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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Imagine if There Were No Grades

 This is a mini post without the usual links because I am still in New York tapping on my phone  in coffee shops.   I will probably clean this up and re-post with more links when I get back.

 But an article about business schools and grades in today’s Inside Higher Education  https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/09/13/cornell-mba-students-vote-grade-nondisclosure-recruitment?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=92a239a926-DNU_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-92a239a926-197442921&mc_cid=92a239a926&mc_eid=8efa9a3c62spurs me to move forward with something that I will be writing more about later in the month, the effects of grades on learning.

First, I don’t think that this practice by a few business schools is all that relevant to us  because their employment process is so different from ours (cites to come).

 But there is extensive research done by medical schools on removing grades from undergraduate medical education that  could be helpful to us.  Medical schools historically have relied just as much on end of class final exams based based grades as we have.  The difference is that access to the most competitive employment opportunities (highly desirable residencies) is increasingly  dependent on the scores in the Step One licensing exam (after their second year) and somewhat less on medical school grades   Good grades dont mitigate a bad score.

 So many medical schools have taken the opportunity to consider whether or not grades in medical school were hurting or helping learning and/or performance on those very important exams.  

 (One way to look at this is that for medical students the Step One exam is a combination of grades and the bar passage because it affects both whether or not you can be licensed to be a physician and how competitive a job you can get.)

 And at the risk of ruining suspense, many medical schools have found that  removing final grades (not removing assessment) enhances performance.  Students were under less pressure, and there is extensive literature supporting the I know counterintuitive fact that pressure is bad for long term learning. Good (although not great) for cramming, terrible for long-term retention of information.

 Thinking about removing grades in legal education, no matter how unrealistic that actually is, is a helpful thought experiment because it addresses something that I think is our greatest challenge in legal education: the degradation of academic motivation after receiving poor first year grades.   I believe very strongly that there is a high value to classroom instruction throughout the three years of law school. The legal system is complex and the more practice you have analyzing sources of law under the guidance of those who understand the system best, the better a lawyer you will be.

We have backed ourselves into a very odd situation where after the first semester we identify a fairly small group of students as being excellent and then,certainly in their eyes, relegate the vast majority of students as being “not very good at law.”

 We have data about the light going out of those law students’ eyes, and we also have the evidence of our our own eyes as we see students who  do well the first semester take on the identity of high performers and the other students finding other interests.   We are not intentionally discouraging them from achieving future academic excellence.    But they get that message.  We can tell them that they are not their GPAs, we can tell them that no one will care about their GPA after their first job but we have to appreciate that it is next to impossible for them to take the long view on their own.  This is especially true for our first generation college and law students but given how much the job market has changed over the past 10 years it is probably even more true for students getting outdated information from friends and famiky.

So what to do?Certainly we all have anecdotes about students who were motivated by poor first year performance and were able to completely turn around and graduate at the top of their class.   It would be worth studying these students ( and by studying I mean the very low-tech process of asking them) to find out what it is about them that pushes back against discouragement.   Perhaps a very strong pre-law school  identity that they are an excellent student and this is an aberration?  A kind word from a professor?

We also have the entire profession of academic support whose job is to reengage and inspire these students- and they are wonderful at it.  We should talk to them more. 

But removing final grades? Probably not.  Ours is a well-developed and complex system that so over-rewards first semester grades  that there is no obvious path to pulling on that the thread without causing widespread disruption (the bad kind)  and much unhappiness from every possible stakeholder.

 To recap, nowhere in this post have I suggested that Law Schools would be better off if we “eliminated“ or even deemphasized final grades. This is not a situation entirely in our control and unlike medical schools which can outsource professional sorting to standardized licensing exams, our students rely on us to present them in the best possible light to employers.    We also can’t do much to change the on-campus interview process where students receive a very direct and often brutal understanding of their marketability to large law firms( I do support making that process less visible whenever possible and moving these interviews out of the law school, but that’s not a global solution).

 What I am suggesting is that we get some help from our friends in academic support as well as in educational psychology and other areas of the University, including STEM education and sociology, to find out more about what motivates our students.  There is a vast literature on increasing performance in STEM subjects, which I have mentioned many times.    I will be talking more about that literature in future posts but the fifty-cent summary is that any steps we can take to prevent students from feeling that they are irrevocably bad at law makes it easier for them to persevere in learning something that is at first difficult.

I also suggest that we all work more closely  with our career services office and our local legal community(likely employers of students not in the top 5-10 percent) to give first semester students (before they get grades) a realistic and specific idea of both the employment opportunities at different GPA levels and the resources available to them to increase their employability regardless of their grades. We assume students know the future employment value of externships or clinics or judicial clerkships but many do not- again very especially our students who are first generation college or even first generation law students.

 For some students this will be reassuring, perhaps for others it will be a wake up call but we have that information and we can share with them.

We will all (students and faculty) be better off by engaging the whole student body for all three years.  It is also in the interests of our students’ future clients that they all graduate from law school with the belief that if they work hard they can achieve excellencent legal results for their clients.    So it’s worth looking at what we can do to make that happen- even if removing grades isn’t the answer .

Posted by Jennifer Bard on September 13, 2018 at 11:19 AM | Permalink


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