Black-Market Study Notes in Korea

We recently got an e-mail from a reader we’ll call C.:

I’m a professor at an English-language liberal arts college in Seoul, South Korea, where I teach Greco-Roman classics in translation. Compared to most any American school, the academic climate here is hyper-competitive, and my Korean students are studying machines who will do whatever it takes to get good marks. If you’re familiar with the insanity of Korean education, those are my students, the ones who’ve spent years in private tutoring academies 6 days a week, doing nothing but preparing for our admissions exam.

I just learned through the grapevine that some students who took my freshman core course on Western Civ. are selling their notes, study guides, and reconstructed versions of the exam. The prices they charge current freshmen vary, depending upon the grade the seller received from me. Students who did very well (A or A+) can charge $200 for their notes; students who received Bs can ask $120 to $150. Students with a B- or lower can’t find buyers.

The grading is insanely competitive. According to university policy, only 35 percent of students are eligible for an A+, A, or A-; the next 35 percent for B+, B, B-; the remaining 40 percent duke it out for the Cs, Ds, and Fs. The problem is that these are the best students in Korea, and far more than 35% of the class earns an A. So the A- students get bumped down to B+, and the B- students get bumped down to C+, etc. I understand how this marketplace came to be.

I’d already changed the syllabus significantly, so the notes should be much cheaper because about 50% of the curriculum has changed (no one seems to have noticed, even though I posted the new syllabus online months ago). Or perhaps they did know, and the current prices reflect this.

Evidently, there’s long tradition of this, called jjokbo, which means something like “genealogy.” For quite some time, precise notes and class materials were passed down within an in-group (very old Korea). The high prices are a recent innovation (very new Korea).

The college’s dean will be handling the discipline, but what would you do? I’m already rewriting the midterm and final exam questions, so they’ll be different from last year’s. Should I buy a $200 packet myself and distribute the PDF to everyone?

Any suggestions for C.?

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  1. Nick says:

    >Should I buy a $200 packed myself and distribute the PDF to everyone?

    Why bother? If you’re changing the questions anyway, what will that gain your students? Or are you trying to prevent them from wasting their money?

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  2. Bob says:

    An enterprising company has already been doing the same thing on line: – a marketplace connecting writers of class notes with people who want to purchase them. I wonder how many college professors are making a little money on the side selling the notes that they create – much like a ‘suggested’ supplemental study guide that we were encouraged to purchase at the college copy center…

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  3. mitrebox says:

    What purpose is C actually trying to serve here?

    Focus on teaching the class. The market will exist no matter what changes you try to implement.

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    • mitrebox says:


      Cheating on a test is cheating. Plagiarism is cheating. Using someone else’s notes to get knowledge about English into your own head? How is that cheating?

      Selling notes may be a violation of this school’s policies but there is no question the students are learning the material. What difference does it make if students use a supplementary textbook, test guide or notes from another student? Those notes are work products crafted by students who can be shown to have passed this specific course, making them the best study materials available.

      C should focus on the fact (or at least the perception) that the student notes are better at teaching English than his own course material. If you want to buy a packet to compare it to your own study guides fine, but teach the course. Don’t focus on trying to regulate student behavior outside the classroom.

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  4. cuylar conly says:

    Oral examination and questions emphasizing problem solving rather than memorization.

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    • James says:

      Oral exam, besides being time-consuming, discriminates against those who are not glib speakers. (I could never pass an oral exam in anything.) I’m also having thinking of ways to test problem-solving in C’s field: Greco-Roman classics.

      Beyond that, I can’t see a problem with selling notes. How is it any different from e.g. buying a different text on the subject?

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      • plusECON says:

        And written exams discriminate against those who are better at speaking than writing.

        It’s the reconstructed tests in the notes that are problematic, since a professor can’t test on everything they teach, they create a test that samples the learning of the student. If a student can prepare for 60 questions instead of the potential 1000, they have an advantage and the test losses value as an evaluation of their true knowledge.

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  5. Paola HV says:

    I am a teacher too. I would Buy the package, distribute it, and ask randomly questions from the entire course. Exams must be unscheduled. The best way to defeat plan is with the unplanned. Yes, even when it’s something from the third month. They should be ready and grades will dramatically decrease. By stressing them to study everything since the beginning they will be prepared for class. It will be useful for you in class. I do that. First comes test then comes class. It helps me because I then can improve their critical skills.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Distributing a former students’ notes and self-created practice exams is illegal. It’s a copyright violation.

      C could offer his own notes and practice exams as an alternative.

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      • John says:

        I’m no expert in copyright law (Korean or otherwise), but wouldn’t the student’s notes be an unlicensed derivative work of C’s lectures, to which he holds the copyright? If so, I’m pretty sure the students wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in arguing that C distributing their notes is a copyright violation, and even if they do practically C would have a stronger counterclaim.

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  6. Mayuresh Gaikwad says:

    I like the idea of putting all the notes online for free. That way, the playing field is levelled for all students. Also, change the mid-terms and end terms every year and make them more application based. If you’ve taught Plato in class, give them an assignment on a reading from Socrates (or some one else. I am just making this up). The nd-term could be a term paper that they need to write in 2 weeks on something that they did not read in class but can apply their learnings from what was taught in class. Don’t reveal the book/author for the term paper until the last two weeks of the term :-)

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  7. Bernie says:

    There are too many incentives to get high marks because salary potential will increase for prospects with higher indicators of success. This is similar for NFL prospects being judged by their performance at the NFL Combine or their respective schools’ pro days. The issue is best addressed by the end user. Companies that hire based on performance from a different system shouldn’t adjust starting salaries based on that performance. Of course this has to be done within reason otherwise there’s no incentive to be the best, just good enough. So there should be a starting salary structure that is reassessed based on performance after hire within the company’s purview.

    A short-term panacea would be to increase the variety of lessons and to actually adjust the curriculum to reflect an A effort going above and beyond what should be covered in a freshman core course. This should also be made known to the students and hopefully be approved by the administration. Multiple versions of each test should be given each time with several others left aside for other years so that each version may only be seen every 3-5 years.

    Honestly, I don’t believe that sort of panacea is feasible because of the enormous work required to make it somewhat effective. As long as there is a monetary incentive tied to success, people will try to buy their way toward it.

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  8. BigFire says:

    I highly recommend reading Po Bronson’s first novel Bombardiers. In it, one enterprising student in a corporate training program devised this note selling market that pretty much got the entire training class involved, instructors included. After setting up this market, he went out of his way to crash it, rendering it worthless. The instructor, after loosing a very lucrative racket, wrote the most scathing evaluation possible on this student, which triggers a bidding war amongst various divisions of the company for his service. The bonds division in San Francisco won the bid.

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