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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Curves in the upper level

Jessie raises some good issues about the use of curves. I agree with the commenters who argue that grades are inherently comparative and relative, so I am generally  good with using curves.

I want to ask a slightly different question about using curves in upper-level classes. At least arguably, the curve's signaling and weed-out functions are gone, at least as to smaller, niche non-core classes, particularly with respect to 3Ls in their final semester. And smaller class size means that the mandatory low end may be one student forced to get a C-. Certainly the sample size may be too small to get a "natural" bell curve. Upper-level curves tend to be higher than 1L curves (fewer mandatory low grades, more mandatory high grades, higher median, whatever). But even if we accept curves in the first year, are they justified after that, especially as to the mandatory low end? At what enrollment point should the curve kick-in--15 students? 25 students?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 25, 2013 at 09:09 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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A big difference between 1l classes and upper level classes is that 1l classes are required and upper level classes are typically optional. If upper level courses were curved this would distort enrollment since students might feel unable to risk the GPA to take a course that is likely to attract the most competitive students. Of course if there is no curve then students might be incentivized to take courses with professors known give out the most generous grades, so it is a difficult problem.

Posted by: Anon | May 25, 2013 1:55:45 PM

Many upper-level classes are virtually required, so that gamesmanship does not arise. And those classes are so large as to be nowhere near the line for what is curved. You're right about the gamesmanship in smaller, more niche classes, although, as you note, it cuts both ways. One colleague jokingly proffered Student X, the 15th person in the class, offering to drop (and take the course off the curve) in exchange for money from his classmates. Or worse, threatening not to drop unless his students gave him money.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 25, 2013 3:40:24 PM

A law school might justifiably want to discourage rampant grade shopping by students who choose to take a class only because they know the professor gives mostly As at the expense of taking a class that might actually be a good subject-matter experience. But even assuming that that policy justifies a mandatory curve in light of some of the downsides of having a curve, it only justifies imposing a *uniform* curve rather than a *particular kind* of curve. In other words, you could achieve the same goal by setting a uniform curve around an A-.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | May 25, 2013 4:47:05 PM

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