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Cheaters Gonna Cheat, Profs Gonna Prof

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A study in 2006 conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, surveying thousands of students at 54 different schools, found that 45% of law students have cheated. [Bloomberg]

The bright side of this is that they cheat less than other students. 56% of MBA students cheat, 54% of engineering students do, and law students are even beat out by the 48% of education students who cheat. With numbers like 45%, you can probably find a law school dean to enthusiastically advertise that "Most law students refuse to cheat!" right after he tells you about their median starting salary.

Some people will say that "cheaters never prosper" or that the students who cheat will never end up getting the top grades. Rubbish. The truth of the matter is that cheaters are more likely to prosper than if they had not of cheated. People are generally rather rational, and they're not going to take on the risks of cheating without a substantial reward. Maybe they won't be grabbing the top grades, but they might move from a B- to a B, or a B to a B+. With law school's curved grading structure, having that many people cheat can really screw up things for the good, honest folk.

So, with that in mind, here are the common way law students cheat, followed by an extremely simple way to eliminate virtually all cheating.


1. Closed Book Test: Bring in Notes

On a closed book test, the obvious way to gain an advantage is to sneak in notes. Some professors will basically invite you to cheat by allowing some notes in, while disallowing others, such as letting you bring in 1 page of notes, or the FRCP, but nothing else. You'll scribble notes in the margin of your FRCP, or have a second page of notes you can swap out with the first. Any situation where you can bring in some notes just makes it much harder for proctors to realize who's cheating.

Sneaking in notes isn't going to give you an understanding of the underlying concepts, but if your bad with rote memorization, it can be extremely helpful with the Civ Pro or Evidence rules, or any class where you just can't remember the names of all the cases. Of course, sneaking in a model answer does mean you can actually give yourself an understanding of the underlying concepts... or at least give the professor someone else's understanding of them.

If you're not allowed in notes, the time tested trick is to go to the bathroom midway through the exam, and take out your notes there. You wait until you've gotten pretty far along on the questions and know exactly what you need to look up. The less used method is to get into the exam room early, act like you're doing some last minute studying, and use a pencil to write notes on your desk. It's hard to see except from right up close, and can be quickly erased with one smear from your hand.


2. Take Home Exam: Take to Group

Study groups become cheating groups, it happens, no use denying it. Maybe it didn't happen with your group, or maybe your group just thought you'd narc and didn't invite you into the inner circle. Some people will point to the curve and try to say that by helping others, you're hurting yourself. These people are either bad at math, or great at cheating.

In a class of 100 people, the aid you receive more than offsets the aid you give to just 2-4 other people. If you're trying to get the top grade, working with your study group is a losing strategy. If all you want is to get into the top 25%, it's great. Telling you otherwise is just an attempt to keep you from getting the advantage.

No one has mastered everything, and a study group lets everyone make up for each other's faults. You're about to explain a rule incorrectly, someone will stop you. You didn't notice an issue, someone will point it out. The other people in your group could be mistaken, but at the very worst, what they've done is flag an issue for you to look into further. Knowing what to double check is itself a huge advantage. Working with a group is like playing a round of golf under best ball rules. While everyone else is left to their own strengths and weaknesses, everyone in your group answers using only your combined strengths.

There are always stories about someone calling up their law partner parent to get help on an exam, but this isn't really a great tactic. Dad's been out of school for 40 years, he doesn't remember the RAP, and his practice-oriented point of view isn't going to score points on an exam. The new trick, if you don't trust your classmates, is social media. Message boards allow you to post questions anonymously, all under the guise of "last minute studying on _______." A few people will answer the question, explain the concept, or at least point you towards the right case law. The anonymity makes it safer, but unless you have one of those week long exams, the time constraints mean working with your study group is still the way to go.


3. Need Practice Exam: Find Practice Exam

Some professors give out their old exams for you to practice with. Some do not. But, unless it is the professor's first time ever teaching that class, he has given exams before, and copies of them are floating out somewhere in the ether. Someone will find them. They'll come from a former student, maybe a former research assistant who had access. Or, as it commonly happening, someone at the professor's last school will have a copy, and they're especially easy to get from schools where all the old exams are on record.

Professors like to pretend that their job is more time consuming than private practice, but many are just plain lazy. A professor who doesn't give out his old exams is almost certainly recycling questions, making obtaining an old exam all the more valuable.

If he does give out old exams, search for the model answers. Students who did well on the exam may have an electronic copy on their computer. And again, always check to see what has been left behind at the professor's previous school. Seeing the questions in advance is good, but seeing the answers, there's no substitute.


4. Arrive at Exam Early: Start Exam Early

What? The password to start the exam software hasn't even been given out, and people will hear if you start typing, how do you start an exam early?

Simple manipulation of centuries old technology. Paper is thin, ink is heavy. Once the exams have been handed out, you should be able to read through either the first or last page. You can't start writing your answers yet, but having an extra 10-20 minutes to think through the issue is nothing to turn down. You'll wish you'd done it when the clock is winding down.


How to End Cheating:

This is pretty simple. Make every test in-class, open book, with new questions, and make all old questions and model answers available to all students. Also add a blank sheet to the front and back of the exam booklet so that no one can start reading early. Good luck trying to find an unfair advantage there.

Why don't professors do this?

Some are lazy and don't want to write new questions.

Others don't realize how many students cheat, or falsely believe their students are different.

This model does however prevent a very real issue. You're going to end up with a lot of answers that look the same, and grading will become nearly impossible. If everyone is replicating the model answer, how can you tell them apart enough to give one person an A and another a B+?

The answer may be that grading needs to change. If every student is capable of giving the right answer, should not every student get an A? Out in the real world, no one cares if 1000 other attorneys also reached the right answer, it just matters if you did. That's what practice is like, using all the tools at your disposal to come up with the right answer, you don't really care if it's unique, or if someone can tell the difference between your right answer and someone else's right answer. All that matters is if you understand the concepts and can do the work. And that raises a pretty key question, why are we grading on anything more than a Pass/Fail basis in the first place?

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