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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

NYU law prof who recycles old exam creates a mess

Given stories like this, all profs should assume that whatever materials they hand out in class - whether practice exams, samples, PowerPoint slides, whatever - will eventually wind up on the web, sooner rather than later.  So this story from Above the Law about an NYU visiting law prof who recycled a practice exam from his regular gig as a contracts prof at Northwestern seems an especially egregious error in judgment (the article doesn't expressly say that the Northwestern practice exam was posted on the web, but presumably that's how the NYU students got it).

NYU's vice dean didn't learn of the snafu until a few students brought it to his attention that they'd previously worked on the final exam questions during study groups:

I am writing to you about a serious issue that has emerged with respect to Professor Nzelibe’s contracts exam, which was held yesterday. After the exam we were contacted by some students to tell us that the exam consisted of two questions that had both been distributed by Professor Nzelibe to his contracts class at Northwestern last year as practice questions. This is a clear violation of explicit NYU School of Law policy. We know that some students in your class had seen and worked through both questions, and some other students had seen one of the questions. I am very grateful to all the students who came forward to volunteer this information. It would be very useful for the determination of the best response, if any, if any students who saw the questions before taking the exam, and who have not yet contacted Academic Services, could contact me. Needless to say, anonymity will be preserved in the grading process.

Obviously what happened raises a serious problem about the integrity of the exam and the application of our mandatory curve. In consultation with other senior administrators, I am currently considering our options. There is no perfect solution. We are striving for a response that does as well as possible in terms of fairness without unduly burdening the students of Section 2.

Now the question is what should the school do to correct the situation?  Above the Law is running a poll  to determine which solution its readers think is best:  1.  Do nothing.  Let the professor simply grade the  exam answers as written; 2. The entire class is graded CR/F (credit or fail); or 3. The entire class sits for a new contracts exam in the first days of the spring semester.

The few times problems like this have arisen at schools where I've taught, option # 2 has been the one adminstrators adopted.  It also happens to be the option leading in ATL's poll by a margin of two-to-one over the other choices.

How do you think NYU should handle this situation?  You can tell us in the comments below.


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What would happen to a practicing attorney if he or she made such an error when it came to submitting a document to court, omitting a controlling case, or overlooking a crucial aspect during a merger? In light of this incident, as well as a recent mistake at the University of Oregon Law School where the Professor in question actually stood on his soapbox talking about a 'teachable moment' calling out his students' ethics without acknowledging his mistake, the real 'teachable moment' is for professors to appreciate the severity of final exams on their students.

Posted by: Sujan Vasavada | Dec 23, 2009 9:23:09 PM

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