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Saturday, January 16, 2010

First year grades - the saga continues

It appears that first year grades and more specifically first semester grades are the topic of the day. In addition to Lyrissa Lidsky's wonderful post and the interesting comments here on prawfs, Michael Froomkin blogs on the release of first semester grades here and Orin Kerr provides a very thoughtful post here. I can't help but jump in with some thoughts. While my teaching experience is in political science, I can remember that first semester law grade experience and I now have some perspective on grading from the other side of the podium as a professor.

First, I propose some advice for professors - whether they are in political science or law - give people some practice along the way. This can be in the form of quizzes (as Lyrissa suggests) or possibly practice tests. In a class with a large number of people it may not be an efficient expenditure of time to provide detailed remarks on every test (and it's questionable whether students could read my pen marks anyway). Perhaps a good substitute would be to give a practice test and then dedicate a portion of the next class to going over model answers. Yes, this would take up some valuable class time, but I think that students would be forever grateful. I have found this practice to be very popular (although my test is actually graded). Second, something for the students - as lame as it sounds, I have to say it - this too will pass. If you're in that top 10 to15% then great - go out and celebrate (but not in front of your fellow students who didn't do well). If you didn't do as well as you liked, then your road may be different and perhaps more rocky than if you'd done well, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I know that this can be a lot to swallow (especially when interview season rolls around), but believe me, you'll be okay -- in the long run.

But what about the process more generally? While some would blame profs and their grading, there is a harsh truth that can not be placed on the prof's shoulders - you fine students, who have always excelled in school and in life, are going to be ranked - from first to last and everywhere in between - and there is little that can change that. Whatever the grading procedures or processes might be, there are going to be "winners" and "losers" in this situation - in a group of people who have historically always been winners.

But what about the firms? Why do they place so much emphasis on first year grades? Well, they have decisions to make and it's a lot like the decision (by corporate execs) to hire prestigious law firms - they rarely get in trouble for hiring a prestigious firm and, likewise, hiring attorneys rarely get in trouble for hiring students with the highest grades. Does this mean that it works; that high grades equal good associates? Not necessarily - there is reason to believe that grades may only be marginally related to attorney performance. But, it's the reality of the hiring decision at this time - perhaps this will change as our ability to predict attorney performance improves.

Posted by Jeff Yates on January 16, 2010 at 09:30 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I give an essay midterm in every class (20% of the course grade). I also give ten quizzes throughout the semester (20% of the course grade). I post 10 prior exams with feedback memos and model answers.

I am pleased to see students with dramatically better final exam grades than midterm exam grades. For many, I am sure that but for the midterm they would have had a very different semester.

Posted by: Thaddeus Pope | Jan 18, 2010 10:07:30 AM

I do the drill where you work a practice exam in class, and I will review an exam for any student who brings one into my office. Strangely, only about 20 percent of the students bring in a practice exam for me to look over, which is lucky because if all 100 brought me a practice exam I would simply go under.

Posted by: lyrissa | Jan 17, 2010 7:32:59 PM

Some Profs in American law schools also give out a practice test and then work through it in class. At NYU Law Prof. N. Cunningham did this for this Estate and Gift Tax class

Posted by: mf | Jan 17, 2010 5:21:44 PM

At the University of Melbourne, where I teach a compulsory criminal-law course, our semester includes one class dedicated to review. Traditionally, the professor selects an exam for a previous year and spends the two hours helping the students answer it -- creating a model answer with their participation. I much prefer that approach to the US one (I started teaching at the University of Georgia), where review is left solely to the students. In my experience, my Melbourne LLBs (undergrads) are much more comfortable and confident going into the exam having seen how I expect them to answer an issue-spotter and policy-based essay questions.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jan 17, 2010 2:40:39 AM

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