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Friday, December 08, 2006


There is this big stack of Torts exam answers sitting on my floor. On a handful, I will put an A (or an A minus). On most of the others, I will put some flavor of B or C. But this year I have two new wrinkles to worry about while grading. For the first time, we have something like a grade curve for the first-year courses at our school. The most noteworthy features of our policy are (a) the class average in each class must be about a C plus and (b) at least 10% of the class must receive a C minus or below. The latter requirement isn't usually a problem for me. I always think twice before giving out one of these grades, in part because I know it has to be a soul-crushing experience for the students in question. However, there are almost always five or six people a class who I think deserve this kind of grade. It's distinguishing between them that always presents the real challenge for me. I think I know what a C minus is -- if a grade of C reflects minimum competence, then a C minus is an answer that falls just short of that standard. And I think a D is an exam that is worse than that one. I'm just not sure how much worse. It's the separating the C minus from the D plus from the D from the D minus from (gasp) the F that is the problem for me. I've been teaching a few years now and I'm still not completely sure I have a handle on the differences between these grades. What's the standard? Maybe, as one of my colleagues says, once you get down to this level there is simply "Crap" and "Crap with Honors." Then there is the F conundrum. Like most law schools, our school rarely gives out Fs. That said, it does happen every once in a while. But I'm not completely sure what an F is either. Is it the person who seems to have learned absolutely nothing or is it just the person who fell off the grading cliff in comparison to everybody else? Maybe that's why I have never given an F as a final grade. But who knows? Maybe there is one in this big stack of Torts exam answers sitting on my floor.

Posted by Alex Long on December 8, 2006 at 02:05 PM | Permalink


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Then there was the math prof with a new brand of notation which he helped invent. Though his demeanor was brilliant, his inkboard orthography in lectures missed the occasional diacritical which in those equations could signify the difference between an absolute and a 2-D vector. To make a short story briefer, on the first midterm he gave two As to folks who had learned the notation system elsewhere; the rest of the class did not score an average above F; the dean permitted numeric scores and the class average was mid 30s.
Be glad it is only torts.
Mysteriously the college website bears no trace of that famous math prof now. My guess: he took one of those faster than light trajectories which brings him back in a different epoch limmerick. I will avoid any parallax that might occur by paralleling his ethereal whereabouts now to whatever form of energy might justify extracting Christian influence from close text analysis of Phaedra.
I guess your institution's curve is a way to force you to present your material at a sufficiently complex level that it is guaranteed to fill the low end of the bell curve.

Posted by: John Lopresti | Dec 10, 2006 4:12:17 AM

Gotta love essay exams. I well remember getting my MBA at a quality private University where I was a ROTC instructor just after Viet Nam. I had a GREAT Marketing instructor and was motivated to do well. I studied hard for the Midterm and got a flat out "F". No comments on the paper, just a big red "F."

Because I had faculty standing, I could have said something. I chose not to. I also chose not to study for the final. I was equally dumbfounded when I got an "A" on the final and a "C" for the course. Again, I said nothing. I kept my silence for these 25 years.

Would I take that instructor again? In a heartbeat. But did his grading system have a lot of credibility with me? None, it was an enigma.

Posted by: NotLegalRoadkillYet | Dec 9, 2006 4:37:21 PM

As problematic as the curve may be, Anonymous, it was not implemented by the faculty or administration to combat grade inflation but at the behest of the students to combat disparate treatment between different professors teaching the same course where I attend law school. The students found it unfair when torts professor A consistently gave out a disproportionately higher number of A's than torts professor B. Careful distribution of students during the first year which includes sufficient intermingling of differing groups of students with other groups helps eliminate having too many of the good students in any particular class. That along with providing the opportunity for professors to petition to vary from the standard grade distribution when the distribution of students fails eliminates much though not all of the downside to curving.

As for how to differentiate a C- from a D from a D- from an F...I don't know but please don't give one to...well never mind, that might not be appropriate!

Posted by: Jim Green | Dec 9, 2006 1:32:47 PM

I once had to sit through a week of discussion (in a year long class on stats) on why imposing grading curves on distributions that don't necessarily fit those curves is simply ridiculous. At the end of the discussion I wondered why we spent a week on the obvious, but then again law schools do not necessarily truck in the obvious. Should we combat grade inflation? Perhaps we should, and we could certainly start at the top schools rather than the middle or the bottom. I will never forget when I was a teaching assistant at an Ivy, and I was forced to change a student's grade from C-- (a grade I invented) to B- where the student's thesis was that Plato's political philosophy was significantly influenced by Christianity.

Combating grade inflation with curves that do more than place the median (which itself is not necessarily valid) seems basically unjust. Don't get me wrong. There are no Platonic grades for lots of exams. But some grades will not strictly be based on the exams themselves when you're operating under your curve. Your grading in some broad sense is likely being determined by what hiring employers are looking for in your school's grading distribution, not your students' proven abilities.

In any case, you seem to already know that your school policy is ridiculous. Perhaps you just have not realized that you know it, but you will with contemplation. In the true Socratic tradition,I encourage civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

Posted by: Anonymous | Dec 8, 2006 8:04:49 PM


Yeah, I think you have a point. The last line was actually meant both as a little dig at myself for not having made a bigger dent in the big stack and an attempt to avoid ending the post by just asking for suggestions about how to deal with below-average exam answers. I really didn't intend to cue the ominous-sounding music.

Posted by: Alex Long | Dec 8, 2006 7:25:05 PM

I'm not a student, but I agree with kmg. Was this post really necessary? At this time of year? I'm all for intellectual honesty, but there's something to be said for time, place, manner restrictions.

Posted by: lv | Dec 8, 2006 6:17:35 PM

Maybe there is one in this big stack of Torts exam answers sitting on my floor.

Way to freak your students right out.

Posted by: kmg | Dec 8, 2006 4:50:57 PM

I believe that I've only given one F in ten years (aside from an instance of academic misconduct). The failing exam answer failed to address any of the questions that I asked on the exam; instead, the student simply sat down and regurgitated what she thought she had learned during the course of the semester--and got most of that wrong as well.

Posted by: Jeff Cooper | Dec 8, 2006 3:21:42 PM

I usually reserve the F for a student who I've caught cheating on an exam (knock on wood, I haven't been there yet), plagiarising a seminar paper (I've seen a couple of those; a footnote reading "see supra notes 342-56" in a paper with 10 footnotes is a dead giveaway), or something similar.

Posted by: Rick Bales | Dec 8, 2006 3:17:54 PM

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