August 25, 2016

"Here are REAL COMMENTS students have made to me about their exams. What I say to them is in quotations, and what I’m thinking is in italics."

"I’m not so proud of my thoughts in these times.  I very clearly need to work on practicing my patience."

That's from "Lawprofblog" who, I guess, is a real law professor, writing at Above the Law. I'm assuming it's a real law professor based on the reputation of Above the Law, not because I as a law professor identify with the experience, which I actually don't.

36 comments:

Sebastian said...

If I'm not mistaken, in many classes law students are still graded on the basis of a single exam at the end of the semester. Do any students ever complain about the absurdity of that practice?

traditionalguy said...

"I have never made that bad a grade on a test before" is my favorite.

It does question the teacher's skill at teaching. So the teacher probably lowered the grade.

Ann Althouse said...

"If I'm not mistaken, in many classes law students are still graded on the basis of a single exam at the end of the semester. Do any students ever complain about the absurdity of that practice?"

It's certainly true in my classes. No, the students don't complain. Not to me anyway.

The professor grades the exams. We don't have TAs doing this. The exams are very fair, in my view, and they are curved, so no exaggerated expectation of the professor or soft-hearted padding can distort things, and students know that whatever grade they got is where the professor thought they stood in comparison to their fellow students, ranged out across a required curve.

MadisonMan said...

I question whether it's actually Law Students making those comments. They seem very, well, undergraduate-y to me.

If it's an actual Law Prof reporting on actual Law Student comments, well I'd say that the Law Prof has done a miserable job of stating expectations and/or explaining what to do with a poor exam grade.

bagoh20 said...

If they want to demonstrate real lawyering they would send the professor a nice big bill. Lawyers don't write stuff for free, and "you're an asshole" is about $200 worth of legal work.

rehajm said...

YOU’RE AN A**HOLE!

“Can you put that in writing, please? You have five seconds to get out of my office before I write a letter to the Bar describing my view on your character and fitness to practice law.”

...I write to you today to call your attention to a most prodigious student who has quickly demonstrated the epitome of lawyerly character...

Ann Althouse said...

If a student mentions to me that this grade is out of line with their other grades, I would say that's good that they did so well in their other classes and this shows they can do much better than they did with me. And I'd explain how I do the raw scoring for the questions and tell them where their score was in the range of scores the other students got and how these correspond to the curved letter grades that were given. Because this seems (and is) very sound and objective, the student is helped to absorb what I know is bad news. I can't see saying or thinking anything snarky.

But I am not in an environment where students are ever rude to me. At my school, we are not even allowed to change grades, so the student isn't put in the position of thinking they should fight for their personal cause. It's always only about learning for the purpose of doing better in the future or for coming to terms with a disappointment. The professor shouldn't do anything to up the drama. I can't see even feeling inclined to do that.

Ann Althouse said...

"I question whether it's actually Law Students making those comments. They seem very, well, undergraduate-y to me"

I never have undergraduates, so I don't know what they might say and without knowing, I prefer to think they get basic etiquette.

"If it's an actual Law Prof reporting on actual Law Student comments, well I'd say that the Law Prof has done a miserable job of stating expectations and/or explaining what to do with a poor exam grade."

I agree and I'd like to know what law school this supposedly is.

Bob Ellison said...

"Here are REAL COMMENTS students have made to me about their exams."

I call bullshit. Those are characterizations of comments, not comments. They sound like things the lawprof thinks someone said, which is kinda like the things the lawprof wishes he said in italics.

Sebastian said...

"ranged out across a required curve" Right. Law school as a sorting mechanism. That does have value. But the value-added is limited in view of the strong predictive value of GPA + LSAT. The relative ranking of grads does not vary much from the ranking at first enrollment, at least not enough (in a more efficient system) to justify a $200K investment. The whole exam + curve business also looks odd from the point of view of professional and grad study fields where people have show actual competence in multiple ways, more closely connected to what they will actually be doing.

This is not at all meant as snark aimed at our hostess, but I prefer the system in other western countries, where legal study is an undergraduate major, which with apprenticeships etc. prepares for practice more efficiently. I am no expert, but I have never heard of any study showing that the 7-year college + law school track has any great societal benefits, particularly in a situation where ABA and law schools maintain a tight cartel that serves the interests of the professoriat by running an expensive trade school as a graduate program with limited teaching duties. But it seems a market correction is taking place.

Eleanor said...

Is the point of grading in your class to differentiate between your students or to assess how well they've learned what you've taught them? A good teacher would hope every student passed their exams with flying colors because it would indicate her teaching methods work. Grading on a curve means every student in your class could fail on an exam, but those who failed less badly would still receive a good grade. Conversely, everyone in your class could do very well, but those who did less well would receive a poor grade. Or do you only curve when a lot of students do poorly? Using a curved system is unfair to your students. A student with a middling raw score on your exam could be anywhere for a grade depending on who else is in your class at that time. In a class of poor students, he could get the A. In a class of really bright students, he could fail. What he deserves is a "C", no matter who else is in his class. Exams should test how well a student mastered what you taught. Period. The "sorting" of students is meaningless otherwise. Curved grading doesn't provide any meaningful information.

TreeJoe said...

This is an excellent testimony to the fundamental flaws in the way students are taught, at least in law school among other places. And Ann, your posts attest to this to some extent.

I'm new to this, but why on earth would a final written exam be used as the primary grading process? That's possibly the single most subjective way to assess a student's learning - a single exam, on a single day, in a single modality.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Eleanor said...

Grading on a curve means every student in your class could fail on an exam, but those who failed less badly would still receive a good grade. Conversely, everyone in your class could do very well, but those who did less well would receive a poor grade.

If you have at least a reasonable class size, and students drawn from a similar pool year to year, then it is statistically unlikely that their ability on the final would change much from year to year. Thus, if the scores change significantly from year to year it is likely due to the professor mis-estimating how difficult one or more of the problems was. Or, as with Olympic athletes, maybe the grading coincides with that time of the month. Grading on a curve prevents such issues.

rehajm said...

..if the scores change significantly from year to year it is likely due to the professor mis-estimating how difficult one or more of the problems was.

It's likely due to the professor reycling exams and old exams circulating amongst more students.

TreeJoe said...

I've got no problem with grading on a curve (in theory), except there must be some minimum cutoff below which all grades are failures.

Curved grading with no minimum standard is a recipe for disaster. Of course, so is non-validated testing - but I digress.

Ann Althouse said...

"Is the point of grading in your class to differentiate between your students or to assess how well they've learned what you've taught them? A good teacher would hope every student passed their exams with flying colors because it would indicate her teaching methods work."

It's an essay exam with so much upside potential that no one writes what would be possible to write. The best exam in the class is probably only in the middle of the range of what is possible. There are no "flying colors" on my exams. That isn't a hope of mine or even an idea that has meaning. When I think of what I would write trying to answer my own question, I don't even picture myself flying colorfully. This isn't a math test. There are no right answers, just issues to be explored while demonstrating understanding of the materials read for the course, which are themselves endlessly perplexing.

"Grading on a curve means every student in your class could fail on an exam, but those who failed less badly would still receive a good grade."

If everyone really handed in an abysmal paper, not responsive to the questions asked and not reflecting understanding of the materials, I could escape from the requirement, but I'd have to explain why I was doing that and it would necessarily involve some horrible breakdown in the class that would have to be my fault too. I can't imagine the situation unless I were to lose my mind. The students are dedicated and care about their future or they wouldn't be there.

"Conversely, everyone in your class could do very well, but those who did less well would receive a poor grade."

There would always be a range, but it could be a narrow range, and in this situation, which really is the situation, then the low end of the curve is a C. The required curve does not require Ds and Fs. Those grades are only given in situations that I haven't seen in years in my class.

"Or do you only curve when a lot of students do poorly?"

I am REQUIRED to curve, both with respect to the average and the percentages at various levels. That is, I can't just give a lot of Bs to reach the average. I have to produce a range. The questions are constructed to put students in a position where there will be a range. That's part of my job.

"Using a curved system is unfair to your students. A student with a middling raw score on your exam could be anywhere for a grade depending on who else is in your class at that time. In a class of poor students, he could get the A. In a class of really bright students, he could fail. What he deserves is a "C", no matter who else is in his class."

The students admitted to the law school are fairly pitted against each other, since they got in based on evidence that was predictive of how well they would do in law school -- GPA and LSAT -- and students with higher level predictors probably went to higher rated law schools.

"Exams should test how well a student mastered what you taught. Period. The "sorting" of students is meaningless otherwise. Curved grading doesn't provide any meaningful information."

If you had experience with the kind of exam I am talking about, you would not say that. The best evidence I have of how the questions could be answered is how the students who have taken my class and studied for the exam actually do on it. The curve safeguards the students from expectations I might have based on hope that excellent answers could be written or based on what I think I would have written.

Ann Althouse said...

"If you have at least a reasonable class size, and students drawn from a similar pool year to year, then it is statistically unlikely that their ability on the final would change much from year to year. Thus, if the scores change significantly from year to year it is likely due to the professor mis-estimating how difficult one or more of the problems was. Or, as with Olympic athletes, maybe the grading coincides with that time of the month. Grading on a curve prevents such issues."

Well put.

Ann Althouse said...

"I call bullshit. Those are characterizations of comments, not comments. They sound like things the lawprof thinks someone said, which is kinda like the things the lawprof wishes he said in italics."

I agree.

Sebastian said...

"Exams should test how well a student mastered what you taught. Period. The "sorting" of students is meaningless otherwise. Curved grading doesn't provide any meaningful information." Yes, tests should test mastery. No, a curve does provide information. But not that much, and at overly high cost, and at the expense of (what in many professional fields would be) sound pedagogy.

"why on earth would a final written exam be used as the primary grading process? That's possibly the single most subjective way to assess a student's learning - a single exam, on a single day, in a single modality." Easier for the professors -- no papers to grade, no briefs to correct, just one period of grading at the end of every semester. Key employers want (have developed the habit of wanting) student rank, on the assumption that high rank correlates with ability, which can then be turned loose on learning actual skills in actual practice. But current customs follow from the cartel structure of the legal profession.

Sebastian said...

"Grading on a curve prevents such issues" It can. But of course there are other solutions -- adjusting the grading criteria most obviously. Or adopting a slightly more systematic approach to test reliability and validity to minimize problems in the first place.

Ann Althouse said...

" The relative ranking of grads does not vary much from the ranking at first enrollment, at least not enough (in a more efficient system) to justify a $200K investment."

It's worth it to take a loan to buy a house that costs $200K, so why doesn't it make sense to invest in what should get you to a good salary year after year doing work that you want to be able to do?

"This is not at all meant as snark aimed at our hostess, but I prefer the system in other western countries, where legal study is an undergraduate major, which with apprenticeships etc. prepares for practice more efficiently. I am no expert, but I have never heard of any study showing that the 7-year college + law school track has any great societal benefits, particularly in a situation where ABA and law schools maintain a tight cartel that serves the interests of the professoriat by running an expensive trade school as a graduate program with limited teaching duties. But it seems a market correction is taking place."

That's all probably true. Me, I studied studio art undergrad and had a BFA. Totally irrelevant to law school, so it was like I was attending straight out of high school. I went to NYU and graduated first in my class. So what does that mean?

David said...

"If I'm not mistaken, in many classes law students are still graded on the basis of a single exam at the end of the semester. Do any students ever complain about the absurdity of that practice?"

You only get one shot at an appellate brief. There are no do overs in oral argument or cross examination or presentation of evidence in a case. There is no way to redraft a business agreement when you have left an important provision ambiguous or left our an essential protection for your client.

In law school, you have a whole semester to learn the subject. The casebooks and other written materials are usually excellent. The professors labor to illuminate important points with considerable diligence in class. Either you get it or you don't by the end of that. Since most students at good schools are pretty smart, a lot depends on how hard you work. In many undergraduate majors you can get a good grade without a really deep dive into the material. In law school not so much.

That said, I have never been entirely comfortable with the curve concept, at least as I understand it. It is at least possible for a disproportionate (whatever that is) number of students to show very high performance on an exam. Doesn't the curve preclude all from getting a top grade, or do I misunderstand the concept?

wholelottasplainin' said...

"If you had experience with the kind of exam I am talking about, you would not say that."

*************

I suspect most people don't know what a typical law course exam question looks like.

Professor, can you provide a para or two from one of yours?

People might be shocked to see what they have to understand and "answer" in reasoned expository prose (not multiple choice or one-liners) in order to get a good grade.

MadisonMan said...

I'm new to this, but why on earth would a final written exam be used as the primary grading process? That's possibly the single most subjective way to assess a student's learning - a single exam, on a single day, in a single modality.

Not unlike projects that are given once to a group of your bosses (or funders).

You can fail or succeed in a single hour, or less.

TreeJoe said...

David said, "You only get one shot at an appellate brief. There are no do overs in oral argument or cross examination or presentation of evidence in a case. There is no way to redraft a business agreement when you have left an important provision ambiguous or left our an essential protection for your client. "

Then the test should be pass/fail, not graded. Or there should be multiple tests and you need to pass a certain portion of them. Or you should be pitted against your colleagues in the same class as part of the test. Or your written submission ("test") should be judged by a panel.

I could go on and on.

If Law School is about prepping for submitting briefs, and the result of a single brief does not determine the success or failure of your career, then neither should a law school setup classes to be dependent upon the result of a single test judged by a single individual. And in a graded environment on a curve of all things.

Yeesh, talk about misalignment.

TreeJoe said...

Madison Man said,

"Not unlike projects that are given once to a group of your bosses (or funders).

You can fail or succeed in a single hour, or less."

You mean single projects you work on for weeks or months and are not reliant upon your performance on a given day? Or group projects?

Or projects in which you must apply holistic knowledge, with no specific background on the project, and have one hour in which to perform well in either writing or speaking, and compared against a rubric based on a curve?

I haven't run into those situations in my professional career. But, I'm not a lawyer.

Unknown said...

Let me explain a bit for the non lawyers here. Torts class. That's basically where you have an injury of some kind. My torts exam was basically a contrived scenario where some truly horrible things happened.. in succession, and we got about two pages of story, basically.

Our job on the test was to identify all the torts and potential claims that the poor injured person in the story could have against numerous people, from the entire semester's worth of study.

The Prof told us that the highest score he'd ever seen--ie.e of all the possible issues, the most anyone ever had spotted was like 30%. I.e. without a curve, the highest score ever in his many years of teaching would have been a 30%. And that included several Supreme Court clerks, etc.

So grading on a curve is necessary, or no one would ever pass.

Was it unfair to cover the entire semester? Not at all... when a client comes into your office, your job is to identify all the issues that you might persue. Ignoring, say, contributory negligence is a recipe for a bar complaint. Since the practice of law is, essentially, apply all your knowledge to that client, it's totally fair.

Stressful, though... no doubt about it.

Unknown said...

Oh, I have also been called upon to actually be the attorney in a trial that I just showed up to watch that day. So I had to grasp all the facts and arguments in about.... 2 minutes. And then question witnesses, make legal arguments to the judge, etc.

Public defenders do this all the time; all day, every day. Prosecutors really dont have much more time either.

Mick said...

Just because that person is a "law prof" doesn't mean they know the law, as the "Con law prof" at this blog doesn't even know what a natural born Citizen is, and neither does the former solicitor general of the Usurper Hussein Obama (Katyal), although I am guessing that he really does know what it means.

Paddy O said...

"You only get one shot at an appellate brief."

I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect that the appellate brief submitted isn't the first draft. I suspect that briefs are researched, written, reviewed and edited by others, honed in discussion, rewritten in several drafts, even by those who have been practicing law for decades.

I teach graduate school and find some of his responses to be a bit pedagogically naive. In terms of grading, a lot of factors can impact purely objective analysis. Time of day, other distractions, stage in the grading process, being hangry, etc. and so on. I don't find extra credit troublesome because if a student wants to make up a poor showing with more work and study, that's a benefit to them in their learning.

Ann Althouse said...

"I suspect most people don't know what a typical law course exam question looks like. Professor, can you provide a para or two from one of yours? People might be shocked to see what they have to understand and "answer" in reasoned expository prose (not multiple choice or one-liners) in order to get a good grade."

Here's one from a few years back (2009) that I used in Religion and the Constitution:

The state of Crosby requires its male prisoners to keep their hair shorter than one-half inch long. The reasons given for the hair policy are: to maintain discipline, uniformity, and cleanliness; to deter the hiding of weapons and other contraband; to make it easier for guards to perform body searches; and to facilitate the identification of escaping prisoners by depriving them of a means to change their appearance. Inmates who withhold consent have been put in solitary confinement until they changed their minds, but now five prisoners have simply accepted solitary confinement as a way of permanently resisting haircuts.

The five men have five individual reasons for their behavior:

Prisoner #1 is a musician serving a 2-year sentence who hopes to return to work playing in bands where long hair is traditional.

Prisoner #2 is a young man who believes that his wife loves his long hair. He is hoping that when he is released from prison after serving 3 long years she’ll still want him.

Prisoner #3 was arrested at an anti-war protest called “hair peace” at which he, along with others, chanted “grow your hair for peace.” When a passerby approached him with scissors, a scuffle ensued, and he was arrested for assault. He is serving a 1-year sentence.

Prisoner #4, serving a 5-year sentence, has been a Sikh all his life. For centuries, Sikhs have believed that to cut one’s hair is to reject the love for God and respect for God’s creation that hair symbolizes.

Prisoner #5, also serving a 5-year sentence, decided on his own — before entering prison — to embark on a “spiritual journey” that would be manifested by growing his hair and never cutting it. He isn’t a member of any group, but he was inspired by learning about the Rastafarian movement, which, as he quotes from his readings, is “not a highly organized religion,” but “a movement and an ideology.” Rastafarians wear their hair in a distinctive uncut way, showing “patience... a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality.”

The state would like to reserve its solitary confinement cells for its most dangerous prisoners.

Moreover, there is concern that the haircut-resistant inmates might bring a lawsuit, claiming excessive punishment. So, the state would like to switch to a policy of forcible haircuts. Prison guards could restrain the inmate to the extent necessary to immobilize him while the prison barber performs a quick shearing.

Can the new forcible haircut policy be applied across the board to all 5 prisoners (and any other prisoner that refuses to consent) or will at least one exemption be required? If any exemptions are required, explain which prisoners are entitled to an exemption. If the state wants to make an exception for one or more of the prisoners, will it have to make an exception for more than one? For all of them?

What constitutional and /or statutory provisions must be taken into account? Do you think that these legal provisions give the right amount of discretion to the state? If you were the lawyer advising the state, would you be satisfied with the advice you would need to give? What, if anything, could be changed in the applicable law to produce a better framework for policymaking of this kind? What special treatment should religion receive at the hands of government policymakers and in litigation in court?

Ann Althouse said...

Those who think a proctored 3-hour exam is worse than being given plenty of time to work on a carefully constructed writing, how would you detect and deal with cheating? Consider that some students are richer than others and some have family members who are lawyers. Remember how much hinges on the grade — it might make the difference between getting a great job with high pay or not getting a job at all.

Paddy O said...

Cheating is certainly an important issue. Having a proctored exam is certainly a good way of addressing it. But that's a different argument than saying a grade should be dependent on such an exam because it tests a future lawyer's aptitude in writing a brief.

There are ways of gauging writing/research skills while mitigating cheating. Many other graduate degrees indeed require such. Interestingly, to me at least, there was a good post about exams a friend linked to yesterday. The comments are as worthwhile as the article.

As I think about the cheating issue, maybe that itself is substantive training. If the end-goal is just better lawyers then the ability to cheat well is itself a skill. Cheating has worked out well for the Clintons! If a student cheats on a research project, they may get caught, then failed out of the class. IF they don't, then they are marshaling their resources in a way that will serve them well in cutthroat competition in jobs. Isn't "cheating" just a construct in academia that really doesn't have as much bearing in a law case?

I'd guess a number of the court opinions cited on proctored exams weren't fully written by the judges whose names are attached to those opinions. If a student can afford to hire a very adept clerk to write their papers, then they're on their way to legal success!

John said...

I find grading on a curve to be an abominable practice. Even more so if the grade is based on a single event.

In my classes we normally did 4-8 case studies for turn-in, plus a research paper plus a mid term and final.

Every paper and test was graded based on how well that individual student did. I had no problem with giving everyone an A. I had not problem giving nobody an A.

As a practical matter, how do you curve a grade where there is a specific right answer? Like a math problem? Sure, points for method even if the answer is off. But suppose one is supposed to find the present value for a string of investments given certain data in the problem. What do you do if everyone gets the right answer?

I think I would do very poorly in law school as either a student or a teacher.

John Henry

John said...

What about plagiarism? I used to have tremendous problems with this in case studies and research papers. Sometimes just sloppy attribution but also straight-up plagiarism where the student tried to pass off someone elses words as their own.

My policy, spelled out in great detail in my syllabi was an F on whatever assignment I found plagiarism. Second offense I dropped them with an F for the course and no refund.

I was always amazed what people tried to get away with. I once had a student turn in a research paper on robots that was a cut and paste copy of an article from a magazine where I was a contributing editor at the time. He did not even try to paraphrase.

I wanted him dropped from the school. I thought perhaps horsewhipping as well. the dean and I settled for dropping him from the course.

This was in graduate schools of business, engineering and education.

Sometimes I miss teaching but then I think again and not all that much.

John Henry

John said...

When I say sloppy attribution, I don't mean that they didn't follow APA to the letter or the like. I taught business classes and I expected business writing on assignments, not academic writing.

What I did insist on was attribution. It might be as simple as: As Bill Gates says, "yada, yada, yada." Perhaps a source or link if appropriate

I also insisted on clear, concise, writing. Concise as in no more than 2 pages for a case analysis, no matter how complex the case. There could be attachments such as charts and pictures but the analysis could not be more than 2 pages. Grades were based on the 1st 2 pages when they did write more and there was always someone who just had to write 3, 4 and sometimes 5 pages.

John Henry