All Law Final

Encountered resistance to a mid-term, when I returned to my law school in the mid-1980s, to teach a course in Legal Accounting. Unclear whether the course is even offered anymore. Thought that the mid-term would be a means for both I and the students to guage the resonableness of our respective expectations. Bad move. Forgot my own time at the law school, as a student, a decade or so earlier.

Recently met one of my former law school classmates at a funeral. Many classmate reunions seeming to occur at such events these days. Neary forty years later, he still had the bitterness, relating to a lack of justification from professors in law school, as to mixed results in certain courses. I had the same experience, when I apparently slipped in a Mortgages course. Went to see the professor. Was not permitted to see the final exam. Was not permitted to know against what had I been judged. No basis for appeal, other than to have the exam read by an academic colleague. Nowhere seeing where one went wrong. Due to a lack of a mid-term exam, no appreciation of evaluation expectations.

Law schools seem to only favour mid-term exams in first year, when the courses are full-year courses. Purpose of the mid-term being to give one an impression, in first year law school, as to whether one had a future.

In January of 1974, the results of the mid-term exams were posted at my law school. In the Contracts course in my section, I ended up with the highest mark. The student beside me hadn’t done that well, and asked to review my exam. I was honoured. Until the results came out, I had no idea as to whether I was any good, relative to peers who had contemplated law school for years. I was there as a late accepted applicant. There because my parents, following an admission acceptance that I had mixed feelings about, demanded that I try just one year, for them. If I didn’t like it after one year, I could quit and do something else. Just put your heart into one year, for us, and see what happens. So, instead of hitchhiking to western Canada, I went to law school. Blew out the relationship, only recently reconnected. Lost most of my friends from that time, after announcing I was going to law school; virtually none reconnected.

What happened was that I ended up as a magna cum laude law graduate. Slipped from the summa cum laude, in part because of a Mortgages course, where to this day I do not know how or why my performance was “C+”. I don’t have the bitterness of my law school colleague at the recent funeral, but the mixed feelings still remain.

To this day, I don’t understand why law schools will focus on 100% final examinations, when there is so much benefit to showing students at an earlier stage where they might improve, relative to particular course expectations. Maybe things are different now, and a professor must specifically justify his or her marking. Maybe things are different now, and a student has a right to see his or her examination. There are always difficulties in marking analytical responses, as opposed to numerical solutions. One can mark to a specific marking key. I have marked that way, both in university courses I have taught and on professional accounting examinations I have marked. When I marked examinations at the Bar Admission Course in the mid-1980s, one marked to a general key, and awarded letter grades, as opposed to numerical results. I have also marked on a relative basis. I know what the “A” response should be, and am marking relative to that expected response. If I am not receiving that expected response, I have to adjust expectations, rather than concluding that an entire class “just doesn’t get it”.

A key residual from my law school experience is that, with explanatory or analytical responses, I always post model student answers, without identifying the student. I invite students to compare their answers to the model, and to challenge my evaluation, if desired, by way of a written analysis of the student’s response, compared to the model. In challenging my marking, the student is never threatened with the possibility of being marked down. I also encourage challenges based on inconsistency of marking. If the student’s friend has written substantially the same, in the student’s view, but the friend received a higher mark, I encourage students to submit both papers for reevaluation. I have to justify why one student has been marked down, while at the same time assuring students that the higher,apparently inconsistently marked paper, will not be marked down.

I know how I felt when challenging the exam results in a Mortgages course, in 1975. Among the students I have taught since 1984, no student has ever felt similarly.
Postscript, May 1, 2012: While the accounting course may no longer be offered at my law school, I now find that Stanford Law School considers accounting to be an important subject for law students.

Postscript, May 1, 2012: Many law schools in Canada are now permitted to charge a premium, based in part on the questionable assumption that graduating students will be able to recover such higher fees through higher earnings in the practice of law. Another justification is the supposed need to prevent “world class faculty” from going to the United States. For example, in 2009-2010, the published fees for a year of law school at the University of Ottawa were roughly $12,000, compared to an undergraduate average of roughly $5,600. It’s now above $13,000 per year. A law degree is considered to be an undergraduate degree. Surely at double the undergraduate tuition costs, it is reasonable to expect more instructor feedback, particularly from those well-paid, “world class faculty” (who are presumably paid to both teach and research), as part of what a law student has paid for.


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4 Responses to All Law Final

  1. On May 1, 2012, Bruce Feldthusen commented as follows (e-mail correspondence reproduced with permission):

    Hi Bruce,

    There are still some 100% exams in the upper year courses, but not many. Plenty of students prefer this, by the way. The methods of evaluation are all posted, along with the course descriptions, before students elect their courses, so one can probably assure none or all with mid-terms in advance.

    Professors are required to discuss exams with students, and to provide a marking key or model answer or another form of explanation for the grade.

    What has not changed since your days in law school, and what probably won’t ever change, is that few students accept that they deserved a poor grade, whatever feedback they get.

    Vern Krishna used to teach an accounting course for law students, but the enrolment was poor. Students may also take courses in the MBA program, for JD credit.

    All the best,

    Bruce Feldthusen
    Faculté de droit/Faculty of Law
    Common Law

  2. What I like about your discussion is that you are evidently trying not to do to your students what was done to you as a student. I think that is the more ethical position and one that challenges traditions that reify injustices. I sometimes have the feeling that the alternative is to say that this was done to me, and now it is my turn to do to others.

    And, of course, Dean Feldthusen’s comment that students never accept that their poor grade is the result of having done poorly also applies to faculty (and, perhaps, everyone). Faculty, as well as students, have justifications for their actions, regardless of whether the observed outcomes appear equitable. I recall that in one class I taught where there were virtually no final A grades, someone asked me whether I thought the quality of the students had been poor. I replied that I had come to the conclusion that the lower than usual grades were an artifact of how I had approached the evaluations, and that I would be seeking ways of improving myself. The questioner was surprised at my response. Perhaps sometimes honesty is not perceived as a virtue.

    I remember the one time I faced a 100% final exam – in Classical Greek – and my A average in all the non-counting assignments slipped to only a B+. I thought that was unfair at the time and have never done that to any students in any classes I have taught.

    However, I wonder if your process of allowing students to compare their papers with each other (which I’m sure they may do anyway) and to appeal their grade if they have scored lower than what they regard as a comparable other paper – I wonder if that does not go too far, especially when you say that you would never reduce the higher grade. I have had students complain on this basis, and I have said that perhaps the other student’s paper is graded too high – which is a possibility as well. Students don’t want to have a re-grade of two papers when there is the possibility that the comparison paper could be graded down. In a sense, they are playing a system where there are only two possibilities – both positive – of either no change or an improvement. And yet I don’t find life really to be like that. The payoffs for taking no risks are usually negligible, compared with the possible payoffs (positive or negative) for accepting risks.

    In that regard, I always offer my students a very specific deal for grade redistribution. If they score a lower than hoped for grade on their midterm (worth 20%), then they are free to request on their final (also worth 20%) that their grades be redistributed so that the midterm becomes worth only 10% and the final 30%. They must ask for this redistribution on the cover page of the final, and they cannot ask after the paper has been handed in. The risk is that, if the final scores worse, they will have a negative consequence. The interesting thing is that the few who accept this deal (10% in my latest class) usually do much better on average than those that do not. I think it must be that the fear of the negative consequence, as well as the hope of potentially improving their position substantially, drives them to try harder.

    And I think this deal is justified both for educational, and other reasons. Assuming learning takes place in a class, students should be better prepared to face a final than a midterm. Also, students who did poorly, according to their own expectations, on a midterm may become a negative force in a class because early on they already know their grade will be less than their expectation. This is a bit like Double Jeopardy, where you can bet more and don’t lose all your hope till the very end

    Also, the teaching evaluations are conducted at the end of the class, before the hope of some as been extinguished, so perhaps the professor isn’t as punished by the poor performance of some students. Of course, the tendency is for students who had low grades to go for redistribution, and those with higher grades not to – and one is expected to turn in grades with an expected distribution of higher and lower grades. However, statistics predicts, and it usually comes out that way, that in a class over 25 students, there will be a bell curve of outcomes. So I can offer the deal, and be reasonably confident I will still have approximately the distribution the administration expects. Sometimes it is a bit high, and sometimes a bit low – the administration accepts this as an expression that I am doing my best to be fair. Too high all the time is what they discourage.

    I don’t mean to duck the question of whether it is equitable for one student to receive a lower grade than another, for a similar response. I realize my first comment was a bit facetious. I recognize that the professor as a grading instrument is operating on principles of variable subjectivity in the grading of a series of papers. I always keep track of the first few papers I grade in a series, and try to go back at the end, to see if they were graded according to criteria I may have settle on when I finally understood what an average response was going to be. Pragmatically, however, I work at a research university. My salary is paid approximately 70% for research and publication, and maybe only 25% for teaching. All hopes of merit or advancement are related to research excellence. There has to be a limit to how much time one devotes to teaching. The university wants us to care about teaching quality, but the university’s caring stops short of advancing excellent teacher who lag on their research and publications.

  3. On May 1, 2012, Larry Kramer, Dean of Stanford Law School, commented as follows (e-mail correspondence reproduced with permission):

    Hi Bruce,

    We leave the decision about testing and evaluation to the teaching faculty. Some do only finals, some do midterms, some do several short assignments, some mix and match. But it’s up the the individual instructor.



  4. I found myself with the continuing bitterness. Was at a funeral for someone from the law school. The professor who had given me the C+ in the Mortgages course was in attendance. At the post-fuineral reception, I knew who he was and hoped that he didn’t recognize me. Because I had no intention of speaking to him, 41 years later. And didn’t.

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