(Editor’s Note: Last week, Professor Munger told us a story about having seen a former student attempting to sell his notes for Munger’s final exam. Here is the second part of the story.)

Given that, how should I have reacted to the Facebook post where the student tries to sell his/her notes?  Remember, I myself give out the questions, so no harm there. And I suggest that students share the burden of preparing the answers. The only wrinkle would be whether there is something wrong with selling the notes.


The simplest answer would be to accept the argument from the important book, Markets Without Limits (2015), by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski. They claim that if something is moral when you do it for free, that same thing cannot be immoral if you do it for money.  In other words, if there is no moral problem with the thing itself, then no moral problem is introduced by market exchange.


What I found mysterious about the “offer for sale” was that it seemed as if there was a way to make a lot more money, by selling copies of the notes rather than the one handwritten copy. I imagine that what happened was the student found the notes, started to throw them away, and then thought, “Huh. Someone else could use these. This was quite a bit of work. I’ll sell them!”


It could be, though, that the seller recognized that the value of the notes to one person is greater than the value to any one person of many, if the notes are xeroxed. After all, if the answers of many people are the same, or nearly so, the improvement in the grade may be reduced. And there’s a negative externality: if many people all do much better, that will raise the mean and the net effect, after the curve, may be zero. If only one student gets the notes, the answer will be unique (in that class, at least), and it won’t affect the curve; the buyer will capture all the benefits.


But there’s another aspect to this, one that actually says more about professors than about students.  I have noticed that the offer to sell notes elicits strong responses from some professors. They aren’t (only) worried that this is a genera ethical violation; it’s also an educational violation. Students should have to suffer through class, and synthesize the material themselves, before they can be said to have “learned” it.  Having it already synthesized, so that all the buyer of the notes has to do is review those few pages (I think it’s about 50 handwritten sheets), rather than the readings, is cheating all right. But it’s cheating the students who buy the notes out of the learning experience of the class.


This might be right, but in this case I have tried to make that less likely. The 12 essay questions constitute what I believe to be the important questions, the big questions, that a student being introduced to political economy should know.  If the students know those questions, and have good answers, I have done my job.  I frankly don’t care much about how that knowledge is transmitted, or acquired. Remember, the students probably can’t memorize an entire essay.  Each essay should be 500+ words, an entire blue book more, single-spaced.  If the student learns the material well enough to produce a quality essay on all 12 questions, I don’t care much how they came by this knowledge.


All this reminds me of a slightly ribald, but insightful, “Prof joke,” one well known to all professors I expect.  It goes like this:  A young woman is not doing well in the class, and comes to office hours to talk to the older male professor. The student talks about how worried she is, and says that she will need to do well on the final to pass the course. Then she says, “I have to do well on the final. I’d do anything to do well on the final, you know.”


The professor is a bit startled, and blurts out, “Um….anything?”


The young woman leans forward and whispers breathily, “ANYTHING.”


The professor nods, and looks down at his desk for several long seconds. Then he leans forward, looks over his glasses, and whispers back equally breathily: “All right, then. STUDY.”


Because, as the notes seller rightly says in the ad, “If you study and memorize them….”  That means this is not really a short-cut, but an economy.  There may actually an educational benefit, if the answers are good and the buyer takes the time to read carefully and understand the answers, because then that student will have learned about the questions more deeply than might have happened otherwise.


Or maybe not. Do you think I have this right? Are there problems with selling notes? And what are the conditions, if there are any, where selling notes should be sanctioned by the professor if he or she discovers the scheme?



Michael Munger teaches at Duke University and is Director of the interdisciplinary program in Philosphy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at Duke University. He is a frequent guest on EconTalk.

Read more of Michael Munger’s writing at Archive.