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Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Flex (or Variable Credit) Course in Law School: A Viable Option or Oil and Water?

Last month, I was talking to a colleague who is on my law school's curriculum committee when he raised a topic that took me back to my days as a law student: the dearth of 2-credit law school classes. He noted that a number of students had raised the concern that they only needed to add a 2-credit course to graduate or complete their dance card for a particular semester, but there were no 2-credit courses that filled the bill. This led me to remember that several fellow students raised a similar objection when I was in law school. Now, two possible responses to this objection are that: (1) it's not that big of a deal for students to take the extra credit hour, so no change needs to be made, and (2) if the proposed solution is to reduce some elective classes from 3 to 2 credit hours, that solution could constitute throwing the baby out with the bathwater because students wanting to take these classes and needing 3 credit courses could lob a similar objection. I thought, however, that a third response, the flex or variable credit course, might be a viable solution, and I wonder whether any readers have taught such a class in law school.

Now, I don't believe that the law school I attended, William & Mary, had flex or variable credit courses, but I know that the College of William & Mary does. The concept is fairly simple: At the start of class, students in a variable credit course can decide whether they want to take the course for 2 or 3 credit hours (at William & Mary, students can also take the course for 1 credit hour). Thus, students in the same class can be taking it for a different number of credit hours and be expcted to complete a different number or quality of assignments. In doing some brief internet research, I found that several colleges allow students to take flex or variable credit classes (some examples include Syracuse, Hawaii, and Oregon).

I wasn't able, however, able to find any inidcation that any law school offered flex or variable credit courses. I would guess that there are two main reasons. First, with the strict law school curve, it would be difficult to place a student taking a class for 3 credit hours on the same curve as a student taking the same class for 2 credit hours. Second, this problem could be further complicated if, as with most law school classes, the class at issue were subject to blind grading.

It seems to me, though, that for the "smaller" classes (such as seminars) that are often not subject to blind grading and the law school curve, there wouldn't be any issues with a flex or variable credit course. For instance, if I were teaching a seminar with a 25-30 page paper requirement for students taking the course for 3 credit hours, I could require a 15-20 page paper for students taking the course for 2 credit hours. Or, if I had a paper and an oral presentation requirement for 3 credit students, I could simply remove the latter requirement for 2 credit students. I could also require slightly less in the way of class participation for the 2 credit students than I require for the 3 credit students.

So, have any readers taught a flex or variable credit class in law school? How did it go? Do readers think that such a class could work in law school, either in a larger or smaller classes, or do you think that the two would go together like oil and water?  

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on April 23, 2009 at 10:01 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I think the concept works better if the extra credit is for a piece of additional work, rather than a longer paper. I took such a class (2 credits normally, 3 credits if you wrote a longer paper) in law school, and a lot of students felt like the professor graded with the longer paper in mind as the standard, so it put people writing the shorter papers at a disadvantage.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 23, 2009 12:01:25 PM

Yale offers a lot of variable credit classes. See:


Usually, the extra credit is for writing a paper in lieu of the exam or sometimes for weekly (or bi-weekly) response papers in addition to the exam. I've never taught one of these classes, but I took several while I was in law school, and there didn't seem to be any real problem.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 23, 2009 11:39:42 AM

Northwestern does this for almost all seminars. Most seminars are offered for 2 credit hours and require a one draft paper. But a student can choose (with consent from the professor, of course) to take it for 3 credit hours and do a two draft paper. This folds neatly in with Northwestern's writing requirement wherein each student has to have a two-draft paper credit and a three-draft paper credit. Most get the three-draft via their journal note or comment or by doing a senior research project, but there is an option to ask a professor to offer 4 credit hours for completing a third draft in a seminar. I don't know many who take that option; completing three solid drafts of a paper in a semester is really tough.

If I recall correctly, most professors end up having two sets of deadlines, for the 2 credit people and the 3 credit people.

Posted by: k | Apr 23, 2009 11:19:03 AM

I took a such a course in law school. It was 2 credits if you took an exam, or 3 if you wrote a research paper. The course was cross-listed with another department, though, so I don't think it is something my law school necessarily offers. I thought the option was a good idea. In fact, I signed up for the 2 credit option, but became interested in a specific topic halfway through the class, and changed my registration and wrote the paper.

Posted by: JP | Apr 23, 2009 11:14:57 AM

I have an advanced constitutional law class that I sometimes offer for "2 or 3" credits. The two credits are for the main body of the class, and the third credit is a research paper.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Apr 23, 2009 10:30:03 AM

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