mark everyone pass/fail, and to zero the grade out of the average for those who were in my Con Law class. The response was that this simply wouldn't be fair to those who did well. But in the end, no one did well on that exam, because no one can say that they actually took the exam that was graded. Any result there, good or bad, is a fiction.

I now actually resent my Con Law class, and every second I spent in it. I resent the fact that I wasted my time on a game of roulette when I could have had four more days to work on Crim Law, Reg State, or Perspectives. And I deeply, deeply loathe the fact that a person who had the responsibility for writing an exam that might determine whether his students get onto Law Review, whether they get that summer job they were hoping for, whether they achieve the dreams that they may have had for decades couldn't give a damn enough to trawl through hundreds of pages of the book he assigned to come up with something new. It's not like he was short on material.

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Comments

Wow, bitter. Didn't you learn in college that it's wise to study prior exams? Duplicating questions isn't a mark of poor teaching - it promotes consistency in one's teaching/testing methods.
Yes, it's wise to study prior exams. But it's not wise to repeat entire questions that have model answers in an open book exam. You'd be hard pressed to call that appropriate pedagogy. Which of course, no one is doing, since if it were the sections wouldn't have been pulled in the first place.
Yo -- no, it's not good practice to duplicate questions when past exams are available (with answers) to students. I don't see how you can seriously think otherwise. Tony -- I hated con law the entire semester. I hated the way the prof ran class, I hated the book, and I hated the stupidly large amount of reading we were assigned. The way I see it, this testing debacle is just one last F.U. from the professor. It's too bad, since I was looking forward to the subject before the semester. This professor should NOT be teaching classes.
I have to agree with 1L with a caveat--WRT his teaching style and competence, let him teach, but not required classes. If someone chooses to take his class after reading his reviews then they deserve the class they get. At least I'll be able to say I learned Con Law from a famous professor .....Irwin Chemerinsky (yes, I know, I've used that joke before). See you in the fall. -d
i'm with yo on this one. isn't the point of exams to learn the material? and if so, then what's wrong with giving you the answers before the exam, and having you understand it well enough to regurgitate it in your answer? i'm unclear as to what the honor code thing entailed. did it say you couldn't copy off of anything? also, was your exam just open book, or open notes, too? and if the latter, was it just notes that you'd prepared yourself (class notes, outlines, etc.) or could you bring in other people's study guides, or commercial outlines or whatever? we could bring anything at all into my first semester 1L exams - the point was not to memorize the rules, but to learn how to apply them to the fact pattern, and no commercial outline is going to tell you that. but i am with you on the remedy. and you're right, it would be hard to find a better one. maybe just pass/fail everyone, with only the really bad exams failing? that would assume that if you screwed up all the questions, then if if the exam had been new, you wouldn't have done any better. and it wouldn't penalize anyone for depending on the practice questions, like you did, or copying them from the model answers. but the weight of grades does mean more to you than it would to me.
Law school exams are not supposed to be about regurgitation of memorized (or easily consultable) material. If they were, all exams would have to be closed-book, because that would be the only effective way to test memorization. Exams are supposed to be about the application of learned principles to *new* material. Coming in from another corner of academia, I've been pretty dismayed by the relatively low "professional" standards of law school teaching throughout the year, but this story is really a low point.
You read 1200 pages of S&G in one semester?!? Sheesh, I cover about 400 pages of S&G in one semester.
"isn't the point of exams to learn the material? and if so, then what's wrong with giving you the answers before the exam, and having you understand it well enough to regurgitate it in your answer?" In law school there's a difference between learning and memorizing to the point that you can regurgitate.
Right on, Brother Rickey. It's really unbelievable. Someone should notify US News and World Report. ::Cynical cackle::
Are the rest of our grades up? I'm planning to check them all at once, to avoid being annoyed four times...
Monica: I think you underestimate exactly what the situation was. It wasn't that there was a similar question, for which we'd been given the answer. Most of the exam was constituted of questions like that: thinly-veiled changes to past exams. The parts that were thrown out, however, were exact copies, in which students were allowed to carry in essays that had been given as model answers to the same question a few years earlier. Certainly no one can consider that to be pedagogically reasonable. The only people it rewarded was people who had made nicely indexed folders of all the material available, since the exam was open note.
I'm with Anthony all the way on this one. That's horrifying. You do practice exams so you get the general feel for things--the range the exam covers, what you should cover, etc. You don't do practice exams so you can blithely type what someone else did, and the people who did that--and then spent extra time elsewhere--are seriously unfairly advantaged. Prof. Con Law should have tried to do something better, like base the grade mostly on the newer sections, but then adjust up or down based on proximity to the model answer and originality of response, or something.
I feel for you on this one-- I had the same thing happen to me fall semester of last year. The prof gave us strikingly similar questions to what she had posted the models answers to on the exam website. Since it was open-note and the materials were on the class website, it was well within the honor code to actually use the model answers during the exam. Turns out she didn't realize what exams she had posted. Our school's solution was a little different however-- the class became pass/no-pass. I'm still irked about the whole thing, since I had spent a disproportionate amount of time studying for this particular test.
To see that this is ridiculous you only have to consider what next years class will do - take in model answers for every past question for the last ten years arranged in an easily searchable binder. If this situation repeats the whole exercise becomes a farce, so clearly the fact that it has happened once is in itself ludicrous. It also seems that the final solution is far from desirable.
My probable reaction - spontaneous combustion. I'd likely still be smoldering. Every semester while studying for exams, I get the paranoid feeling that the professors secretly hate us, and want us to suffer (their proclamations reassuring us that the exam will not slay us serve merely to mock). I tell myself every semester that I'm nuts, that my professors do not hate me and are not secretly searching for ways to make my life hell. Thus far, that's been sufficient to quell my paranoia. Your experience would have sent me straight to therapy. PS - Anyone who questions your reaction to the situation is a fool.
Now you see there was a reason why I dropped that class like a hot potato that smells like feet and is radioactive.
I'm a little late with this, but this sucks!! My conlaw class was difficult throughout the semester, but at least my prof had enough respect for us to write a completely new exam. And the school's solution is bs. I'm really sorry you have to deal with this. I spent so much time on conlaw this past semester, I'd be absolutely livid if this happened.
Anthony , you gotta be fucking kidding me ! You have to check all options before a final. you brought a knife to a gunfight! Now go back to your dorm and cry some more, and when you piss make sure you sit down like the little bitch that you are!
And that final comment is one more argument against attempts to remain anonymous on the internet. The author "Daddy" above seems to be from Cleveland State University, Ohio. Congratulations to that fine institution.
hey don't be so snotty and whining. if you sit there whining about getting shot in the ass when cleveland state brings a gun and you bring a knife, you lose, and your pedigree won't mean a thing. but congrats on being a columbia law student.
And once again, we see the fantastic courage of the fake name . . .

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