The Legal Beat
What If Finals Could Be About Learning?
Posted on Tuesday December 01, 2020
Today, as I think about the year of hell coming to a close, I think about possibilities. What could make for a better future? What would make the world a better place?
My seemingly perfectly reasonable wish: Make law school finals about learning and not measuring.
Law school is like playing 18 holes with a pro golfer, only to have the pro tell you on the green of the 18th hole that your grip has been off, and that’s why you double-bogied every hole. Gee, thanks! Or maybe the pro golfer just says “B+ game” without even mentioning your crappy grip. Even if the pro gives you feedback after the front nine, you’re still feeling a little robbed that there wasn’t correction had before then. Then again, being corrected on every hole would be annoying AF — there must be time to incorporate lessons into practice.
Regardless, any of the pro’s efforts would be about improving your game. The goal is to make you better. The pro seeks to make you know your own swing, the mechanics of a proper swing, and yes, visualize success. The pro golfer wants you to win (assuming you aren’t playing them for money).
When law professors hand out final exams, I fear it is not out of that same desire for success. Not that profs don’t want you to win, but often times they aren’t allowed to do so. Law schools require forced curves in many instances. We are measuring people.
Once a student takes that exam, the only learning that can happen is if the student and the professor meet up again to walk through mistakes and things done right. This is hard to do when the professor is defending the grade. And, depending on how the professor dispatches feedback, it might be hard for the student to learn given the feelings associated with grades.
The golf analogy fails further in that after you play 18 holes you can play again. And again. And again. Each time, you can get better and improve. With law school classes, you only get that one round. That one round is what people seek to use to define you. And it’s wrong.
Those grades are but a snapshot of how well a student did on the exam. And often it isn’t a fair metric. As an example, suppose a student gets an A after devoting much time to studying. Another student, with a knife in their arm, spends less time studying because of the pain of the knife, and receives a B.
Law firms would reward the diligence of the former but not the perseverance of the latter. A well-crafted IRAC gets reward, and the student with the knife wound gets stitches and a brief mention of the knife in a letter of recommendation (if that student is fortunate). That’s how law firms hire people. It’s how judges often hire. Hey, don’t get me wrong — it’s also how law schools hire. (Ooh, look at the scholarly impact!)
So, the benefit of the final exam has nothing to do with learning. It benefits lazy interviewers who are keen to use the same proxies that were used to hire themselves.
The psychological impact of that one round affects the law student in profound ways. The higher-graded students get more vocal, while those who didn’t do as well as they’d expect get soft spoken. Confidence wanes and waxes.
Those with high GPAs might choose to take different classes than they would otherwise take to defend their GPA. Avoid the tougher classes. Take the easier ones. Not stretch the mind. Those with lower GPAs might avoid those same tough classes to try to climb up the GPA. Students might look to grade distributions to choose classes rather than areas of interest.
Learning becomes secondary.
I don’t have a solution here. I wish I did. As it stands, I’ve chosen to make my students play a very difficult front nine, with every trap and flag placement designed to mess up their game. Then I try to show them what they did on those holes, both good and bad. And, with that knowledge, they hopefully are better able to at least deal with the nine holes they’ll need to play on the final. It’s not a perfect solution. And it doesn’t justify for even a second the weight the legal profession places on grades.
As we enter grading season, my lament is we would spend more time focused on learning and less time focusing on making sure we get a good grade distribution.
LawProfBlawg is an anonymous professor at a top 100 law school. You can see more of his musings here. He is way funnier on social media, he claims. Please follow him on Twitter (@lawprofblawg) or Facebook. Email him at [email protected].