Responding to Online Outlines

Many law professors are distressed by the proliferation of online course outlines and case briefs. Commercial outlines have been available for years. Now those students inclined to rely on such study tools have access to lower-cost alternatives. That’s not the problem. Rather it’s the existence of outlines that purport to represent how specific professors teach specific classes and (worse) that such outlines are often riddled with errors. I’ve looked at a few outlines from my classes on various websites and was astounded at the number of mistakes. If these outlines are representative of what’s out there, students rely on them at their own risk (and some have — which could explain how every year I find a set of exams making the same set of off-the-wall mistakes).

Some professors have sought to squelch the distribution of notes and outlines from their courses. Professor Bainbridge has come up with a better idea — one I may have to emulate.

I’m going to buy some of these note sets and outlines being sold for my classes. I’ll go through them and find all the mistakes. And then I’ll write exam questions testing on those very same mistakes. If we all did that, the market would dry up pretty quick.

UPDATE: Some of the comments below reflect an odd view of legal education.  A law school exam should test the extent to which a student has mastered the assigned materials.  A student who has mastered the assigned materials will not reflexively regurgitate mistakes found in an outline, whether purchased in a book store or downloaded from the web.  Indeed, uncritically copying or repeating what one finds in an outline is no way to learn the law.  Fortunately, in my classes, this problem appears to be confined to a handful of students each year.

An exam should fairly represent the material covered, not focus on picayune details or play gotcha. My own exams reflect this approach.  They are difficult (or so my students say), but are a fair reflection of what we covered in class.  Most of my former students say my exams were “tough but fair” — and that’s what I want them to be.  Reviewing attendance records, I’ve also found that those students with the poorest attendance records tend to have among the lowest scoring exams, suggesting that paying attention in class pays dividends — and, again, that is what I would hope for.

I have no problem with outlines or other supplemental material if used properly. Every year I make a point of recommending supplemental material that I believe students will find helpful and of explaining how such material (including commercial outlines) can be used most productively.   I referred to outlines in some of my classes as a student.  Yet as I explain to my students every year, I don’t believe commercial or web-based outlines are a substitute for reading and digesting the material or preparing one’s own outline of a course.  If all that were necessary to achieve a good grade were finding the right outline, there would not be much value in taking the course — indeed, there would not be much value in law school beyond the credential.

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