October 16, 2007
Profiting from Class Notes
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

Apparently students at the University of Maryland College Park who miss class do not have to worry about finding someone to take notes for them.  Instead, they can rely on "Terp Notes".  According to the website of Bookholders.com, the company that sells Terp Notes, Terp Notes are "professional typed notes for daily class lectures.  The notes are taken by hand-selected students enrolled in your class providing easy to read material that you need.  Not only do you receive lecture information but an interpretation by a student to understand the material better."   According to one newspaper, student note takers are paid from $8 to $20 per class for their notes.  The Bookholders.com website includes prices for the notes, samples notes, and classes for which notes are available.  The prices range from $2.49 for one day of notes to $26.95 for a full semester.  Interestingly, class notes from previous semesters are less expensive than notes currently being taken.  While the quality of notes appear to vary, based on the sample notes I saw, the class notes are not just pages of rambling classroom discussion, but rather are presented in an outline format.  The notes have been available for several years.  Yet their existence continues to cause concerns, particularly among professors who apparently not only worry about copyright concerns, but also worry about students' relying on such notes as authoritative.  While I can appreciate the concerns these notes generate, they seem like an inevitable extension of commercial outlines and other research tools on which students rely.  And of course I wonder if a market for these kinds of notes will develop at the law school level.

To be sure, Bookholders.com seems to be aware of the potential for legal liability in any school setting.  However, Bookholders.com thus far has managed to avoid legal issues, and includes a disclaimer on its notes that reads: "these notes do not represent the professor's lectures verbatim."  Apparently Bookholders.com also keeps the list of note takers confidential so that professors will not know whose earning money while they take notes in class.

Copyright concerns aside, perhaps law school students are more risk averse than undergrads and hence are not willing to rely on a stranger's perspective of classroom discussion.  Of course, one could argue that something like Terp Notes is preferable to more traditional commercial outlines because at least the notes seeks to capture the perspective of a particular professor.  Then too, aside from the profit piece, such notes seem almost indistinguishable from borrowing class notes from a friend, on the one hand, or outlines and other class materials passed down from year to year, on the other.  Moreover, it is possible that the profit piece incentivizes the note taker to take better notes.  And yet it is equally possible that the profit motive corrupts these more informal ways of sharing class information because the original note taker is motivated by more than just the educational experience.   And I can imagine that law students would feel comfortable relying on these informal ways because the notes have somehow been verified--that is, dubbed the "law review" outline or taken by the "A+" student.  This suggests that maybe such a note service could not take off in the law school setting. 

And yet, given the anxiety many law school students feel and the amount of money students pay for various study aids, it is hard to imagine them not taking advantage of any tool that they perceive as potentially bolstering their performance.

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Comments (9)

1. Posted by Jake on October 16, 2007 @ 23:12 | Permalink

How does this commercialization of classroom note-taking square with the academic honor code at Maryland (assuming the university still has anything so antediluvian)? And is there an implicit argument against laptops in the classroom here?

2. Posted by Michael Risch on October 17, 2007 @ 5:31 | Permalink

This is not a new development - I managed the student government's Lecture Notes business at Stanford back in 1990 - it was a big business for us, and was successful for years before and after my one year stint.

We did, however, ask for permission from the professors, and I recall being turned down maybe once in the dozens of classes we offered over three quarters. Some professors contributed materials to add, some reviewed prior to publication, and some had their teaching assistants produce the notes and use them in review sessions.

I worked in the ASSU business side for all four years, and never heard anyone (student or professor) complain about the honor code. With respect to Jake's comment, only some of our notetakers retyped the notes - most just published their handwritten notes, so I don't see laptops being the pivot point.

Perhaps requesting permission makes all the difference, but the idea of lecture notes doesn't trouble me much, even in law school. Students are going to share notes anyway, so I'm not bothered by the fact that one of them gets paid to be in class. I can say from experience that the notetakers who are better (a.k.a. more authoritative) will over time garner more business, and the market will decide. Even if someone takes poor notes, I have little sympathy for students who treat them as authoritative.

3. Posted by Larry, San Francisco on October 17, 2007 @ 10:08 | Permalink

Why is this an issue? When I was teaching 15 years ago I used to hand out my lecture notes before every lecture. Recently I have taken several graduate school classes and the professors always put their lecture notes on their web pages. Isn't that what everyone does now?

4. Posted by Marianna Moss on October 17, 2007 @ 12:09 | Permalink

Why is copyright an issue? Unless the professor reads his lecture from his notes verbatim, the lecture isn't fixed in a medium, which is a pre-requisite for copyright protection. The students' notes are, of course, copyrighted, but I assume they sign a waiver in their contract with Bookholders.com

5. Posted by Anthony on October 17, 2007 @ 16:57 | Permalink

Jake-- stop being such a technophobe. Why would an honor code be at issue here?

6. Posted by Wikilaw on October 19, 2007 @ 8:54 | Permalink

it's already here. See outlinedepot.com which although it is free, is close enough to what you are describing.

7. Posted by jake on October 20, 2007 @ 19:29 | Permalink

Ack. I am labeled a technophobe. Anthony probably was puking on his mother's breast when I was writing COBOL.

8. Posted by Paris on October 29, 2007 @ 19:11 | Permalink

The only thing new about this is the website. My mother used a similar service while earning her B.A. 30+ years ago - it was run via the student union.

Nothing wrong with students sharing notes and doubly nothing wrong if the good note-takers are charging for the privilege of using their work. In an ideal world we would all learn easily from lectures. In reality, many do not and systems like these are better than nothing.

9. Posted by Janice Stevens on September 29, 2008 @ 19:18 | Permalink

I would even suggest Outlines.com, it's pretty much the ultimate survival guide for students, and who doesn't like free?

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