Student Note Swapping, Feedback Loops and 10-Questions-A-Week

There seemed to be two major concerns with sites like and (only two representative examples being discussed on the LawProf discussion list lately) …

  1. Copyright issues and,
  2. Pedagogical issues.

I can’t speak to the copyright issues with authority, though I think it might be a rather nuanced problem based on my readings of this list and other sources. The basic argument is that a student’s notes taken during a classroom lecture might contains copyrightable elements that belong to the instructor either in the exact words being spoken, the structure, selection and sequence of the material or something else. I don’t know.

The pedagogical issues are far more interesting to me.

Who controls legal education?

The instructor creates the educational environment, structures the course and assesses the students, but instructors cannot control how students process the environment they are immersed in or what other outside sources they bring in to help them succeed.

Students who effectively and efficiently track the instructor’s plan have little or no motivation to go outside the recommended materials. Unfortunately, students can’t really tell if they are tracking until the one time they get substantive feedback – the final exam. This opens the door to the anxiety that they are "missing something" and so students search for that “missing something”.

To mitigate this, instructors might have more quizzes or midterm exams or some other method that provides some reassuring feedback to the students, but this is additional work for the instructor and in large classes – a lot of additional work.

If instructors really believe that sharing notes between students is damaging to their learning, they should prohibit it. Of course, students can do what they want outside the classroom, but instructors have the power of the honor code (perhaps power is too strong a word here) and if they feel really strongly about this, they should not allow students to have access to commercial outlines in the school’s own bookstore.

This is a straw man argument of course. I don’t believe instructor’s want to have total mind control over their students. So this is really a discussion about how best to learn the law.

Students get all sorts of mixed signals on this – different signals from each instructor. In the face of these mixed signals, it is actually a smart move to talk to people who have substantive experience – other students who have taken the same class from the same instructor. The course notes are a proxy for that experience, though, a low-fidelity proxy in many cases.

Bringing in the rational/economics aspect, this is an asymmetrical information situation. Not all students can talk to all other students who have previously taken the class. Local school organizations have met this market need by collecting note banks and such and some faculty have created commercial outlines (though commercial outlines don’t have the "my professor" angle well covered). This still isn’t the perfect solution – students are busy and distracted and may not find the right outline in the right note bank., and others are a market improvement on the efficiency of finding the right outline (my course, my professor). They are centralized repositories open to anyone and so they reduce the market friction of finding and encouraging contributors and of reaching the customers.

Instructors and law schools probably can’t stop students from sharing notes. They can make it less efficient by sending take-down notices to these websites (which some have done). More importantly, I believe, instructors can mitigate the need for students to look for outside sources by making sure they are tracking what they are teaching and letting them know that they are tracking.

So what to do?

Perhaps this is an opportunity for CALI to provide a low-effort solution to faculty that enables feedback loops between instructor and student.

I call this project "10 Questions a Week".

CALI could provide a web service where participating faculty would write 10 multiple choice questions a week for the duration of their course (150 questions or so).

The questions would reflect what was taught in the class the previous week.

Instructors get a permanent URL they give to students and students take the quiz. Instructors get the results and can see if students are tracking what was taught by how many students get the questions right or wrong. If students are not tracking, the instructor can re-cover the material in a later class, assign some optional readings or even create a podcast that covers the troublesome material and gives students the option of listening and doesn’t deduct from classroom time.

This probably could not be a "graded" quizz. You cannot guarantee that the person at the computer is the person in the class, but more importantly, it’s not the point. The point is feedback for the students and the instructor – no pressure.

Here’s the Creative Commons part. Faculty can choose to make their question sets available to other faculty as a structured multiple-choice question bank. If they also provide their syllabus and some meta-information that links questions to the casebook (chapter or section), then other faculty don’t have to start from scratch. Teachers helping teachers and all that. A beginnings to a Teacher’s Commons for Law Faculty.

CALI pays law faculty to write CALI lessons. I can imagine that CALI would pay faculty to participate so that we can get a critical mass of questions in each legal subject. Once we have a couple of thousand questions in the major subject areas, we can decide if we want to let students create their own self-test quizzes that randomly picks questions out of the question bank. There is a good argument to not giving the students unfettered access to the question bank as that dilutes it’s effectiveness as an evaluative tool, but if the number of questions in the pool is large enough, that might mitigate that issue. It would be a good idea to consult some test-creation experts on these issues.

We might even explore the idea of students writing the questions themselves and testing each other with a moderator-like step in the process for the instructor. I.e. the instructor assigns the students to write 2 questions at the end of the week and then picks the best 10 to assess the entire class. There is something to be said for students writing their own exam questions – makes them think critically about the material in the shoes of the instructor. Students could be further required to provide a reference to the source of their questions and provide a couple of paragraphs that explain they the right answer is right and the wrong answers are wrong. We are talking about law school here.

Either way. This creates two feedback loops. One for the student so that they can see if they are tracking the material and one for the instructor so they can see if they need to make adjustments in their teaching.

The quizzes are automatically graded, so there is no time-sink for the instructor (except those that write the questions for which they would be paid).

It’s just an idea at this point, but would anyone be interested in participating in such a project?

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