Law in Contemporary Society

I have put the new paper here, with the original masterpiece below.

The original draft and my comments on it are preserved as the prior version, so they don't need to be on this page.

A Suggestion for Regrading our Grades

--By AaronShepard - 17 Apr 2009

One of the major points of discussion in this course, both in class and on the wiki, has been about how CLS should grade its students. Despite a vigorous discourse, there has been relatively little disclosure by the administration. For the most part, the only information students have received has been via the town hall meeting earlier this year, where the main point could be summed up as ‘employers like our current system, so we’re keeping it.’ I found this unsatisfactory, especially since this dramatically oversimplifies the issue. Without any other information from the school, I will advocate in this paper for a middle of the road approach, similar to the ones recently adopted by the law schools at Harvard and Stanford. I believe that this approach would provide significant pedagogical and overall professional benefits, while simultaneously meeting the needs of employers.

Grades with meaning

This new grading system would have tiered levels of passing, and despite having less divisions than the current system, would have more than a purely pass/fail regimen. The latter approach has significant problems, especially if almost no students failed (as is the case now). Grades must mean something other than simply acknowledging that you attended the class, and absorbed a minimal amount of material; otherwise, they serve no function beyond indicating basic progress towards a diploma.

Furthermore, student effort would likely be affected by such a system. If everyone passes, there is little incentive to work harder, or participate in class. This is not to say that effort would completely vanish; a few students would likely work hard because it is in their nature, while others would likely focus similarly on those classes in which they had a strong interest. Still, overall effort would almost certainly decline. This was an observation put forth by several faculty members at the town hall, when discussing the ability for students to take individual classes pass/fail.

Different differentiations

Because there would be no differentiation between students in such a system, the pure pass/fail option isn’t one that seems to be seriously discussed. This differentiation was the major reason, in fact, that Dean Schizer vouched for maintaining the current system. Employers widely favored using a plus/minus, A/B/C scale, he said, and this supposedly gave CLS grades a leg up on rival schools. However, this left me wondering exactly which employers he was referring to? Does an A- look sufficiently better for us than a ‘high pass’ looks for a Stanford graduate? Furthermore, if such a small difference is important, what kind of hiring process are those employers using?

Unfortunately, the ‘meat grinder’ mentality of employers, specifically law firms, must be taken into account by the Dean. The bottom line is that big law firms are the initial employer of a significant number of CLS grads, and as the head of a professional school, it is part of the Dean’s job to maximize students’ professional prospects. Alternatively, one could argue that in the long run, students would be better off if such a hiring system were not used; hence, switching to a different grading methodology could be more beneficial if it eventually influenced the overall system.


I think the benefits of using a tiered grading system are such that we must maintain it in some fashion; however, I think it would be worth it to take the potential short term hit on employment prospects by using a modified pass/fail system, in order to obtain the benefits that using such a system would yield. I would propose going to a scale that evaluates grades on three levels of passing, in addition to the somewhat mythical failing grade. First and foremost, this type of system would likely reduce stress among students, as minor distinctions in grades would not have quite as big of an impact. Certainly the counter argument to this is that it would reduce effort somewhat, an idea which was broached by Dean Schizer. He also specified that, in meeting with certain groups of students, they felt that such a system would not properly reward those who did exceptionally well in a course. This is perhaps true, although since he asked a group of students on the Law Review, their answers might not be reflective of overall student opinion. Still, their point has some validity, in that more students would be lumped together in the middle of a curve. But this lack of differentiation would be ameliorated overall by a more congenial atmosphere among students, leading to a more productive learning environment.

  • Your editing is still not catching places where you depart from standard English grammar and usage. You need to be more diligent about language editing. Without more effort you're not going to make all the improvement needed.

This type of scale would also fix a byproduct of the grading system, which is that professors must allocate specific grades to students in a course largely based on exam results which are, for the most part, incredibly similar.

  • There's nothing incredible about the similarity of cookie-cutter responses to examinations that call for them. You shouldn't use "incredible" to mean "very," and you shouldn't use "very" unless you need to add one more word to a sentence that hasn't got enough padding in it. That most examinations are badly engineered and don't spread the class sufficiently is only one of the many things wrong with examinations as a system of educational evaluation, but here, as in the prior draft, you have a tendency to confuse analysis of grades with analysis of evaluation mechanisms.

This leads to artificial mechanisms for evaluating students, which places significant emphasis on merely meeting a rubric that the professor must create. Furthermore, because of the curve, such minor differentiations can lead to dramatically different results for students whose exams are fairly similar. Ideally, grading would be more individualized, and hence able to fit within the current scheme. However, because most classes are based on an anonymous exam, it seems unfair to force such a practice to lead to such a specific result. This is not to damn differentiation; the system I propose would give similar results as to what we currently get. However, I believe it would functionally make student life better, while simultaneously forcing employers who want to superficially evaluate students to dig a little deeper. If the administration truly has confidence in our students, then they should welcome a holistic evaluation of CLS graduates. A moderated system wouldn’t go as far as some may like, but it would balance out competing interests, while establishing some progress away from the mechanical evaluations that are currently the norm. Eventually, a complete reformation of student evaluations is desirable; given the current state of the legal world, this might be imminent. The pragmatist in me though says that the time for this is not yet here.

  • It's not clear who the pragmatist in you is, unless the word means "too cautious to say out loud that the dean is being a fool." This draft is substantially better in every way than your first draft, and is therefore a success on all three measures of effort, commitment, and improvement. But I'm not sure what pragmatism means to you. To me, it means a philosophical insistence on the measurement of truth not by logic or any formal thought process (for example, a lot of woozy vaporing about "incentives" and "rewards") but by actual results derived from experiments in the world (such as testing whether law students can be helped to improve their written advocacy skills by making them write short essays on subjects that engage them, with further reliance on collaborative discussion and tough editing by the instructor to isolate their weaknesses and help them to work on improvement where they need to improve). On that basis, it doesn't seem to me to be pragmatic to go on ignoring indefinitely the apparent problems with a system of action, on the supposition that people who are external to the community, and who are rapidly losing influence because they no longer possess the economic clout they used to throw around, might supposedly object. I think it would be pragmatic to call that nonsense.

  • So, sharing your liking for pragmatism, I have. My essay, which is a little longer than yours is allowed to be, can be found at EvaluationPolicy.


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r6 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:34:51 - IanSullivan
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