Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Question of Grades

One of the effects of a mandatory enforced grading curve is a preoccupation with grades, since no longer are grades merely determinative of, perhaps, the first post-Law School job. They are determinative of whether a student obtains a law degree at all. As a result, a mandatory enforced grading curve poses a unique challenge to Academic Support faculty.

Our particular curve has two components: a mandatory range of means and mandatory distribution requirements. The first year parameters seem to students to be particularly daunting. Against a backdrop of a required 77.00 GPA for good standing, professors may set their course means between 77 and 81, but must give 20%-35% D’s, 35%-65% C’s, and 15%-25% B’s.

One of the tasks that seems to fall to Academic Support here is to explain the curve, and to correct the misapprehensions students develop about it. For example, students often assume that, because 20%-35% D's are given in each course,  20%-35% of the class must therefore be disqualified each year. However, unless the groups getting below a 77 (which is the lowest “C” grade) are strictly homogenous, the actual academic attrition will be significantly lower—often around 13%. Another assumption students make is that the curve depresses grades and disqualifies students who should otherwise not be disqualified. Professor Richard Litvin and I actually demonstrated that, for a number of years, due to declining admissions statistics, the curve actually resulted in grade inflation.

Still, these examples illustrate a significant challenge posed by the existence of a severe curve that results in a significant number of disqualifications. Students perceive Law School as something of a zero sum game—for every “win,” someone “loses” and is disqualified. Of course, mathematically, with only 10%-13% academic attrition, that is not true, but it doesn’t change the fact of the student perception. So, we need to think of creative ways to focus away from the “zero sum” concept. What I like to emphasize is that students should only focus on achieving their personal best—and not on worrying about what the other person is doing, or what the Law School curve is doing. This includes just working on what methods help each particular student to learn, building on their strengths, and shoring up their weaknesses, and advising students (over and over) to not do a postmortem on exams with colleagues, and to not discuss grades with colleagues. Neither they, nor we, can alter a mandatory curve (although we might marginally affect its shape in terms of prodding the number of low grades toward the lower range of the permitted distribution). Instead, we should refocus students’ attention away from the external that they cannot control to the internal goal of achieving their personal best, which they can control. If they know they have done their best, then we have done our best as well. (mwm)

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