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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A for Effort?

The Times has an article on the attitudes of college students that if they put in the time and real effort in class (doing all the read, showing up for class), they should get at least a B, regardless of the quality of their papers or exams. A recent study found that 1/3 thought showing up for every class was sufficient for a B and 40 % thought doing the reading (presumably while also showing up) was enough.

A keeper quote from a senior at the University of Maryland:

If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point? . . . .If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.

The story deals with undergrads, but surely the same attitudes have or soon will trickle into law schools. Apparently, the legal writing listserv has been talking about this all day today, with one commentator capturing the issue as it relates to law school: "I think putting in a lot of effort should merit not getting sued for malpractice. What else is there really than the effort that you put in?"

I have not yet had a student dispute a final grade on these grounds. But I have had a student demand to know why he received no credit for class participation (which is worth 10 % of the final grade) when he was in class and prepared every day--but never spoke once the entire semester. He did not quite seem to understand that a) you don't get credit for showing up, since that is the independently required as part of the class; b) it's not entirely clear that you "participated" in class if you never actually, you know, participate; and c) even if doing the reading were enough, how am I supposed to know that you've done the reading if you never speak.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 18, 2009 at 03:08 PM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Of course, if law schools were truly preparing students for the practice of law, grades would be based on the number of hours spent studying, in class, and taking exams (all measured in 6-minute increments, of course).

Exams would still be evaluated, but would have marginal or no effect on grades. Instead they would be published, and any effect would be reputational.

Posted by: JP | Feb 23, 2009 2:50:34 PM

Sarah (and Bruce, who made basically the same point): That's generally true, although we can imagine a) brain cramps at crunch time or b) some subject that a student just *does not get* (I had some of those) that might cause a student to get a lower grade. The point of departure seems to be whether effort and reading is sufficient to get a B or just necessary to put yourself in position to earn a B.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 19, 2009 4:41:13 PM

If you attend every class, pay attention, and do all the readings you should have the tools available to produce a paper of at least B quality.

Posted by: Sarah | Feb 19, 2009 4:34:42 PM

I set out my class participation expectations in the syllabus, and make it clear that I expect participation to be active. I stress the point in the first class. During each class, I make a check mark (or +) next to a participating student's name on a copy of the class attendance sheet -- and a quick, round zero for the unprepared. I also try to be very positive about students' comments during class. It seem to work better with each class. Zeros are rare and the discussions are lively.

Posted by: john tanner | Feb 19, 2009 11:06:52 AM

The debate as to whether classroom attendance/participation should be compulsory reminds of my days as a varsity basketball player. Imagine a player telling his coach that he would prefer to practice on his own rather than with the team --- but that he would attend the games and play well. Furthermore, imagine a player attending practice but refusing to participate in any of the drills. If such a player was not removed from the team for his conduct, he would probably not play very well at the games (unless that player's name was Allen Iverson, but that's a different story). Students at a law school are similar to teammates on sports teams. They benefit from hearing each others' views on the subjects being covered, and each is striving to develop a particular skillset. Thus, the classroom experience (like a basketball practice) develops and hones students' skills in preparation for something much larger than an exam: the actual practice of law.

Posted by: FIU 3L | Feb 19, 2009 9:56:46 AM

I require attendance because the ABA requires me to require attendance; left to my own devices, I probably would not care if students show up or not (they probably would not do very well in the class if they didn't). I grade participation not as a hand-holding way to ensure reading and preparedness. I do it because I want an interactive classroom environment and that requires participation by students; so grading it gives an incentive. I also believe that the sort of oral, conversational, and quick-thinking skills that allow good participation are important skills for lawyers to have and should be both developed in law school and rewarded in the grading calculus.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 18, 2009 11:10:28 PM

As a former student I am curious to get your opinion on something that always bothered me in Law School.

Almost all my professors mandated two things: class participation and class attendance. I assume this was to ensure that they weren't lecturing to a room full of cobwebs, and that their students were engaging in the material. Cynically I also suspect it was to ensure people were paying attention and doing the reading.

But I always wondered: if giving someone a B for effort is silly, why would you want to penalize a student for not displaying effort? If I miss every class and still write an A exam answer, or otherwise display mastery of the material according to how I am being graded, why does it matter that I didn't say a peep during class? Or even show up?

I never really appreciated the "hand-holding" aspect, i.e. you need to be forced to attend and talk every class. It made me feel like a kid in high school. In a few of my classes our professors gave that policy (which I realize is largely ABA mandated) lip service and didn't really care, and students still came and still participated in these classes, and students were still prepared for their exams. (Or at least as prepared as they would have been for any other class.)

Students in law school are mostly grown ups. I think that if a professor communicates the material in a structured, logical, and interesting way students will engage and will "get it" regardless of mandatory participation and attendance rules. If they slack off because they can and don't do well, that's their own fault for wasting their money and their time.

So, what's the reasoning?

Posted by: anon | Feb 18, 2009 7:33:22 PM

This is a bit of a spin-off question arising from the story about the prepared student who does not actually participate. I spend a fair bit of time at the outset defining my expectations for class participation, and my students are very active (it is a good chunk of their grade). As a fairly new professor, though, I am still working on my methods of keeping track of their participation (especially in light of the varying ways of participating: volunteering an opinion, volunteering to answer a question, volunteering to brief a case, briefing a case upon my request, answering a question directed at them, and of course whether or not they do all these in a successful manner). What do you all do to keep track?

Posted by: Kalyani Robbins | Feb 18, 2009 6:00:09 PM

I'm not sure who the joke is on here. The students' perceptions may have the advantage of being empirically correct. How many students who show up for every class and do all the reading get less than a B? I'm willing to bet it's very few.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 18, 2009 5:01:27 PM

As with many NYT trend stories, I'm unconvinced by this one (nor does it really concur with my own anecdotal experiences teaching undergrads; hey, I could write my own trend story!). From the article:

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

Sounds like the perceptions of a hard ass professor who's out of step with how grades are given today where very few university professors curve their classes at a C. In my opinion, this is fine; it's still easy to differentiate between students. But the fact is that a C isn't the default grade today, and I don't see any reason to take the professor at his word that students who express that sentiment think they should be getting an A by default.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading

Were these students saying they deserved a particular grade or expected it; it's unclear whether the survey used both words or if the article is being sloppy? Because if I went to all the lectures and did all the reading for a given class, I would expect a B too, because when I put in that level of work I usually know the material at at least a B level. That's different than believing I "deserved" it.

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves.

And then you have a student noting that a student who "does everything the teacher asks of them" deserves an A, making me wonder if this hypotheticaly student really doesn't understand the material and wants an A, as the article would have us believe, or rather does understand the material and is being told that "an A is reserved for going above and beyond the course expectations" as I've heard a professor or two say.

I don't know; I remain unconvinced this is anything other than the Youth Today Have No Values; Get Off My Lawn refrain that every generation seems to resort to.

Posted by: anon | Feb 18, 2009 4:08:33 PM

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