My Grades Are In

I finally finished grading today — an activity that for me always re-enacts Parkinson’s Law.

I find grading very difficult and stressful. It takes a long time.

That it is dreadfully boring is not the worst of it, although it does seem to get more and more boring the more often I teach the same course (the questions change more than the errors do — an indictment of my teaching, no doubt). I feel it requires the utmost care, since the outcomes matter so much to the students. And while I am pretty sure that most of my grades would be the same were I to grade these again next month, especially the A’s B+’s C’s and down, there is a large mass of exams clustering around the C+/B border (we don’t have a B- grade here), where I am pretty sure a degree of randomness, or arbitrariness if you prefer, inevitably creeps in. These are exams with some virtues, far from lost causes, but they each bear several specimens from the menagerie of incommensurable vices. And I must reduce them to a number or letter.

The worst part of it is that I want the students all to do well. And of course they don’t all do well. Blah answers are bad enough. What really drives me ’round the bend are the aggressively wrong ones. How, I ask myself, could they be there in the room with me — and they were there, I take attendance — for so many hours and still think that? How could I have failed to communicate something so basic? And whether or not it was my fault, what will happen if they inflict this misunderstanding on clients? And how, now that they are out of my clutches, will I ever set them straight about it? And, oh look, it’s quite a while since my mind wandered….

We don’t have a curve except for first year students. And I usually let the chips fall where they may. This year, however, I graded a little differently from usual. Thanks to some prodding via a general memo to all the faculty from an Associate Dean, I was slightly more lenient this year. To begin with, in addition to the two-week attendance-taking moratorium right after Wilma, I forgave slightly more absences than I otherwise would have.

In Internet Law I rounded a few grades up instead of, as usual, rounding everything down. (The usual rule is less harsh than it sounds since I give a lot of generous class participation credit, which I find tends to inflate grades. Were I to round up routinely, between rounding and class participation credit, a lucky C+ could become a B+; that’s just too big a leap for me.)

In Administrative Law, I gave every student a 0.125 point (out of 4.0) ‘hurricane bonus’ which resulted in raising a substantial number of grades. Even so, to my surprise, this left me slightly under the five-year average grade distribution for core courses at UM as regards the number of A’s.

Since I submit exam grades on blind grading numbers and simultaneously hand in a list of who will get fixed quantities of class participation credit before I know who got which grade, I don’t have an obvious way to curve grades to achieve some predetermined quota, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t, particularly.

I will say this: if you got an A on my exam, or even as a final grade in my class, you earned it. (Students wishing to see the overall grade distribution for their class can find it at that class’s online presence. Individual grades are only available from the Registrar and via MyUM.)

I would love to teach an extra class in a week or two in which we all went over the exam and discussed it. But I fear that many of the students who would benefit the most from such a thing would not attend.

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5 Responses to My Grades Are In

  1. RedWolf says:

    My son, a prof as well, claims that in hell one grades exams; I agree.

  2. Max says:

    Keep in mind that your students are receiving your obvious, bedrock ideas through their ears.

    Before you tried to convey information in the manner least likely to be understood and retained, they spent hours creating a filter to obliterate your plain meaning through unstructured use of butchered case edits and insipid, unanswered questions in their books.

    And before that they had a year to learn, through the “black letter law” dogma, that hard-and-fast rules in the law are always wrong. They were also taught that intellectual shortcuts are dishonest, and so in principle rebel against simple explanations, even when multiple simple explanations are used in conjunction.

    I’m a 3L (not at UM) who just received his grades today: it was my best semester of law school, well in the top of the class, accomplished with less than a fifth of the time/stress needed in previous years. I only changed one thing: I stopped reading the cases before class. I would skim the first part of the reading 5 minutes before class. Then, when class started, I listened, and within a few minutes everything in that section made sense, so I skimmed the next section as the professor kept explaining. When it came time to review the cases, I interpreted them through the lens of my professor’s thoughts; big surprise the exam, and my answers, were clear.

    I have little sympathy for professors who complain about students not understanding the basics if the professor did not take special care to elucidate those basics to the students. I remember being penalized a full letter grade in Torts for devoting only a paragraph to economic damages on a particular question. The professor was right: I should have spent more time on the issue. But I chose to limit my answer solely because the professor had spent a whopping 20 minutes on the subject in a single class, a far cry from the 2+ weeks on the policy rationale behind the creation of a duty in a unique factual circumstance.

    Professors should demand from themselves clear explications of the rules to be utilized on the exam or they should not expect every student to have a solid grasp of those rules. Frankly, if a professor isn’t willing to pony up a written outline of the class material before the exam, then their complaints of “no one understands the basics!” will not be heard since, if the professor truly wanted to ensure mastery of the basics, they would not have withheld such information from the students so as to use it for differentiation in grading.

    Are there lazy, dumb, inattentive students? Absolutely. But stop and consider for a moment how someone with the brains and work ethic to at least get to law school and not drop out during 1L could possibly not apply Chevron on an Admin Law exam.

  3. Michael says:

    While I’m delighted that you found a method that works for you, I’m a little doubtful that your method would work in my class. I also have some doubts about its long-run effects.

    I tell my students right up front that I’m going to treat them like grown-ups: I’m only going to go through the hardest and most complex cases in a traditional way. For all the others, I’m going to assume they read it, am open to any questions they have, but otherwise will skip straight to the interesting and difficult parts. That way we get the most “value added” from class over the casebook.

    Someone who routinely didn’t read the cases before class would be utterly lost in my class much of the time.

    As for the idea of our providing written outlines, not only is it infantalizing in an upper-level course, I think it demonstrates that you haven’t quite grasped what it is that most law professors think they are trying to do in most classes. You may find it surprising to learn that the number one objective isn’t “teaching a body of law”. There is no way that any of us can teach enough in one semester to meet the needs of a practioner, who inevitably will have to go into much greater detail in a much narrower sub-area for any given matter. What we’re doing is (1) teaching you to think like a lawyer; (2) giving you a sense of how the law/courts works in a given field (they’re not all alike); (3) giving you a tour of a portion of the ‘legal landscape’.

    Handing out outlines would destroy the first objective, which is to give you a chance to engage with legal materials on your own, then compare your efforts to the ‘right’ answer. Once you are out on your own there will not always be someone to give you an outline; especially if you have the good fortune to have interesting work, sometimes you’ll have to do it yourself without a safety net. Law school is one of your best chance to build up the necessary mental muscles and reflexes. Too much spoon-feeding (or over-reliance on commercial outlines!) will achieve (3), and some part of (2) — and may even give you good grades sometimes — but will undermine (1).

  4. Max says:

    I didn’t mean to criticize your class specifically or attempt to provide a framework for other students, but instead provide a perspective you probably hadn’t seen before on how hard it is for students to pick up on what the professor is saying. The late-night wording was more akin to a rant; my apologies. It may help you to know that I’m so interested in the topic because I might return to the academy after some practice, and so want to learn how to be a good professor, and am not just complaining after three years of it.

    My overarching point was: if a substantial of students appeared to not have “basic” information, then it’s probably because the professor did an ineffectual job of conveying that information.

    I understand, and agree, with your point about the purpose of legal teaching. Here’s my mangling of multiple metaphors from professors. Building a case is like building a house. Some parts are easy: you can buy a TV. Some parts require a little work: you have to put together everything from IKEA, and hang all the curtains/blinds. Some parts are hard: the roof & walls require a mixture of structural engineering, materials fabrication, construction, and interior & exterior design.

    If you wanted to go into the homebuilding business in three years, what would you want to spend your time doing, walking through a few completed homes while reading instructions specific to that house or learning how all the tools in a toolbox work and what you can do with the materials at a hardware store?

    Obviously, the latter will better prepare you for the actual future homebuilding, and I’ve heard a number of professors say something akin to “students want instructions, but I’m giving them something better, a toolbox.”

    That’s all well and good, and I agree the toolbox should be the focus. But what’s wrong with a few instructions every now and then, and a few clear explanations of how a particular house, or case, was completed? For instance, I have not heard of a Civil Procedure professor who disagreed that Glannon’s Examples and Explanations is a very productive purchase for students. And yet its entire purpose is to give the students solid instructions on how to work through Civil Procedure problems.

    I agree that a written outline at the beginning of class would be counterproductive. But let’s get back to your objectives: (1) thinking like a lawyer (2) sense of how courts work in a field (3) touring the landscape. How are any of those goals served by not providing the students with a solid framework from which to approach a given class and a given field?

    I failed to mention something in my last post: I don’t mean an outline of the whole course and I don’t believe tests in classes with an outline should be written at the same level as those in classes without an outline. I mean that the outline should provide the basic framework of the class/field, and the tests should be crafted much harder, so that they are able to glide past the “what’s the rule?” and into the much more substantive, challenging, and rewarding questions of the law.

    In practice, if a client comes to me with an Admin Law question, I’ll certainly confirm my general thoughts about the case by looking through a treatise or hornbook or practioner’s guide. That’s the point at which I could ace a law school exam — but unless it was an easy question (which is not the bulk of billable hours), then the real work of the lawyer has just begun.

    Another way to frame this is: at what level could you teach your students if you were able to presume they knew all the basic stuff by heart? You can do this — hand them the basic stuff on a platter, and let them know they’re expected to operate on a level beyond it. I can give you an example from a Constitutional Law class I TA’ed. My TA sessions consisted mostly of providing the students a generalized, solid framework of the previous class’ material. The result was that, in class, students were no longer terrified of finding “the rule,” and so were able to conduct the class discussion at a much higher level, discussing the implications of different rules, of political structures, of political influence, etc., and not be stuck on “does knowing about discrimination make it actionable?”

  5. Michael says:

    I think that the experience of pulling out even the ‘basic’ rules is a very healthy one; for most students it’s about what I can reasonably expect. The next level stuff is actually quite hard to see on your own especially for beginners — indeed, that’s my justification for being there. So the real home workout for even quite a good student is going to be finding just exactly the stuff that would be on the handout. Human nature being what it is, handouts would much reduce the chances that they’d get that workout, wouldn’t it?

    That said, this year we were very disrupted due to the hurricane, and towards the end of the year I did direct students to the ABA’s administrative law outline, which does more or less what you want. And I always give an open book exam (8hr). And, like every year, people’s interest, time commitment, talent etc just naturally comes in something of a bellish curve. The reality is that not every single person is well above average in every single course.

    Perhaps the good news is that this year almost everyone got a C or (usually) better, and no one failed.

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