Who owns your final exam?

I was chatting with a colleague and our conversation drifted into some local history of students sharing past final exams electronically with each other. Then we stumbled onto an interesting question: who owns your final exam?

The teacher or the school board owns it

On the face of things, either you (the teacher, I’m talking to) or your school board own the intellectual property rights. As I understand it (I’m not a legal expert, folks!), if you create your exam on your own time, with your own resources (say, not using a board computer), then you own 100% of the rights to your exam. If you use board equipment and/or time, the board owns it. Exams are often reviewed/edited by multiple people, which could make things a little murky.

This question also comes up when teachers/school boards want to monetize their work (e.g. sell a lesson plan online, publish a book of assessment tasks, etc.).

If you use board equipment on your own time, I dunno. That’s complicated. Probably there would have to be an agreement between parties (ha ha ha).

The student owns it

But what if the student answers a question you ask on your exam? You certainly don’t have the rights to that student’s response, do you? Doesn’t the student retain ownership of their intellectual property (even if it’s something like their thoughts on symbolism in Divergent, or a solution to a physics problem)?

Okay, so it’s both?

The questions are yours or your board’s. The answers are the students. I think that makes sense, and seems fair (at least to me).

The document itself

But if the student wrote answers on a piece of paper that has your prompting questions on it — then what? Who owns that document? Is it a collaboration at that point? Do you and the student together have to make decisions regarding further publication and distribution? Does fair use allow students to publish their response with your question without seeking your permission?

Retaining all copies

Many schools have a policy of not returning final exams to students. This isn’t about intellectual property; it’s about preventing academic dishonesty (“cheating”) and reducing planning workload. I’m not in favour of this practice, in general. You’re welcome to try to change my mind, of course. I teach math, though, so maybe my stuff is more safely reusable anyway.

What to do

If you want the most control over your work, create your stuff on your own equipment and on your own time. Of course, that might make it difficult to collaborate with other colleagues, which is probably more important.

I’d advocate for returning students’ work to them as well; they invested time and effort, and you shouldn’t take it from them. If their work is too dangerous for other students to see later, you might want to revisit your final summative assessment practices.

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5 thoughts on “Who owns your final exam?

  1. We do have a policy of keeping the exams, but very few students ask for them anyway. I wonder if it’s just an unwritten understanding? They ask to see them, but rarely ask to keep them. Interesting topic, we do like to collaborate in the dept as we often have a common piece on our exams, so I guess we’d share rights with the school.

  2. When I was in University, there was a few times when I thought that it’s a shame that I won’t get my exams back, since sometimes I really liked what I wrote. I was in the humanities, so there were a lot of essays in exams and I actually enjoyed writing those. Shame they are lost to me forever. I doubt that anyone would use that essay to cheat on the exam next time around. But I do understand that for other knowledge-based responses, they could easily use it to cheat. I can understand the policy of not splitting hairs on it. Who knows, maybe those essays would be a little embarrassing to me now anyway.

  3. Interesting little conundrum. Just one extra piece about retaining the copies – I don’t think it’s merely about “reusability”, there’s another piece to academic dishonesty. Namely a student changing their answers after the fact, and then claiming the change is what they originally wrote.

    Do I think this is a common practice? No, though over the years I have seen the occasional case on a test. And it’s not something a student can really do if they write in pen, unless it’s adding in missed punctuation, which seems of negligible benefit. But given a scenario of “My son/daughter says they wrote this so you better assign a higher mark/pass them” versus “I wouldn’t have marked it wrong if it was correct, that’s not what they originally had”… it can only be resolved by either (a) keeping a copy of all materials before they are returned – which isn’t feasible, or (b) keeping all materials, allowing them to be viewed upon request – which is the norm (at least for exams where I am).

    There’s also the additional benefit that a student knows where the exam is, if they (or an administrator) want to see it – it’s not lost in a snowbank or ripped up in pieces or anything. Again, not trying to change your mind, but I think that’s an additional piece of the puzzle.

    • Those are good points that I hadn’t thought about.

      In my e-Learning class I get digital copies of all student work (timestamped too!) which is pretty great. For my F2F class I’m planning to scan their work and keep a digital copy for that same reason. Maybe students should get that digital copy and we can keep the physical one.

      Thanks for commenting!

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