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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Legally Blind Grading, Take 5: Do Class Participation Docks and Boosts Unfairly Disadvantage Female and Minority Students?

When I guest blogged here last April, I posted an entry which traced the origins of blind grading in law schools. In that post, I noted that  

In One Law: The Role of Legal Education in the Opening of the Legal Profession Since 1776, 44 Fla. L. Rev. 501 (1992), Paul Carrington tracks the creation of special admissions programs for minority students in the mid-1960s. He then notes that "[t]o protect against concerns of favoritism for students specially admitted, most schools adopted some form of blind grading."

At the time, I found this fact surprising as it went against my assumption that blind grading was adopted to help female and minority students by preventing prejudice. Instead, blind grading was implemented to ensure that minority students did not get a boost. But does it do so in more ways than one?

I have noted in previous posts that law professors do not actually engage in blind grading but instead engage in "legally blind grading" because they can dock or boost students grades based upon class participation. And, as I noted in a later post, these docks and boosts can be quite significant in effect based upon law school grading curves.  

In Why Legal Education is Failing Women, 18 Yale J.L. & Feminism 389, 405-07 (2006), Sari Bashi and Maryana Iskander did a study of Yale Law School and came up with, inter alia, the following results regarding class participation:
Observations show that male students dominate classroom discussions, particularly in large classes, in loud classes, and in classes taught by men. During the period in which student observers recorded data about classroom participation, the student body at YLS was 47% female and 53% male....The average number of times that a male student spoke in class was 38% higher than the average number of times that a female student spoke in class (Z statistic=12.4)....That disparity was reduced by 24% (that is, the ratio of male to female participation was reduced to 1.14) in classes taught by female professors (T statistic=2.768; P value=0.007). In loud classes--classes with greater overall class participation--the gender disparity increased by 52% (T statistic=2.664; P value=0.009). In large classes--classes with more than fifty students--the disparity increased by thirty-one percentage points (T statistic=2.287; P value=0.024)....In the three (out of twenty-five) classes in which women “dominated”--that is, their overall participation outstripped that of men--they dominated to a lesser degree.... 

Men are also more likely to volunteer to participate. On average, male students volunteered to speak 40% more than female students (Z statistic=13.17)....Because 72% of classroom interactions originate with students volunteering to speak,...the difference in the rates at which students volunteer--and/or the rates at which professors call on those who do volunteer--accounts for much of the disparity in overall participation....

The data show that faculty members are more likely to "compel" men than women to speak in class by calling on those who do not volunteer. The average number of times that a male student is asked to speak without volunteering (“cold calling”) is 17% higher than the average number of times that a female student is asked to speak without volunteering (Z statistic=4.51).

Moreover, the authors went on to note that "[s]tudents reiterated concerns voiced by faculty that women and minorities seem to hold back their comments, while men, particularly white men, are more likely to volunteer to participate, whether or not they have something interesting or insightful to say." The authors then offer two possible explanations for the differences in class participation by men and women: 

First, faculty members treat comments by female students differently from comments by male students in ways that inhibit female participation in class. Much of this treatment stems from hesitation on the part of some faculty members to challenge women or to engage their ideas. Second, faculty members run their classes in ways that give more attention to students who speak more quickly and unequivocally--behaviors that are more often displayed by men than by women.

If the authors are correct, these differences in class participation are not based upon differences in student aptitude. That being the case, are female and minority students being unfairly disadvantaged by class participation docks and boosts? If you are a professor who routinely docks and/or boosts students' grades based upon class participation, have you ever studied whose grades you boost and dock and found results similar the above numbers? If so, do these results concern you, or do you think that docking and boosting student grades based upon class participation is fair based upon the profession that law students are about to enter? And if you haven't studied whose grades you have docked and boosted, do you plan on dong so?

-Colin Miller 

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on March 24, 2010 at 09:28 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I check my bumps every semester, and while male students definitely speak disproportionately often, they don't get participation bumps disproportionately often. I think this may be because the metric I use is not "talks in class" but rather "helps classmates learn."

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Mar 24, 2010 10:47:30 AM

I've always found that there's a simple way to ensure diversity (in all senses of the word) in class participation - wait 5 to 10 seconds after asking a question. You have to be willing to deal with silence, but there's really nothing inherently wrong with that. The longer you wait, the more you'll have the pick of the room among students who are diverse in opinion, sex, race, and frequency of talking in the class. If you go with the first hand or two, you have problems.

Posted by: David S. Cohen | Mar 24, 2010 4:47:12 PM

in the real world, does sitting silently with good ideas in one's head help a client? does sitting silently advance one's career? how about in the academic world?

in the first class and in the syllabus, announce your rule about bumps from class participation. then follow through in the grading without a second thought. i've had no shortage of non-white-males who have spoken up and gotten bumps. why worry about exact parity?

Posted by: 68775 | Mar 24, 2010 4:49:15 PM

What justification do the authors provide for assuming that the population of Yale classes on the whole are a normal population?

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Mar 24, 2010 8:20:38 PM

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