Could You Cheat On an Open-Book Issue Spotter?

Claims of cheating by college students are increasingly common.  Law schools are not immune to the problem, though it is rarely talked about.  That’s true even though the likelihood of being caught is (probably) higher than in college (because one professor, not multiple RAs, do the grading) and the consequences are more dire (because cheaters, even if not expelled, should be reported to the Bar’s character and fitness board).  For exams where the “game” depends on quickly uncovering information — multiple choice exams, especially when questions are copied from previous years, or closed book essays — it is my sense that cheating is on the rise.  Similarly, plagiarism on long-form writing is cheaper than it used to be, and thus more common.  As compared to colleges, law schools are ill-equipped to deal with these sets of problems, as they lack a tradition of centralized pedagogical coordination, and thus the resources and know-how that might enable technological solutions of cheating.

That all said, I’ve always comforted myself that if you give an issue-spotting exam that is open book, even immoral maximizing students won’t cheat.  By making exams open-book, you prevent the easiest form of cheating – a student getting informational advantages over others by looking up cases or treatises.  All that is left is discussion between test takers, which is prohibited by the honor code and which is a form of cheating.  I tend to think that such coordination is quite rare.  Though two students working together might “spot” more issues than either alone, it’s just as possible that group think will revert them to the mean answer – the easiest to see issues.  Moreover, “A” answers are distinguished (mostly) not by spotting issues but by discussing them.  Two students together would run a terrible risk if their discussions looked alike to the grader.  Thus, open-book monster issue spotters are structurally difficult to game, and the best defense against cheaters – at least until we replace our current grading system with a computer.

Dave Hoffman

Dave Hoffman is the Murray Shusterman Professor of Transactional and Business Law at Temple Law School. He specializes in law and psychology, contracts, and quantitative analysis of civil procedure. He currently teaches contracts, civil procedure, corporations, and law and economics.

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11 Responses

  1. B says:

    Aren’t multiple choice exams quicker to grade, more objective, and quicker to randomize and update from year to year? There the risk of cheating is only the leaking of past exams and bubble copying.

    If I were a law professor that’s the route I’d go. It tests your retained knowledge of the law and your analytical thinking. I don’t think open book/open note exams test either one.

  2. ParatrooperJJ says:

    Wouldn’t FERPA prevent you from releasing information to the bar assn without the student’s consent?

  3. Dave Hoffman says:

    Paratrooper: I’m not in charge of such things, but I believe that the Bar requests a letter of good standing from the school as a condition of admission. The student must consent to release of his or her records if they want to apply to become a member of the bar.

    As for whether MC exams are “more objective”: I don’t think so, it is just that the subjectivity is buried deeper.

  4. Managing Board says:

    What about plagiarism; e.g., unattributed copying from, say, a hornbook or law review article? On a typical issue-spotter, the plagiarist would save time composing rule paragraphs and benefit from the copied author’s clearer expression of ideas, probably resulting in advantage.

    I think the ABA frowns on multiple choice and your law school would risk your accreditation if it predominated.

  5. Random 1L says:

    @managing board:

    That actually happened at my law school in the Fall Semester. Unfortunately, the plagiarist stole from a LR article that quoted the professor. Massive fail.

  6. Christa L. says:

    If I were a professor, I would find it perfectly acceptable for students to quote the reasoning of others on an exam. They quote the reasoning from cases, so why not horn books and articles? Every use equally requires an understanding of when and how the rules apply.
    As another example, a professor of mine on an open-book exam once used a question from a previous year where he had given sample answers, so I just quoted and cited the sample answer. The professor did not have a problem with this as far as I am aware, and if he did, he should not use answered sample questions from previous years on the exam.
    I also include quotes from the professor’s lecture on some exams. But I would not know which passage or lecture to quote if I did not understand the material. That is the virtue of an issue-spotter.
    I might have fewer supporters for this proposition, but closed-book exams should be the same. My mother has a photographic memory and on closed-book exams would quote from the textbook. She got in trouble for cheating, because they presumed that anyone who could do so well must have cheated. It is really unfair. I had a similar problem in high school, too. I worked really hard on a research paper about economics, citing dozens of textbooks that I found in the library instead of limiting myself to the reading material, and the teacher accused me of cheating and lowered my grade because she didn’t believe that I wrote it. There was nothing I could do to defend against it.

  7. Christa L. says:

    I should make clear that I mean quoting should only be allowed if it is in fact in quotation marks and not passed off as the student’s own work.
    In everyday situations, I citing should also be required, but on time-rushed exams where professors often give partial credit for uncited case reasoning, why wouldn’t they also give partial credit for uncited quotation of horn books so long as the student makes it clear that the work is not his or her own by using quotation marks?

  8. Random 1L says:


    In the particular case I mentioned, the person just cut and pasted a large block of text contained in his outline that he had copied verbatim from a law review article. No attribution or quotation marks or block quotes.

    However, I will say that I’ve cited cases on closed-book exams several times and I’m relatively sure I got credit for correct citations over those who didn’t, even though professors generally say not to worry about citation on these exams.

  9. anon says:

    how can you plagiarize on an exam? you are not presenting any new ideas. everything you write is from someone else. why on earth would you need to cite things?

  10. Jake says:

    I confess to be confounded by what is described as “the easiest form of cheating – a student getting informational advantages over others by looking up cases or treatises.”

    Have law schools really debased themselves to the point where the student who looks up cases or treatises is viewed as a “cheater”?


    If true, at least this bodes well for those of us currently in the practice of law. Discouraging law students from actually reading about the law tends to ensure a steady flow of witless young lawyers to feed the maw of the profession.

  11. dave hoffman says:

    Jake – I think you read too quickly and were led astray. In a closed book exam, looking up cases or treatises is (by definition) cheating. Obviously, if the exam is open book, looking up cases, treatises, or blog posts like this one would be totally kosher, and indeed encouraged!