Thursday, February 19, 2009

Students and Grades

This article from today's New York Times deals specifically with the issue of undergraduate students and their expectations about grades, and does not mention law schools. However, the grades students got as undergraduates definitely affect their perceptions of the grades they get in law school. Many undergraduates expect to get a B just for attending class and doing the assigned reading; they don't seem to understand there is a nexus between their performance on tests and papers and their final grades. An additional problem for some undergraduates is their belief that if they work hard, they are entitled to an A. Some possible causes for this sense of entitlement to high grades are "increased parental pressure, competition among peers and family members and a heightened sense of achievement anxiety." No doubt students' worries about finding jobs in this time of economic crisis are further fueling concerns about grades. "The gentleman's C" doesn't cut it anymore. As I told one of my children last night, "Just keep your grades up, and the rest will fall into place." No parental pressure there.

Most students are in for a rude awakening when they get to law school. Law students tend to have excelled academically their whole lives, and they tend to be ambitious by nature. I don't know of any law school where grade inflation is the norm. Doing the reading and attending class are expected; what counts is performance on the final exam, not how hard you have worked all semester, although there is definitely a connection between the two. One could argue--and people have--about the merits of this system, but it is firmly entrenched at most law schools.

I talk to students all the time about their grades, usually because they haven't done as well as they had hoped. Sometimes my advisees come to me after their first semester, tell me how hard they worked and how disappointed they are with their final grades. When this happens, I engage them in a conversation about their study habits and methods and try to figure out what didn't work. I usually end up referring students to our Academic Support Department, but also recommend other things, such as finding different people for study groups than they worked with first semester. I also ask whether they relied on commercial study aids instead of creating their own outlines; the former approach simply doesn't work for most students. Most students feel very vulnerable at this point--they may be on academic probation--and are open to suggestions about how they can improve their performance.

The other context in which I talk to students about grades is if they come to complain about the grades they earned in my Advanced Legal Research class. My course carries three credits, and students are required to turn in an outline, first and second drafts, and a final paper, an extensive research guide. The grades are weighted (thanks to the magic of the TWEN grade book), and most students have a pretty good idea of how well their research guides are coming along before the final grades are posted. No matter the context, conversations about grades are difficult for both professor and student. The Times article gave me a better understanding of why the conversation is so difficult.

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