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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Lawsky Practice Problems - On-Line Tax Teaching and Learning Tool

I've put together an on-line teaching and learning tool for introductory tax courses at


Some questions and answers follow after the break.

Q: What does this website do?
A: It generates multiple-choice federal individual income tax practice problems. The problems are a random selection of facts, names, and randomly (but thoughtfully) generated numbers about a range of basic tax topics. You can pick a particular topic, or you can have the website to pick both  a topic and problem at random.

Q: Are the answers also random?
A: No. The multiple-choice answers are based on mistakes that students commonly make.

Q: What happens once the student picks an answer?
A: If the student picks a wrong answer, the website usually provides a substantive hint about what the student did wrong. A right answer usually returns a full explanation. In many of the explanations of answers both right and wrong, there is a link to the relevant code section. (There is usually a single answer that is randomly generated--if a student selects that, the feedback is the crushing, "This number was randomly generated.")

Q: What topics are covered?
A: Among others, restricted property as compensation; options as compensation; the principal residence sale exclusion; depreciation; recapture; like-kind exchanges; installment sales; and more. You can see the full current list, with information about what’s covered within each topic, here.

Q: Do the questions repeat?
A: Eventually--there are not an infinite number of problems--but there are a lot of different problems. Setting aside the numbers' changing, which doesn't necessarily provide conceptually different questions, different types of problems toggle a bunch of different facts and relationships between the numbers, all of which change the problem conceptually. For example, for like-kind exchanges, there are five different facts than can toggle (asset is personal use or business use, whether there is debt relief and whom that debt relief favors (someone who provides boot or not), etc.) and four different questions. For installment sales there are even more toggles; for unrestricted property as compensation, many fewer. Suffice it to say that so much changes that the most efficient way to solve these problems is to learn the law.

Q: What is this for?
A: Whatever you want. A professor can use to generate problems for teaching or you give students direct access to it; students can use it to practice for their tax classes--whatever works for you. The website is free and is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license, which means, roughly, that you can share this or use it for any purpose, just so long as you give appropriate credit, distribute the material so other people can use it under the same terms, and don't create any additional restrictions.

Q: Is it just problems?
A: No. There is also a page with rate graphs and a rate calculator (and of course some pages that are more on the administrative side—a list of all topics covered, for example).

Q: Does the website take into account inflation adjustments?
A: Yes. Problems, rate graphs, and rate calculations take into account inflation adjustments for 2019 and will, for the foreseeable future, update with the current year’s inflation adjustments.

Q: I found a mistake!
A: Yes! This website is in its early stages, so there are certainly errors. When you find an error, please let me know so I can correct it.

Q: I teach topic X, and I think it would really lend itself to problems like those on the website.
A: Great. Send it my way -- I can't make any guarantees, but I can give it a shot.

Q: This would work for tax classes other than basic tax.
A: Yes indeed! I currently plan to add a page that similarly generates partnership tax problems.

Q: I have another suggestion.
A: Awesome--please send it my way. I very much welcome any suggestions or thoughts.

Posted by Sarah Lawsky on November 26, 2019 at 05:18 PM in Tax, Teaching Law | Permalink


John Mayer, yes - I essentially coded the tax rules in Python. Happy to discuss further - email if you would like to chat.

Posted by: Sarah Lawsky | Nov 27, 2019 7:14:11 PM

Very cool. I especially like how you implemented it where you can "generate" new problems that test the same substantive area, but the names and amounts are changed. We have been looking at doing that in CALI lessons just to add variety or do it in QuizWright so that different students see different question text and it makes answer sharing harder.

Our collection of Tax lessons are here -

Did you code the tax rules into python? Our biggest problem is that we have to review almost 200 lessons every single year because, you know, tax law ;-

Posted by: John Mayer | Nov 27, 2019 12:24:23 PM

What a great idea. Thanks for doing this, Sarah.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 26, 2019 6:49:58 PM

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