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.?


>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?


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...


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.



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.

cuylar conly

Oral examination and questions emphasizing problem solving rather than memorization.


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?


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.

Paola HV

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.

Enter your name...

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.


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.

Mayuresh Gaikwad

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 :-)


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.



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.


"...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."

I think the most shocking part of this post is that in Korea, or at least at this school in Korea, or at this school in Korea in this classroom, an entirety is represented by 110%, unlike the rest of the world which uses 100%. :)


I don't understand. What's the problem here? Is it illegal to sell my own class notes in Korea or something? Why is the Dean involved, and why does anybody care? Aren't all the used books full of notes and scribbles already? What's the difference? I'm totally confused here...


There is an app that buys notes from students here in the US. The notes that have most demand are those that get better rated by users.

mike stapleton
MIT already puts some of thier class notes, etc on the internet for free to anyone, not just students.

Ajen Lewis

Replace Tests with individual projects. That could lower the efficacy of reuse of any work done by the seller. Also, since plagiarism has a direct effect on academic success, students may find the added risk to their grade (not to mention shame) is simply not worth it.


The US Law School of 30 years ago was a similarly competitive educational institution. The passing of notes down from class to class an honored and respected tradition. Before the days of easy recording some notes of some professors became verbatim transcripts of lectures given year after year.

Teach the class. Publish your own study guide in pdf.

Shane L

Not advice for C, but I wonder if the Korean market punishes students who miss out on As and Bs much? If so, it seems that students who are highly capable and hard-working but just miss out on the narrow A band might offer an opportunity for non-Korean employers who care less about the grade. While the Koreans snap up the A students with positions offering high salaries, foreign companies could employ the remainder, presumably not much worse than A students, and offer lower wages.

(This is similar to a real phenomenon regarding under-appreciated women workers in South Korea who were then employed profitably by foreign companies instead: )


That's a completely different phenomenon. Being women does not represent lower ability compared to men, but lower grade is actually a (marginal) evidence.

Shane L

Right, YX, but the fierce competition for limited As and Bs makes me think there must be some good students who narrowly miss out on a high score yet might still be very capable. The scoring system may not be a great indicator of the difference between high-level students. The difference between an A and a B must be tiny. Thus a C student might actually be an intelligent and hard-working youngster, but if the market is punishing his or her failure to achieve a higher grade, perhaps foreign companies could profitably offer the student employment at a lower salary. It depends on how much Korean companies do respect the academic scoring system.

Pat McGee

This reminded me of an ancient joke that's probably not really funny anymore. But it inspired me to think of a possible path to explore.

First the joke. A student points out to a economics professor that other students are sharing prior years exams. The prof replied. "Doesn't bother me. Every year, I give the same questions. I just change the answers."

So, possible path: is a good answer truly timeless or is there something you can change about what you expect that will lead to different answers being valued?

Pat McGee

The best class I ever had was a grad course in which the prof handed out the exams on the first day of class. They were all essay questions. He demanded thoughtful answers; preparation was essential, which he strongly encouraged people to do in small groups. Taking an exam unprepared was a sure ticket to a F. Only exam I ever got writer's cramp in. (Yes, I got an A. It was my advisor; I didn't dare do otherwise.) At most a quarter were repeats from exams from prior years.

I used that in one of my classes later. It made me really think about what I wanted the students to learn while writing the questions. And grading the exams took around an hour each, about how long it took them to write it. Except for the very few who had obviously not prepared, which were simple to mark with an F.

Details for those who care. He actually handed out about 4-5 times as many questions as he could ask in an exam. For each exam, he gave a list of potential questions, which was cumulative during the semester. You had to prep for all the potential questions. Many questions were subtle and required careful reading to make sure you really understood the question. He timed the exams by writing his own answers out in longhand, aiming for a test he could write in half the allowed time. He encouraged study sessions by setting times at a local coffee house and paying for the first round. The list didn't change much from year to year; Most but not all questions actually asked were retired for a few years and a few new ones added.



Why not post your own notes online for free? (Possibly with a password that you distribute to your students on the first day of class if you do not wish to share with the world.)

I graduated from a very competitive engineering school here in the U.S. About 15 years ago the university started requiring professors to provide copies of all tests, assignments, and exams (with answers) to the college administration at the end of each quarter. They were encouraged to attach class notes. These documents were then posted to web sites accessible only to the students. The stated intention was to cut down on the advantage of those students with access to "test files" (generally fraternities and sororities who maintained file cabinets full of previous years' documents).

If all the students have access to the same information, the market for notes disappears. (The market for tutoring might grow - that might make for an interesting study.)


Rob H

I also teach at a university in Korea. I'm a language instructor so I'm in a different situation but only 10% of my students can receive A marks. Which has been a subject of much protest. I always distribute my class notes and give in depth study guides. I post them online. I have to put a lot more work into my exam design and I have to grade additional assignments harshly to fit my curve but I believe distributing my notes the only way to have a fair class. My university also has a very strict attendance policy so students are usually there.


If you use authentic assessments instead of tests then you wouldn't have this problem. Use portfolios of their work and have them give a presentation showing this work to a prospective employer. Real world scenarios. If students complete reflections and projects then they can place these kinds of artifacts in their portfolios. They can't place tests in a portfolio to show an employer they learned something. No one wants to see tests. Plus who remembers what you were tested on anyways. But many can recall what they wrote about or why they completed a project about a local agency in need of help (this is called service learning). By the way, i use authentic assessments in my higher ed classes and have found extremely beneficial to students learning; definitely isn't for those who wish to have it easy on the grading time. I teach for the mere fact of student learning and not for just a job!


Enter your name...

Authentic assessments are more appropriate for product- and activity-oriented fields (like marketing and graphic design) than for others. C's field is introductory Greco–Roman history. There really aren't good "authentic assessments" for a course whose behavioral objectives involve a whole lot of "know who this dead white guy is" and "know what this word means" and very little else.