Law in Contemporary Society

-- UchennaIbekwe - 20 Apr 2009

On the Grade Reform Debate

-- By AaronShepard? - 04 Mar 2009

Would changing the grade curve reduce stress, and increase communal willingness to work together? Would students become more adventurous in their class selection? To both questions the answer is yes. But our administration seems to think that ridding the school of a grading system would lead to students working “less hard” and difficulty for employers to determine which students meet a “certain threshold.” A change in grading system will not be as drastic as the administration presumes. Students will still work hard and employers will still be able to differentiate students. The only change will be that students will feel less anxious and become more adventurous in their class selection. A modified pass/fail system will achieve these goals.


The most cited reason for maintaining the current system in favor of one more geared towards a pass/fail regime is that there would be a lack of differentiation among students. Employers, according to Dean Schizer, have strongly supported the current system. Having grades allows them to sort through applicants, and discard those who fail to meet a certain threshold. While employers might end up getting rid of terrific applicants who, for whatever reason, don’t have terrific grades. This is potentially necessary when rifling through numerous applicants for (rapidly decreasing) job slots.

But what exactly do grades demonstrate? Clearly they have an Arnold-esque aspect of controlling and sorting our organization, but do they reflect anything of substance? Our current grading system simply illustrates how “student A” performed amongst students in “group X” and where “student A” lies amongst those students. However, it is almost certain that “student A” is likely to end up with different standing when compared against students in “group Y” or even when graded by a different professor. So are grades really a reliable indicator of success? How much do arbitrary letters on a sheet of paper really tell you about the ability of a person to perform a specific job function? To me it would seem that several facets of an individual student would be more correlated to success than merely his or her ability to successfully receive a high mark.

Obviously, at some level the academic successes of a student may be an accurate indication of their ability to perform a job function. At the same time, in the legal field it is often admitted that you learn what you need to know on the job. So how relevant are grades in property and torts to one’s ability to close a corporate deal? It seems that experience related to research, writing and analysis would be more pertinent to success in the legal field. Perhaps everyone would be better off by focusing more attention on those experiences, rather than purely on grades.

Student Effort

The preference for a grading system that differentiates students is premised on the theory that students will work less hard if not threatened by bad grades. This could be true in a pure pass/fail system, especially if the system remains vague. If everyone passes, the theory goes, no one works hard. However, while this may be true in a system on the extreme end of the spectrum, would it still be true in a modified pass/fail system, such as the one proposed here in response to the systems instituted at Harvard, Stanford, and Yale? At Yale for instance, the system is honors, pass, low pass, and fail. In a system such as the one used at Yale, students will still be motivated to work hard in order to 1) ensure they pass the class and 2) distinguish themselves from their peers.

In addition, virtually all of us are in law school because we have some interest in learning the legal system. Unlike the required courses that many of us were forced to take in undergrad, here we are learning things that we find interesting and will prove helpful to our chosen professional career. So it seems unlikely that students will not work as hard. The only real difference will likely be a decrease in anxiety level.


During the town hall meeting, a professor mentioned that if classes were made pass/fail, students would have little incentive to come to class and participate. However, even now, classes aren’t exactly a bastion of free expression and participation. Professors can encourage participation of course, but for the many reasons we discussed in this class, students are frequently loath to do so.

Hence, it does not seem that a change in grading system would do much to alter the dynamic of classroom discussion. Instead a modified pass/fail system would at least differentiate us on less arbitrary lines, provide us with substantive feedback on our progress, and give us guidance on how to best learn the information that will prove helpful to our careers.


In the end, Columbia is still a professional school and must respond to what best prepares students for the professional world. So some differentiation is still needed. However the traditional grading system is not the only means by which differentiation can be achieved. For the reasons stated above, the differentiation that some professors and employers say is needed can be achieved through a modified pass/fail system. And with this approach we can be assured that a decrease in anxiety levels and increased sharing of information will follow.


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r6 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:03:15 - IanSullivan
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