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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Emotional Distress and 1L Grades

My 1Ls got their grades this week.  This is always painful--for them and for me.  Inevitably, there is a bright, eager student who had great insights in class whose grade doesn't reflect his or her abilities.  Inevitably, there is a student I couldn't recognize in a line-up who makes one of the highest grades in the class.  Year after year, I agonize over what to do to prepare students for the inevitable disappointment that 90 percent of them will feel with their 1L grades. 

As a teacher, you want to tell students that if you work hard and do everything right, you will be sure to succeed, but in law school it just isn't necessarily so.  Almost every 1L student works hard, but some just have a knack for the narrow analytical skill that law school exams prioritize.  Some will eventually acquire the knack, but they need a little while to figure out what's being asked of them.  Some are too intellectually creative to ever give AN answer on law school exams, and some are too concerned with providing THE answer.  Many of these students can and will go on to be great lawyers, but not if the 1L experience so shatters their confidence that they never fully recover. 

The situation is complicated by the fact that many of the students I teach had all "A"s before law school and are used to deriving their self-esteem from their accomplishments.  I try to warn 1Ls of the dangers of this practice before exams.  I've stolen the speech my Torts professor (and mentor and friend and co-author and hero David Anderson) gave to my class before our first exams.  I tell students that the exam is just a four-hour snapshot of their performances on a given day on a given exam.  It is a snapshot that may in no way reflect their knowledge of the subject or their abilities as lawyers.  I also add my own riff on David's speech.  I tell them that my lowest grade on my mid-term exams in law school was in Torts, and then ask them whether they think it means I wasn't capable of learning Torts, which usually gets a laugh.  I tell them that I've had students with mediocre grades I'd hire as my own lawyer and students with excellent grades I wouldn't.  All of these things I say are true, but I don't know if they actually help or not. 

Moreover, I feel obliged to balance that advice by acknowledging that some prospective employers, particularly big firms, care about grades.  I tell students that any one grade may be a fluke, but if a student is getting low grades in every class, he needs to look at his exam-taking skills closely and make great efforts to improve them.  Consistently low grades in law school ARE a predictor of whether a student will pass the bar, and in this economy, it will be very hard to get a job with consistently low grades.  It is a hard truth, and it pains me to be the one with the obligation to say it, but I do.  What do you do? 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on January 16, 2010 at 12:55 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Russianlawyer | Jan 23, 2010 7:26:45 AM

Perhaps students would agonize less about grades if they didn't mean as much to their professional futures. So many firms only accept resumes from the top-10, or possibly the top-third at the low end, and faculty jobs require stellar academic performance. It only stands to reason that once students see that (1) their grades are too low to nab a high-paying job and (2) they're in too deep to quit without owing a lot of money anyway, they immediately (maybe prematurely) assume that their shiny dreams are in the past and a dull sense of secondary and tertiary goals remain.

Posted by: New Prof | Jan 20, 2010 2:51:14 PM

Anon and Anonprof,

I used to teach at a top-30 law school. I can say with all honesty that at least two candidates who received callbacks were later bounced solely because of bad grades -- one whose bad grades were limited to the first year. The younger members of the faculty, including me, argued strenuously for hiring both candidates, especially the one who had published multiple articles in good journals (including a legal theory journal, by the way) and who would have added to our faculty's diversity, which was sorely needed. That candidate is now a prolific scholar at a top-20 law school.

The bottom line, I think, is that it depends on the school. Those that privilege scholarship don't care about grades. More conservative ones, who don't aspire to being research powerhouses, do. My old school, which fell into the latter category, never met a Supreme Court clerk it wouldn't hire, even if the clerk had never published anything (even a note) and had no original ideas for scholarship whatsoever.

Posted by: Reluctantly Anon | Jan 18, 2010 7:32:50 AM

In my first year of teaching (and I am still very new), with lots of idealism, I gave the students two practical exercises during the semester. The exercises were ungraded, but they were intended to provide some link to "real law" as well as give the students some feedback.

In the spirit that no good deed goes unpunished, response to the exercises was mainly that it was an unwelcome hassle; with half the class failing to turn them in entirely or turning them in late. Which is why I have stopped giving them.

When people complain about law school exams, the proposed solution is almost always to give more assessment during the semester. But, even aside the burden on professors, it appears that students do not really like it, except with 20/20 hindsight that any method would be better than the exam that gave them a C (the exam that resulted in an A is conveniently forgotten). Suppose that a student had a choice in the same course, one that was assessed with a paper every week, and another with a single 3 hour exam, with the same curve (which excludes seminars since they get higher curves). My bet is that enrollment would be higher in the class with the single 3 hour exam.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 17, 2010 11:06:16 PM

Is the grade based solely on the final exam? It was that way when I was in law school. I was also insulated from being disappointed with my law school grades by generally having low grades in college :)

It seems like it would be better to have several small exams during the semester to allow for poor performance on one and to be able to give feedback. Is this ever considered?

Posted by: Shawn Roberts | Jan 17, 2010 10:46:41 PM

Jeff, you may be right. I took the course in Spring 1973, and I see the Keller Plan started around 1968 or so. At Harvard it was just known as "self-paced," and there was one associate prof (now lecturer) who was famous for it, Paul Bamberg. He first offered it for Physics 1, for pre-meds and other non-physics science concentrators; I think my year was the first time it was offered for a mid-level course in classical mechanics for physics concentrators (Lagrangian, Hamiltonian mechanics and other relatively sophisticated stuff; Goldstein's text, if that means anything). So it can work for advanced material. BTW, you were even allowed to bring one 3x5 card with formulae.

Posted by: A.J. Sutter | Jan 17, 2010 8:45:52 PM

I've given a midterm in my first-year Property course before and it had advantages (I think) for the students in learning a very difficult part of that course (future interests), but it had significant spillover effects for my colleagues. My students simply stopped preparing for their other classes during the week of my midterm. I had to warn my colleagues who taught the same section in advance. One could address the issue by having all of the faculty in a section give a midterm the same week and cancel classes, but that would raise the stress level of 1Ls, and I'm not sure you'd see a significant change in learning patterns or results. Plus, because we don't have graduate students to grade exams, doing anything more than multiple-choice midterms (like mine), which have limited value, or short quizzes would cut back significantly on time for research and would change the nature of law faculty's jobs (whether that's good or bad is a separate question).

I suppose these are all reasons why we are stuck with the current imperfect system. Students would claim to want more opportunities to be evaluated, but adding significant graded assignments during the semester has serious down-sides for them as well.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Jan 17, 2010 2:17:35 PM

A.J., I think what you are describing was the "Keller Plan." Michigan offered a physics course in the Keller Plan, but I think it was the Physics for Poets version.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jan 17, 2010 12:55:06 PM

Thanks for an interesting post, Lyrissa. I agree that finding ways to do some sort of assessment during the course of the semester is sound pedagogy, though I think it's primarily 1L course sizes that make this so hard. FWIW, though, my experience has been that midterms, quizzes, etc., don't actually change the outcomes for individual students. By and large, it's the same students who do well on all of them, and the students who struggle do so on all of them. I've only very rarely had a student do poorly on a midterm, get feedback, and do significantly better on the exam. It might still be worth having multiple assessments, but I don't think the reason is that it will better capture a student's real knowledge or understanding of the material. That's been my experience, anyway.

Posted by: Mark McKenna | Jan 17, 2010 12:47:44 PM

Learning to take law school exams is a special skill that often goes beyond your understanding of the specific subject matter. Hard not to let one bad exam discourage you. But I, for example, now teach and write in the subject matter where I got my lowest law school grade. (An issue that did not come up in my job interviews because I had already published in the area). This of course leads me to consider ways to offer my students something other than the typical law school exam. Additionally, I would like to offer than graded exercises along the way so they know whether they are understanding the material along the way BUT with 80 students and other obligations, it is really hard to make this aspiration a reality without doing multiple choice questions or short answer quizzes. Any other ideas? Anyone out there use a TA to grade?

Posted by: anon young prof | Jan 17, 2010 12:39:56 PM

Lyrissa's remark about quizzes prompts me to mention: my favorite course in college was a "self-paced" mid-level physics course. For each unit (there were a fairly large number, somewhere between 10 and 20, I think) there were three versions of a quiz. You could take up to all three versions until you were satisfied with your grade (or exhausted all three versions); the highest grade you got was the one that counted for that unit. The course grade was based on the total of points accumulated in quizzes, so you didn't even need to take quizzes for all units to get an A. After more than 30 years I remember more material from that college course than from any other.

This exact format might be difficult to use in law school, since it was labor intensive to prepare the quizzes, and relied on a grad student to help administer them (as he was a superstar himself, no doubt he also wrote many of the quiz questions). But something like it probably would better help students to consolidate chunks of blackletter law than does the usual kitchen sink exam. Maybe you can think of some inspired way to adapt it, at least in part.

Posted by: A.J. Sutter | Jan 17, 2010 11:37:07 AM

As a law student, i just wanted to say that this post really means a lot. Being a student and knowing how much rides on one test is a little unsettling. All you need is to have the sniffles or a really cold room to set you off and ruin the test. It's hard to realize that tests, for the most part, don't mean anything in the real world. You post makes it nice to hear that teachers realize this too. Feel free to visit my blog, to hear the students side, at dormrmtocourtrm.wordpress.com.

Posted by: dormrmtocourtrm | Jan 16, 2010 5:41:48 PM

I couldn't agree more with the comments regarding formative assessment/ Carnegie. But, the problem runs deeper. It seems like even those who have tried to implement more formative assessment for 1Ls can only do so by means of multiple choice quizzes (myself included). The problems with that approach are myriad. The most pressing, though, is that even if the professor gives the class the "hi, lo, and average," against which each student can compare his/ her score, that's still not the type of "formative assessment" Carnegie had in mind.

One of my colleagues has gotten the formative assessment gig close to right. She gives a midterm essay exam in Torts and actually manages to give written feedback to all 90 students. How she has time, I don't know. But, the 1L class sizes in most law schools (which can be anywhere from 60 to 120) seem to be a major hurdle in trying provide meaningful formative assessment.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Jan 16, 2010 3:59:41 PM

Anonprof: thank you very much for sharing your insights. Maybe my impression is incorrect. I went on the market for the first time this year and think it may have been a bit early for me (my last article was just accepted but not yet in print -- and of course legal theory is not a very marketable subject especially when you don't have a PhD, and my other two articles are shorter pieces that I wrote a few years ago during law school). And I did land one interview with a very good school, to my great surprise. This particular interview focused very much on my scholarship and my grades were not a topic of discussion.

I do have the impression that grades matter for VAP and fellowship positions (ALL of which request transcripts), possibly because they don't expect candidates to have published yet, although currently I think a lot of candidates for these positions have at least one post law school publication. My grades did come up in an interview I had for such a position and have come up when I spoke with advisors at my law school about going on the market. I also had the impression at the meat market that a YLS degree + federal appellate clerkship equaled lots of interviews even if the candidate had no publications, and that in selecting candidates for interviews schools look at proxies for good grades, i.e., law review membership and competitive clerkships.

Your experience is really encouraging though. I am still holding out some hope for a VAP or fellowship position and am currently working on an article in a more marketable subject which I think may place in a very good law review article if I write it well. If that happens, I think I will give the meat market one more try -- and if nothing works out I will look for ways to combine teaching and writing with the practice of law, at least for the next few years. The process, while frustrating in some ways, has definitely made it clear to me that I very much enjoy writing and thinking about topics from a more academic perspective and engaging in discussions with other scholars.

Sorry if I detracted from the points of the initial post, I didn't mean to hijack these comments and turn them into a market discussion!

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2010 2:03:05 PM

anon @ 10.29 writes:

"I have found that my failure to do well in torts, contracts and civil procedure make it nearly impossible for me, several years later, to get interviews for academic positions, despite having received top grades for papers during law school and having published a few articles in well-regarded law journals (including a 50-page article in a legal theory journal) both during and after law school. I am not denying that kids who do well in law school, get on law review, and obtain competitive clerkships tend to be very smart and determined and will probably continue to do very well no matter what they choose to do, including being academics. I just think it's strange that law schools say they're looking for original scholars but what they're really looking for is good law students. Or, more precisely, a sub-category: law students who did well on high-pressure issue-spotting exams that were graded on a strict curve."

I'm really surprised to hear this. I've been on the hiring committee at my school for two years, and I've never heard grades or graduation honors enter into a single discussion about a candidate's merit. Indeed, we don't even ask for law school transcripts. Rather, the discussion focuses primarily on the merits of a candidate's writing and skills as a teacher. This also seems to have been the approach of all, or nearly all, of the schools I met with during my time on the law teaching market. I think unusually bad grades might raise a red flag, but I haven't seen any schools use hiring litmus tests that impose grade point cutoffs.

Posted by: anonprof | Jan 16, 2010 1:07:11 PM

Just a thought experiment: if given the power to decide, what form of grading and testing would law students choose? What form would legal employers choose for them? What form might be adopted if a committee of students, professors, and employers got together and tried to convince each other about the best forms of grading and testing?

Posted by: John Steele | Jan 16, 2010 11:16:45 AM

As someone who had mediocre grades in my first year but went on to be quite successful as a lawyer at a firm, I couldn't agree more that grades on first-year exams test a specific skills and that it is merely one among many indicators of future success.

However, it's not just the big firms that rigorously use grades as a selection tool. In my experience, law schools themselves are a lot worse. At this point, most legal employers would view my grades just the way I see them -- as a past indicator that was proven wrong by actual success in the legal field. But I have found that my failure to do well in torts, contracts and civil procedure make it nearly impossible for me, several years later, to get interviews for academic positions, despite having received top grades for papers during law school and having published a few articles in well-regarded law journals (including a 50-page article in a legal theory journal) both during and after law school. I am not denying that kids who do well in law school, get on law review, and obtain competitive clerkships tend to be very smart and determined and will probably continue to do very well no matter what they choose to do, including being academics. I just think it's strange that law schools say they're looking for original scholars but what they're really looking for is good law students. Or, more precisely, a sub-category: law students who did well on high-pressure issue-spotting exams that were graded on a strict curve.

So maybe the more honest thing to do is to tell the students that grades matter a lot in the self-contained world of law school and that it will affect, for most, the opportunities that are available immediately after law school. Grades continue to matter for some ultra-competitive legal jobs (clerkships, AUSA, academia). However, for those who are committed to becoming great lawyers the real test begins after law school, in that first job they can find, and many people who did not do well in law school turn out to become great lawyers, business people, politicians, etc.

Also, if there is a someone who truly impressed you in class but who received a mediocre grade, please tell that student that you will highly recommend him/her notwithstanding the grade, and offer that student opportunities to work as a research assistant, be a TA, etc. That will mean a lot more than a speech. My biggest supporter is a professor who recommends only those he believes to be true academics and who loved the paper I wrote for his class. He has never asked me for a transcript.

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2010 10:29:30 AM

Using more formative assessments throughout the course may give the students an idea of their progress much earlier in the course. Unfortunately, most law professors do not do any formative assessment throughout the course. This is one of the criticisms of the Carnegie and CLEA reports. Giving students the opportunity to practice the skills required on the final exam will take away much of the surprise and emotional "let down" of receiving a bad grade on a final because they have already been subjected to the process.

Posted by: Anthony | Jan 16, 2010 9:48:56 AM

I should have been more clear. Any one exam may not reflect a person's capabilities as a lawyer, and that is especially true of the very first exam. But the pattern of one's grades does reflect something about one's analytical skills, which are essential to being a good lawyer. I also believe that the one-exam system is pedagogically unsound, and I'm trying to change it in my 1L classes with a series of quizzes. But no doubt, the seeming arbitrariness of the system does produce a certain degree of anger at the system, which is why many lawyers who have been practicing law for 30 years still will tell you how much they hated law school. [Personally, I thought the first year of law school was one of the most intellectually stimulating periods of my life, which is why I decided to stay in law school forever.]

Posted by: lyrissa | Jan 16, 2010 8:44:44 AM

I agree with most of this, including (or perhaps especially) the point that who one would want as one's lawyer is only imperfectly associated with grades. At Penn graduation honors are not known until this day of graduation, and I was shocked to find that my classmate who I had always found the best to talk to, who made the soundest comments, and who seemed to not only have the best sense of the law but to be among the very smartest, didn't get honors at all. He's a quite successful lawyer at Cravath now, though, so I guess others saw his virtues, too. But I also agree with TJ above that we can only hope it's not true that the exam "in no way" reflects the students knowledge of the material. Of course it's an imperfect reflection, and for some quite imperfect, but if this isn't a pretty big exaggeration, then something has gone very wrong. But then, if this is a pretty big exaggeration, I'd think you should say something softer.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 16, 2010 8:04:08 AM

I fear that in your haste to make your students feel better about themselves, you are redirecting much of their anger at you instead. If your exams "in no way reflect their knowledge of the subject or their abilities as lawyers," then why are you giving it? Especially when the reality is that grades have enormous consequences, the only logical conclusion for a student receiving a bad grade in light of that sentiment is: (1) I'm screwed, (2) because of the entirely random exam and not my knowledge or skills, (3) and the terrible exam was written by Professor Lidsky.

Of course, our exams are imperfect instruments of assessment, like all exams. But employers rely on the grades derived because they believe that there is some useful correlation between exam grades and the skills they are looking for. If you think that is not true, then it is in fact tremendously cruel to tell students, effectively, that their futures are largely determined by random caprice, and there is nothing they can do about it.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 16, 2010 3:20:59 AM

It's always heartening to hear law school profs bemoan exam grades, but it would be much better to read that professors are designing new exam techniques that accurately measure understanding of the material and predict near-term career performance.

Posted by: anony5 | Jan 16, 2010 3:07:32 AM

This kind of stuff is SO important for law students to hear. You really nailed it on the head. I was one of those kids used to making all As prior to coming to law school, and I did indeed pride myself on those accomplishments, so it definitely was a shock to the ol' self confidence. But the way I figure, you go in, give it your best shot, make a sincere effort to learn the material, and trust that the grade you get on the final exam may not be a true reflection of how well you understand the subject. Also, emotional distress and all the other introspective self-doubting and nail biting is part of the 1L experience; a baptism in fire after which you belong to that club of people who made through to the other side with their sanity (somewhat) intact.

Posted by: Stephen Lott | Jan 16, 2010 1:10:40 AM

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