Teaching and Grading (Bark v. Bite)

I run a tough classroom, take attendance. I think of the classroom as a formal place: I wear a tie, and sometimes a jacket (I used to wear suits; I've mellowed along with the times, as today — unlike ten years ago — many of my male colleagues probably teach in open collar; some even in shorts and sandals). I call students by their last names, and although in most upper-level classes I lecture rather than attempt to teach Socratically, I do question aggressively and expect a certain degree of preparation. Pronouns — IMHO one of lawyers' worst enemies — are banned in my classroom. In recent years, though, I have very rarely called on people unless they are on notice or volunteer (I'll return to that issue in a later post). I am told I have a reputation as a hard case. Certainly when I suggest to my students that I'm really just a pussy cat, the reaction — nervous laughter and incomprehension — suggests they don't exactly agree. I would say I'm just being precise and lawyerly, and expecting my students to do the same. They apparently think I'm being tough or even (not too often I hope) mean.

My in-class affect translates into a set of beliefs about my grades: It is a widespread article of faith among the students that I am a tough grader. Indeed, my research assistant, who should know me better than that, told me so several times. So at last I challenged him to go and collect all my grades for the last three years (all professors' grade distributions are public information, available to all students in a book in our library) and compare them to the recommended curve for upper class courses. I told him that if I was noticeably below the curve I'd consider reforming. He took the challenge happily, crunched the numbers…and then told me I didn't really want to see the results. Because, of course, I am in fact something of an easy grader, and have been for all my teaching career.

I do try to write exams that will pose challenging problems: working through them is part of the education, after all. But that doesn't mean I expect every student to find every subtlety. Here's this year's grade distribution in administrative law.

AD05-grades-2.png (Note that because I give so much credit for class participation, I round the total grade down. Thus, a grade that meets or crosses the B+ line, but doesn't reach the A line is a B+.)

Of course, it could be that the demeanor frightens people into working harder and this translates into good exams; sitting where I do, there's no way to know. I don't curve, so it's true that on rare occasions there has been a class that did very badly. For example, my first-ever Internet Law class, some ten years ago, was full of people who I think had expected to play computer games all semester (hey, in film and law you watch films, so in Internet and the Law you…) and were appalled to find that they were expected to do legal analysis. But it's hard to believe that these rare cases set a reputation that overwhelms the norm.

Contrast this experience to that of Donna Coker. Donna is an extremely nice person, with a very pleasant demeanor. Donna tells me that she starts off each semester with a little announcement to the class about how she wants the classroom to be a pleasant place, and doesn't think law school needs artificial stress. But she warns students that they shouldn't mistake her classroom style for her grading style: she will be tough on their exams. But, Donna tells me, and encouraged me to blog, the students don't take this in. They believe that because she is laid-back in class, she'll be an easy grader. And by all accounts, Donna runs a friendly classroom. She has a reputation, deservedly, as a very nice teacher. And she grades much tougher than I do.

But just try getting students to believe it.

I don't know why this is. Is it student sexism: a nice woman is surely going to grade more easily than an aggressive guy, right? Or is it just a reflexive form of stereotyping, in which classroom behavior is presumed to translate to grading behavior? You might think it is self-selection, and that the students who couldn't hack it avoid me while still taking Donna's courses (which are either required or on the bar exam); that's plausible, although I'd note that in most years I don't get a lot of the students who get magnas or summas — I think they avoid me to protect their grade averages. Whatever it is, it's very persistent, even in the face of years of evidence.

Update: On reflection, the above account of my teaching style is not as accurate as it could be. It may describe how I taught Civil Procedure, and how I teach Administrative Law (although I'd take issue with the claim that “tough” equals “not fun” — what about all the jokes?), but it certainly doesn't describe my seminars, and actually doesn't describe courses like Jurisprudence or Internet Law particularly well either. Administrative Law is dominated by my perception of a need to cover a certain defined and rather substantial set of material. Leave out any part of the heavily seamed web, and the edifice collapses. Internet Law is different — there's no need to hew to a syllabus: if the class wants to go haring off in an unexpected direction, I'm happy to go there. So in smaller courses and especially in courses with a flexible syllabus, there's much more discussion and the entire atmosphere is much more informal. But I still use last names until after students graduate.

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7 Responses to Teaching and Grading (Bark v. Bite)

  1. fiat lux says:

    Kevin Drum today posted an article that highlights another aspect of grade inflation: professors who need to make themselves look like good teachers to continue employment. It’s an interesting point; what’s your feeling on it?


  2. Max says:

    Law school is unique among all disciplines because the student receives virtually no feedback before the final grade is recorded. In preparing for the exam, a student has nothing with which to analyze their past performance except for signals the professor gives off in class for the type of legal reasoning they prefer.

    Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not making the argument that all evaluation of legal reasoning (e.g. grading of tests) is purely subjective. Nonetheless, there are many ways to skin a cat, and it is impossible for a professor to adequately express to any student exactly what they want in exam, not least because the professor probably recognizes there is no such thing as “the” perfect exam.

    Thus, the only way for me, a law student, to figure out what you, a professor, want me to write is to watch you in class and figure out what you want. Some professors are very fair and will describe, in detail, how they expect students to answer. Others will tell you to “think like a lawyer,” which is as helpful as “be the ball” or “write clearly,” and still others will give you advice that is flat-out wrong. One professor told the class over and over again to not be conclusory, then deducted points from my answer for utilizing statutory construction on my exam when the meaning of the given statue was, in their word, “obvious.” I asked, “isn’t that conclusory?” They replied, “so?”

  3. michael says:

    another aspect of grade inflation: professors who need to make themselves look like good teachers to continue employment

    This is undoubtedly a real phenomenon. We used to have a very serious problem with adjuncts giving much higher grades than tenure-track/tenured faculty; we cured it by putting them on a curve akin to that we use in the first year courses (we adopted that curve to try to create equity between courses taught in multiple sections).

    I suspect, however, that as regards junior vs. senior tenure-track faculty in law schools, there’s a good chance that the junior faculty may often be tougher in many cases than their seniors because the newly hired professors’ standards, shaped by practice experience with fully fledged lawyers, take time to adapt back down to what is reasonable to expect from students.

  4. CG says:

    But I still use last names until after students graduate.

    Egads, but I hate my last name.

    That being said, I generally prefer more demanding professors. I stay engaged because I know it is necessary, and end up staying on top of things, which causes me to panic less before finals. I’ve discussed this with some of my classmates (those who are not completely of the mindset that all professors are evil and out to get them) and we tend to agree. A professor that is considered difficult during the semester, whether that person is difficult on exams or not, is likely to keep us engaged (and especially if there are jokes).

  5. Barsk says:

    “we adopted that curve to try to create equity between courses taught in multiple sections)”

    I hope you don’t actually believe that statement though… The curve is a nice idea but it hardly keeps the grades across the first year sections even.

  6. michael says:

    It was *far* worse before….

  7. Donna Coker says:

    Well, since Michael talked about my grading/teaching, I have to add a few things. First, turns out that I had some very strong substantive criminal law exams this semester. What a delight! So, those looking for those “bad” grades referred to by Michael, will have to look elsewhere. Second, I can’t resist responding to Max’s observation about “demanding” teachers. I think of myself as a fairly “demanding” teacher in the sense that I push students hard to be analytical, creative, and thoughtful. In addition, a student must be well prepared in order to engage in the kind of conversation I encourage in my class. But, if by demanding, it is meant that the professor tries to frighten folks, then I’m not demanding at all. (I don’t want to be misunderstood; I do not mean to say that Michael tries to frighten his students.) To a great extent, my own law school experience dictates my approach to teaching. Few of my profs did random calling and when I was in a class with those who did, the roar in my ears prevented me from doing my best learning. I think, and some learning research backs me up on this, that most people learn best in a relaxed atmosphere where they are encouraged to make mistakes.

    But, regardless of particulars — first names versus last names, random calling v taking volunteers — the key to successful teaching, I think, is that the prof respect the students. My experience as a student and as a parent of adult children reinforces this view.


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