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I want to prepare some exercise sheets for a course. I am wondering whether or not it is OK to take some exercises directly from the textbook.

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How about just listing the associated problem number from the textbook on the sheet? For example, "Problem 7: Exercise 1.4 from Muller and Kamins" should work, no? – Mad Jack May 9 '14 at 15:26
@user11192 What's a "textbook"? – JeffE May 9 '14 at 22:28
@JeffE From the OP's question, I assumed that "textbook" means the text used for the course. – Mad Jack May 9 '14 at 22:38

6 Answers 6

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I want to prepare some exercise sheets for a course. I am wondering whether or not it is OK to take some exercises directly from the textbook.


Regardless of the legality or scholastic integrity of copying exercises from required textbooks, recommended textbooks, non-required textbooks, other books in your personal or institutional library, course web pages, random pieces of paper found in classrooms, and the like, it is common and accepted practice to do so, typically without attribution of any kind.

Unless you're teaching a popular MOOC (which attract lawyers like certain substances attract flies) or writing a popular textbook (likewise), nobody is going to come after you for copyright violation. But if it'll keep you awake at night otherwise, rewrite the problem in your own words before you distribute it to your students.

Of course, you should also include your own original problems. (Just don't be surprised to see another instructor use them later.)

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+1 - coming up with good problems is hard, and we all stand on the shoulders of giants (or more accurately, a pyramid of normal-sized people). That said, I've sometimes seen a particularly clever and/or unusual problem being attributed explicitly, which I think is a nice compromise. (And there's Knuth's Concrete Mathematics, which bucks the trend and devotes a whole appendix to attribute almost every problem in the book.) – Christian Clason May 9 '14 at 23:46
To cite from the introduction: "Mathematicians have unfortunately developed a tradition of borrowing exercises without any acknowledgment; we believe that the opposite tradition [...] is far superior." – Christian Clason May 9 '14 at 23:48

From a practical point of view, taking a few exercises for internal classroom use will probably not cause copyright problems, depending on the local laws. Teaching is one of the fair use possibilities in the US, but I am no expert in law, and I don't know how far it goes.

Assuming US law applies, here are a few rules for fair use, and I believe you fulfil them all: non profit, for educational purposes, on content more factual than artistic, extracting small parts, and no net effect on the market. Some other sources also add restricted access to the student as a point in favour. It is always safer and more ethical to add a reference to the original book.

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"It is always safer and more ethical to add a reference": it's not just safer and ethical. It's essentially mandatory to a fair-use claim. – aeismail May 9 '14 at 15:06
Well the website Davidmh linked says "Note that attribution has little to do with fair use," which agrees with other things I've heard about attribution and copyright. Certainly one should add a reference, but it would seem copyright law is not the (primary) reason for doing so. – David Z May 9 '14 at 16:50
Referencing on the exercise sheet is troublesome if the textbook has solutions or problems become googleable. Maybe references can be provided later, or like "Some exercises in this course are taken from books from this list: ..."? – Raphael May 9 '14 at 17:45
@Raphael the point of an exercise sheet is for the student to practise; and in these cases, having solutions available can be good to check results. Of course, exercises used to evaluate are completely different beasts. – Davidmh May 9 '14 at 21:02
(I have had exams with book allowed, where the exercise was solved in full detail, but that is blatant carelessness by the professors) – Davidmh May 9 '14 at 21:10

The big concern is copyright. How important it is depends on how complicated the problem statements are. For instance, if the question is something like:

Using Rolle's Theorem and the Intermediate Value Theorem, prove the Mean Value Theorem.

then there's no worries about "reusing" a question like this, because the formulation of the question is not really "original."

However, if the problem involves a half-page of explanations and formulations, you can't simply copy it in your problem sheet verbatim without reference. You may or may not be able to make a photocopy of the relevant page and distribute it under fair use guidelines; you should probably consult your university librarians about this.

The simplest solution, though, would be to list the source of the problem, and identify the problem from the source:

Deen, Analysis of Transport Phenomena, 1st ed., Problem 1.6.

and then allow the students to look it up. (Of course, you should make sure that a copy of the text is available to them in the library via "reserve" policies, if at all possible.)

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The simplest solution seems very impractical for the students. – xLeitix May 9 '14 at 14:04
Being there as a student, agree with @xLeitix. That could be very annoying if there are no free books at the library; but could be acceptable if there are digital copies. – Davidmh May 9 '14 at 14:33
If it's the required text for the course, the assignment of problems from the book by reference is typical and standard. – Bill Barth May 9 '14 at 19:04
@BillBarth I've had courses whose required texts had only one copy at the library. – Mark Fantini May 11 '14 at 5:17
"If the problem involves a half-page of explanations and formulations" you'd better avoid using it at all. Noting is more irritating than spending 30 minutes just trying to understand what is asked. An ideal exercise should be a short and concise task (the difficulty should be in the solution, not in the statement). As to the main question, I guess we shouldn't step on the dangerous path followed by American doctors for whom the question of what would be the best treatment for the patient is secondary to the question of how to protect oneself from a lawsuit. – fedja May 12 '14 at 3:13

Beyond the issue of legality, you have to put in some effort in order to make it appropriate for students and TAs (if you have some) -- plain copying can be dangerous.

  1. Cross-check definitions and results necessary to solve the exercise. Even small differences between the book and your lecture can render an exercise completely infeasible.
  2. Skim the related chapter and prior exercises in the book. Sometimes problem 8 builds on the thought process or solution developed in problem 5, or uses a theorem you don't have in your lecture. If you skip 5 but copy 8, or don't give the theorem as hint, you are posing a harder (infeasible?) problem to your students.
  3. Make sure the exercise works as you expect, i.e. solve it in detail (!) yourself. Not only are there many flawed exercise problems in books, but the level may also off.

    Make your solution accessible to the TAs.

  4. If you don't want your students to have an easy out, make sure to take the exercise from a textbook not on the syllabus and/or without solutions and reformulate a bit so they can't google solutions (easily).

These are lessons I've learned from painful experiences which were unanimously caused by me being short on motivation, time or both and just copy-pasting exercises onto sheets.

Regarding work ethics, provided what you do is legal (in your country) I'd say copying exercises is completely acceptable. Developing good exercise problems is hard and time-consuming. It helps nobody if you do half a job, or overextend yourself on this. It's somewhat similar to using an existing texbook vs writing your own.

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Textbook publishers and instructors have an agreement (in my experience, an unwritten one): if the instructor tells students the textbook is "required," then the instructor is allowed to use all the images, test bank questions, and animations as desired in the course. If you or the main instructor has therefore indicated that the book is "required," then I would say you can use examples from the text (with proper attribution) all you want.

If you are using a text that isn't required, I would say you are venturing into fair use territory, nicely summarized by Davidmh and commenters. An email to the publishers asking to use X number of questions with attribution over the length of the course would be the most legal way to use the resources.

Of course, saying a text is required does not mean students will purchase it. But that's a separate discussion, and publishers do not expect the instructor to enforce the requirement.

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Most of these answers seem to be focused on the legality of using textbook but I would like to argue from a student's viewpoint that it is not acceptable.(And don't have enough reputation to simply leave a comment.)

These questions are from a textbook they should already have. Normally the questions are extremely similar to examples in the text and are most useful in the context of understanding the concepts. It is my opinion those questions should be reserved for students to reference while going through the book, as well as references while working on your slightly different or harder exercises.

What is the point of taking a class when you could have just got the book instead?

Edit: It is your responsibility as the instructor to add value to the course, giving students new (possibly tailored to skill level) problems is a great way to do that in addition to your in class explanation of concepts. Taking exercises from the textbook adds no value since they already have those questions.

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This doesn't answer the question. – JeffE May 9 '14 at 22:47
You seem to misunderstand the point of lectures: You have someone who is paid (and usually happy) to answer your questions if you don't understand something. That's something no book can offer. (And, conversely, if you don't exploit that opportunity, you might as well stay home and read a book.) – Christian Clason May 9 '14 at 23:37
Taking exercises from the textbook adds no value since they already have those questions. I disagree. As a student, I've found that a mix of questions from the required text and the instructor's "home-brewed" questions provides an effective way to help tie in the lecture and text materials. – Mad Jack May 10 '14 at 0:35

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