None of the Above

Submitted the last set of grades this afternoon, and have not yet received one complaint. This means–

  1. I have learned how to grade properly.
  2. The grades are too high.
  3. The grades are too high, which shows I have learned how to grade properly.
  4. Students have not yet checked their grades.

There may be more than one correct answer.

All Curves Are Not Created Equal

Grading yesterday’s real estate midterm I decided to curve the grades. I could have increased everyone’s score by some number, say 2.56 points. It’s simple. But that’s not what I did.

The exam consisted of 20 multiple choice questions worth 3 points each, 60 points total, and 8 matching questions worth 8 points each, 20 points total. The impetus to curve came from reviewing the matching questions, where I saw that some students had unexpected difficulty distinguishing one of the answers from another. I started by tinkering with the weight of correct matching answers. I started with 8 matches worth a total of 20 points, or 2.5 points each. First I increased the weight so 6 correct matches equaled 20 points–3.33 points each–but abandoned it when I saw that it added 6.6 points to the scores of students with 8 correct answers. That was nuts.

I played with other weights, from 2.8 to 3.03 points, but didn’t like how much they tilted the overall exam score towards the matching section. The mean score for the matching section is 82.5% correct, 1.75% higher than the multiple choice mean of 80.75%, but far more students–49%–correctly answer all the matching questions than correctly answer all the multiple choice questions–8%. It is fairer to employ a curve that respects the original 75%/25% weights of the two sections and does not discriminate in favor of students who perform better on the matching. I increased the weight of every correct answer 2.56% by changing the percentage calculation denominator from 80 to 78. In other words,  a raw score of 70 points went from a percentage score of 87.5% to 89.7%–which my spreadsheet rounds to the nearest multiple of 1, for a grade of 90/100.

Increasing all raw scores by 2.56% does not, of course, increase all scores by the same number of points. A perfect score of 80 points goes from 100 (80/80) to 103 (80/78,  rounded), while a score of 40 points goes from 50 (40/80) to only 51 (40/78, rounded). This made me pause. Is it fair? Increasing each grade by 3 points would increase the perfect grade by 3% and the half-perfect grade by 6%. Increasing each grade by 3% would increase the perfect grade by 3% and the half-perfect grade by 1.5%–less, if rounded to the nearest multiple of 1.

It becomes a policy decision: should the reward favor lower performance or higher performance? (Phrasing the question thus reveals its bias, compared to reward those who need it more or those who need it less?) After thinking and writing about this for inordinate time I employed a curve that rewards higher performance–but I also removed the rounding hit to the lower scores.

No doubt there are other approaches, which I am soon to be educated.

Red Pen in the Morning, Students Take Warning

I learned from Legal Blog Watch (which learned it from Legal Writing Prof Blog) that “because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts” and “people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens.”   So, to be fair, I will use one color ink when grading a big pile of papers.  If I start with red I’ll stay with a red.  Ditto with blue.  And if I’m grading with red pen I’ll wear a blue shirt, blue jeans, and blue socks and loop Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue until I’m done.

Semester Summary

Facts, insights, and musings from the spring 2010 semester.

  • Average grades:  Real Estate Law 87.9/3.35; Internet Law 88.9/3.41; Intro to Law 86.9/3.30
  • Number of A/A- grades: Real Estate Law 14/10 (27%/19%); Internet Law 19/7 (37%/13%); Intro to Law 16/7 (31%/13%)
  • Number of students who elected grading option B:  Real Estate Law 5/9.6%; Internet Law 5/9.4%; Intro to Law 10/21.3%
  • Number of students whose letter grade increased because of option B: Real Estate Law 4; Internet Law 2; Intro to Law 5
  • Number of students whose letter grade decreased because of option B: Real Estate Law 0; Internet Law 0; Intro to Law 0
  • Number of students who complained about or asked for the chance to do extra work to increase their course grade:  0  (this hasn’t happened in years)
  • The number of students who visited office hours was historically low this semester.  Some of my law faculty colleagues had the same experience.  Previous posts have speculated inconclusively why this is so.
  • I plan to scrap and rebuild real estate law by discarding the Jennings text and shifting to a case- and problem-based curriculum.  Real estate law does not pose as many broad and cutting-edge policy issues as Internet law, but it is filled with juicy family squabbles, obnoxious neighbors, vile slumlords, nasty tenants, greedy developers, over-reaching regulators, and other human-interest drama that was lacking from the text.  I’ve not resolved who best to feed the law to students–a custom outline of the relevant terms, concepts, and principles?  That will require lots of work for me to prepare.  A canned commercial law-school outline of real property law?  Possibly too broad, technical, and dry.  A Nolo.com law-for-non-lawyers handbook?  Good materials but too topic-specific, e.g. they deal only with landlord/tenant law, or buying a house.  Topic-specific web-based content?  I’ve not located one good authoritative site, so the material will be of piecemeal quality and consistency.  Right now I’m leaning towards the custom outline while continuing to explore the alternatives.
  • I completely overhauled Internet law last summer.  Changes for the 2010-2011 academic year will be less dramatic, mostly updating existing cases, blending more cases into the text (like Krinsky v Doe in the Anonymous Speech chapter), finding more recent and more interesting cases for a few topics, and adding transitions and expository material to the casebook.
  • Internet law topics that deserve more course time:  privacy, the DMCA, and licensing (including Open Source, Creative Commons).
  • I’m going to move the order of Intro to Law topics to put more course time into business organizations.  Some other topics will have to move to make this happen, although I don’t know what.

Mental-Health Break

I’ll repeat:  April is a tough time for blog posts.  Students lament the crush of projects and papers they must complete in the weeks before semester-end; teachers lament the piles (literal and digital) of projects and papers we must grade.  [I feel there is an obvious win-win solution staring me in the face, if only I were smart enough to see it.]  The work interrupts sleep and exercise regimens, we drink too much coffee, and a warm spring day feels like a cruel trick because we cannot enjoy it without paying a price.  I have over 30 browser tabs open with articles, cases, blog posts, and other stuff I want to write about.  They will have to wait.  I have a case to edit and post (which idiot assigned an 8o-page case for the last day of class?) and a smorgasbord of papers to read.

I am not complaining, just statin’ the facts.  I will be done in ten days.

Back to it.

Ahead of its Time

An article in last week’s National Law Journal titled “Law Schools Revamp Their Grading Policies” reports that Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School are switching from the traditional letter grading system to a pass/fail system.  According to the article they are switching “to create fairer evaluation systems and to better convey their students’ accomplishments to employers.”  This fall Harvard law students will receive grades of honors, pass, low pass, or fail.   Last fall Stanford adopted a similar system.  It is believed the grading system will better convey students’ accomplishments to employers, without suggesting that there is a material difference between one student with a GPA of 3.48 and another with a GPA of 3.42.  Not all law schools agree, of course–the article cites other law deans and students who support currrent letter/number grade policies.  Still, as in the old E.F. Hutton commercials (if you are old enough to remember them), When Harvard Speaks, People Listen.

I follow grading developments with interests as a teacher, an advisor to prospective law students, and a graduate (NUSL 1981) of a law school that has used pass/fail grading for over 30 years.  Northeastern University School of Law has dropped letter grades the early 1970s, replacing them with pass/fail grades supplemented by professor’s comments.  There are many reasons why the student culture at NUSL is different from other schools–larger percentage of students interested in public service law and larger percentage of women students, to name two–and the grading system plays a major role.  Students are more cooperative and less competitive when their employment success does not turn on edging out a classmate for a spot on law review by 05/100ths of GPA.  Observers ask “how can employers distinguish between students if there is no GPA?”  The answer is “quite easily.”  If my pass grade for civil procedure is accompanied with a comment that “you handled the summary judgment question adequately, spotting most of the major issues” and yours has the comment that “your analysis of the summary judgment issues was thorough, incisive, and brilliant” then an employer has a clear basis for deciding who to interview.  As for the extra work that might be involved in processing NUSL grades and comments, it may have been an issue in the 1970’s but coop and permanent employers had it figured out when I graduated in 1981.

So welcome to the future of law school education, Harvard.  If you have questions about how it works just take the Red Line across the river.

Piles o’ Paper

Last Thursday I received about 133 papers from students in my three classes.  Over the four days since I’ve read and graded all of them.  I’ve graded at my desks at BU and home, on four different sofas in two houses, at two kitchen tables, and in the car going to and from Maine.  (I was not driving.)  I’ve graded early in the morning and late at night.  I’ve tried to be consistent.  After I read the first 30 or so papers in the largest group I realized I needed to be more flexible, so I graded the final 80 papers accordingly and went back and up-graded the first 30.  My goal has been to return these papers today, which kept me on task and lowered the priority of everything else such as responding to emails, reading the paper, writing recommendation letters, and sending birthday greetings.  Now I get to catch up although there’s another 20-30 papers coming in today.  Grading is the chore we like least but rewarding, too, and not just because I make two big checks on my to do list.  I learn a great deal about my students through grading these papers, about how they think, what they connect with, and what they miss.  It’s humbling to realize that matters I thought I made clear remain murky and deeply satisfying to see students make connections between disparate concepts.

All of which is an indirect way of saying if my communications are tardy I have a good excuse and I’ll make it up.  Soon.  Right after I finish the next group of papers.