December 2, 2006

That's All I Need (to Replace Examsoft)

by PG

Inspired by Radar Online, the New York Times reports that some students at Columbia�s Graduate School of Journalism may have cheated on their open-book, take-home pass-fail exam in the ethics course �Critical Issues in Journalism.� Student Sabbati Zevi discusses in his blog and the J-School Tabloid is posting. Someone purporting to be a student in the class is anonymously blogging about it, as are many others less informed. I don't expect everyone commenting to have firsthand experience, but the number of people moronically misreading Vice-Dean KlatellLemann's comparison to law school is staggering. He said, �Our students are strivers. But they are striving to get good clips. It is not like law school, where fine differences in points make all the difference in the world.� Typical ignorant response from conservative bloggers about what the statement meant: "Nah, don't sweat the fine points. Fast and loose. Fake but accurate. It is not like law school."

KlatellLemann was referring to the fact that the J-school is predominately pass-fail, so graduates won't be judged by prospective employers by their grades but instead by their portfolio of work. This is different from the law school, where nearly all courses are graded; the only pass-fail course for first-year students is Legal Writing & Research/ Moot Court, and even that has introduced a "pass, high pass" system in the last year. Law students fight tooth and nail for grades because they determine whether they will make law review and get clerkships, and where they can work. "Fine differences in points" make the difference between the flagship journal and a specialty one; between a state district court and a shot at the Supreme; between a personal-injury firm that advertises on the subway and Cravath. These conservative bloggers apparently don't grasp that KlatellLemann was talking about grades, not the substance of the work done at each school or in each profession*.

In the interests of professionalism, I'm not going to discuss what happened, except to hope for selfish reasons that no cheating occurred, and to be rudely grateful that it's the ethics class that's considered the most wasted. Instead, I want to talk about testing technology, a subject that's usually Armen's beat.

The J-schoolers took their exam by logging in to a website, which gave them 90 minutes to take the exam, and they could take it at any point during a 36 hour period. They were honor-bound not to discuss the exam with other students during this period so questions would remain a surprise and could not be specifically prepped. This seems to me a system far superior to the law school's, wherein we have to take exams either at the law school on software that essentially works by crashing our operating system so we're unable to access it, or giving us a span of time for "take home" exams, the totality which span may be necessary in order to do well on the exam. For example, if a professor gives a 24 hour take home exam, a substantial number of students actually will spend 24 hours writing it. Because grades are on a curve, the existence of such lunatics presses the whole class into similar behavior.

I'd much prefer to replace ExamSoft with a log-in to a website. It will avoid the MS Word problem mentioned in Armen's second post by commenter Mark Lyon: "We started using word files, burned to CD, and then printed or turned in. Then we got ExamSoft. The main reason? One of the 1L's used word's 'auto replace' feature to make some cryptic string like /~torts~battery~! turn into a long, wordy discussion of battery. From what I understand, they used it for almost every class, making it possible to pre-write much of the work they expected to see on the exam." It won't hurt our laptops, many of which totter on the edge of death anyway, and it will allow benighted Mac users, whose OS isn't ExamSoft-compatible, to use their own computers instead of handwriting or begging the loan of a PC. Students who don't have any access to a laptop can login through a desktop, whether their own or in a school computer lab.

Website login also would permit people to answer take-home exams during a 24 hour slot of their choosing. The probability that students would cheat by telling others what's on the exam is a small one, given that it would require a student to be so altruistic that he would endanger his own place on the curve by helping another student in the same class achieve a better grade. This is a school where some students have to swear an oath to their study group not to share any outlines produced therein with students outside the tribe. Not everyone is like that; I've had classmates offer to share their notes with me when I've missed class or not had my laptop, but they all were Mormons and I expect the lack of caffeine has allowed them to stay uncommonly sane. I feel safe in premising an exam system on our collective enlightened self-interest.

* To see someone playing fast and loose at law school, check out my Stone brief's string-cite, in which I imply that the 11th Circuit's Bledsoe holding is supported by courts that in actuality have not repudiated the DOJ's Title II guidelines but haven't necessarily embraced them. If the 9th Circuit's more conservative side (the Zimmerman majority) wants to claim those courts hold that position, so it can feel extra cool in striking the opposite pose, who am I to disagree?

December 2, 2006 5:46 PM | TrackBack

Our take homes must be completed within 24 hours of being checked out, but a professor may place restricitons on it, such as you should only spend 4 hours on this exam. There is no way to enforce it, but that's the whole tension with an honor code system.

One thing I noticed while visiting Wash U in St. Louis is they published their judgments regarding allegations of honor code violations. There were a shitload of them. I can't think of any honors code violations here, but if there were any they were handled sub rosa. So perhaps we need the Texas Death Penalty approach to honor code violations.

Posted by: Armen at December 3, 2006 12:56 AM

According to the Times article, the quote about law school is from Nicholas Lemann, not David Klatell. Apparently misreading this article is easier than one might think. :-)

By the way, Flip has backed off of the statement you cited.

Kidding aside, it still strikes me as a fatuous and insulting remark from Lemann. Whatever the practice generally at the J-School, this was an exam and the students did have to hit a certain level on it in order to get a passing grade (and to eventually get their degree). Obviously, the cheating students DID believe that the marginal benefit associated with cheating was important to them, and the fact that they were seeking to obtain a P instead of an F, as opposed to seeking an A instead of a B, doesn't strike me as a meaningful distinction.

Lemann's remark is equivalent to the statements one often sees from small-town officials after a gruesome homicide in their jurisdiction, saying "This isn't like New York; things like this don't happen here." Clearly, the subtext is "we think we're better than those people in that other place." Yes, well, they might like to think that, but there's still been a crime committed in their backyard, and it seems like it would be wiser to deal with it rather than try to change the subject.

Posted by: Tom T. at December 3, 2006 10:32 AM

Tom T.,

Thanks for the correction; I wrote the post quickly, and incorrectly assumed that the Times spoke to someone lower down the totem pole than Lemann. Glad to see that Flip has backed off, and wish other blogs like Wake Up Americans would do the same.

As a law student, I had no sense that Lemann was saying the journalism school was "better," only that it was different in a way that made cheating more unexpected because the reward seemed so little. Failing a single course at either school does not preclude graduation*, but at the J-school an F on the transcript, particularly in courses like media law or ethics, will get a shrug from employers if the student's portfolio is good. You can be an awesome lawyer in practice, yet an F on your law school transcript immediately cuts you off from opportunities that would have existed otherwise. (Even a C is cause for being deemed unemployable by most of the federal judiciary.) Therefore if you fear failure at the J-school, the chance of getting caught cheating normally would outweigh the benefit of a guaranteed pass, whereas for a law student, the cost-benefit analysis is reversed. Hence Lemann's explanation of why he was surprised that students were concerned about how they did on the exam.

* Failing a required course at the law school does require a student to re-take it, but this seems to me a generous policy given the alternatives. Students can graduate from the J-school as long as they pass Reporting & Writing I, Master�s Project, Advanced Reporting & Writing Seminar and Media Workshop -- none of which involve an exam, unlike the law and ethics courses.

Posted by: PG at December 3, 2006 5:41 PM

Thanks for the correction. I mistakenly assumed ethics was a required course like at law school, rather than an elective.

Still, I think you're working too hard to defend Lemann. He could have made the pass-fail, no-grades point without dragging in a law school analogy. To me, he's clearly saying "we aren't a bunch of cheating lawyers."

Posted by: Tom T. at December 3, 2006 7:59 PM

Jschool students are required to take the ethics and law classes, but can graduate despite having an F in them.

As for the law school analogy, I guess I just don't have the impression that Lemann or others in the J-school administration have a negative attitude toward law school/yers/professors. The law class is taught fairly autonomously by a law prof, and that it is a requirement, albeit not one that demands a passing grade, indicates that law is something the J-school's curriculum takes a little seriously. It seems to me an obvious analogy: a school where your employment opportunities are judged based on work product, versus one where they are judged based on grades. Medical school wouldn't be an apt analogy because if you manage to graduate from any medical school, you still can do well for yourself even if your grades weren't great, whereas to be mediocre in law school, you better be in the top tier. B school is team/ project oriented -- do they even have exams?

Posted by: PG at December 3, 2006 10:45 PM

Fair enough; you may indeed be right. I guess I just found it jarring that he reached for an analogy at all, and came up with that one.

Posted by: Tom T. at December 4, 2006 8:03 PM
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