Finally a blog by a law school professor. Do you grade according to a curve? Are you forced to because of your school? And if yes, do you find a forced curve is the best way to judge student performance?
In addition to brilliantly stroking my ego ("Finally a blog by a law school professor"!), this comment raises excellent questions about the use of grading curves in law schools, which I will try to answer below. Final exam season is upon us, after all, so this is a timely topic.
But first, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that there are a fair number of other law profs out there who blog. Some of these blogs are linked to on my blog. However, my focus is a bit different than most other law prof blogs: I focus on student and junior practitioner issues.
Anyway, back to the questions at hand.
Do I grade according to a curve? Does my school require me to use a curve? My school does not require the use of a curve, so this is left to my discretion. In small classes I do not grade according to a curve. In large classes I do. But here's the interesting thing about curves: in my classes at least, curves typically have no effect on the distribution of grades, or they work in students' favor.
Let me explain that a bit. In my experience, a properly constructed law school exam leads to a bell curve distribution of grades. A good exam will have easy issues on it, hard issues, and some issues in between. The easy parts show me who understands the most basic aspects of the course. The middling-hard aspects are mastered by fewer students, and this represents the middle of the class. And the hard stuff allows the top students in the class to shine.
So yes, I sometimes grade using a curve of my own devising. But it is usually grade-neutral or actually helps students (i.e., not everyone gets a C).
Am I in favor of a forced curve as the "best" way to judge student performance? The "best" way? Let's limit the question to whether I am in favor of its use in large classes, since there are lot of other ways students should be evaluated (e.g., writing papers, trial and appellate advocacy programs, clinics, etc.). I'm actually still undecided about the mandatory use of curves in large classes. One argument in favor of forced curves is that they help to harmonize grades across different sections of the same class. If you have a tough-grading professor for Contracts and the other section has a softie, why is that fair? Wouldn't it be better to have some forced consistency, so that the tough professor has to give a minimum number of As, and the easy grader can't give give everyone As?
On the other hand, it is a bit of a shame for a good exam paper to get bumped down by a curve. But again, in my experience a well-constructed exam largely avoids that problem. So perhaps I lean slightly in favor of mandatory curves for large classes. But I could be persuaded otherwise.
Any comments or thoughts?