What to expect on exams this year

COVID-19 is not over. Students wearing masks is not over. Schools relying on online learning is not over.

However, one pandemic-related move that many law schools made does appear to be over. That would be the pass/fail grading option that most implemented during the spring semester. 

Schools made the switch from competitive exam grading because students were facing so much uncertainty with the sudden move to remote learning. For the fall semester, that does not appear to be in play — anywhere. 

In a June letter to faculty and students, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, which is relying on remote learning this fall, wrote: 

“There has been an extensive discussion on the law deans’ listserv about what schools are doing and the overwhelming approach among law schools is to return to their usual grading system ... I do not know of any law schools that have decided to shift to Credit/No Credit grading for the Fall semester.”

Why? “ Chemerinsky said that professors argued that the traditional grading system provides motivation for students, assists their job searches and decreases reliance solely on subjective personal evaluations.

For students, that means one thing: Get on it.

Alison Monahan, founder of The Girls Guild to Law School, titled a blog entry this way: “1L Tip of the Day: Start Thinking About the Exam on the First Day of Class.

That’s because the final exam normally makes up the bulk — if not the entirety — of your grade. 

Law school leaders believe that the pass/fail option is no longer necessary because the learning will remain the same — even if done remotely. Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean of University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, in Sacramento, Calif., said that remote classes are not compromised in any fashion. His school will be online this fall.  

“Our students will be taking the same classes (as they would in person) from the same professors, and faculty will use the same course materials, have the same learning goals, and administer the same types of examinations and writing assignments,” he said. “Our classes, therefore, will be graded using the same standards.”

The school does not throw students to the wolves when it comes to exams, he noted. The school, since 2014, has required more than a single assessment in all first-year and bar-tested courses.

In the first semester of law school, students also take an extra unit of one of their required courses designed to help them adopt best practices for studying and doing well on exams, he said. The students take a formal practice midterm on which they get individualized feedback, and they also do practice exams, Schwartz added. 

However, some adjustments still may be made, he said.  

“Notwithstanding all this structured practice and feedback, many of my colleagues have responded to the moment by choosing to administer additional forms of assessment this semester,” he said.   

Law school exams are notorious for being very, very, very hard. James D. Gordon III, a professor of law emeritus from Brigham Young University — J. Reuben Clark Law School, wrote a paper in 1991 called “How Not to Succeed in Law School.” One of his targets was exams: 

“Studies have shown that the best way to learn is to have frequent exams on small amounts of material and to receive lots of feedback from the teacher. Consequently, law school does none of this. Anyone can learn under ideal conditions; law school is supposed to be an intellectual challenge. Therefore, law professors give only one exam, the FINAL EXAM OF THE LIVING DEAD, and they give absolutely no feedback before then.”

As noted, Schwartz argues that exam procedures have evolved and there is indeed feedback. Schwartz also notes that successful teaching depends on one big variable: the teacher. 

“Neither in-person nor online teaching is inherently good or bad,” he said. “Professors’ efforts to connect with, challenge, inspire, and engage their students are what determines whether their classes are motivating or soul-sucking, whether students’ experience transformation or simply get through.”

“I am convinced that, given all the work my faculty colleagues have put and will put into their fall classes, our students will learn,” he added. 

The transition to this form of exam-taking is normally most difficult for 1L students because they’ve never faced such tests before. Second- and third-year students know the ropes. 

Don Macaulay, president & founder of Barbri Law Preview, wrote an article for National Jurist called, “Be Prepared: Law School Doesn’t Even Resemble Your College Experience.” 

One of the biggest surprises, he notes, are exams. For one, they mean a lot, given how much of your grade is based on the results. Secondly, they are graded on a curve. That means you’re competing against your fellow students for the best scores. 

He wrote: “Unlike undergrad where your professors had broad discretion when handing out grades, in law school you will not be graded on what your professor feels was ‘A’ effort; instead, your professors must award A’s only to those students who demonstrate a complete mastery of the material when compared to the rest of their classmates. It is for this very reason, many smart and capable students receive the first C’s of their academic careers during the 1L year.” 

Now throw a pandemic into the picture …  

That’s why many law school students lobbied their schools to adopt a pass/fail system last spring. Initially, some schools such as Harvard Law School wanted to make the choice optional, but they got blowback from students who argued that such a policy would hurt disadvantaged students. They were concerned that such students would not have the resources to create an equal remote learning environment, forcing them to take the pass/fail option.  

Harvard, like many schools, soon decided to make the pass/fail mandatory for the spring semester. Not all students were thrilled about it, mind you. Some expressed concerns that their academic standing could be hurt if letter grades were suspended. Acing finals helps students land summer associates’ jobs, for instance. 

The pandemic also caused professors to rethink their finals. Some offered open-book exams and did away with time limits. They thought students had been affected enough as it was and didn’t want to make the experience even worse. 

Whether professors continue to be lenient in the fall remains to be seen. The best advice? Don’t expect COVID-19 to make law school life — and exams — all that much easier this time around.

Pass/fail has passed along, it appears. 

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