Competition and the Curve
37 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2007
In judging pedagogical issues, most law professors favor their own experiences as students:the best way to teach is the way they were taught. I suspect that I am no different in this respect. Unlike most faculty, however, I was taught without the grading game playing a central role in my education. My undergraduate education was at a small, public, interdisciplinary, liberal arts college, with no departments, no majors, no curricular requirements to speak of, no tests and, most critically, no grades. I loved my education. It stays with me today. I attribute that retention and enthusiasm to the learning environment of my college. And I attribute that environment largely to the absence of competitive grading structures.
I went on to a law school that worked diligently to avoid a competitive atmosphere - there was no ranking, many academic rewards were distributed without a primary reliance on grades, and diversity of student opinion and background were cherished. I finished my student career by obtaining my masters in law at a law school with no rankings, and the most generalized grading system one can find in the United States:pass, fail, honors. I believe that the de-emphasis of grades and ranking in my educational background encouraged, for most students, creativity of thought, academic integrity, intellectual enthusiasm, and deep learning.
Naturally, then, I will argue here that law schools rely too much on grading systems (as opposed to evaluation systems); that requiring norm-referenced grading undermines an effective learning environment; and that ranking is wholly counterproductive in a program designed to prepare individuals to serve justice. I begin with the question:why grades? I conclude that the primary reasons for our reporting of grades are not educational but economic:we grade because we need to sort our students for the marketplace. Part two of the article then examines the arguments and assumptions supporting institutionalized grading norms as a basis for that sorting. Part three explores what the choice to rate and rank students reveals about the values law schools prefer and the values that are discounted. The final section of the article provides some thoughts on change and resistance. For those readers who agree with the thesis that the grading practices of most law schools have profound negative effects, what reforms - institutionally or personally - can mediate these effects?
Keywords: Competition, competitive, curve, law school, grades, grading, grading system, ranking, class rank, pass, fail, grading norms
JEL Classification: D83, D84, I20, I21, K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation