Exams Graded!

Woohoo! Plus this let me do one of my favorite things, which is to call to congratulate the students who've gotten an A or an A+ (generally 12-15% of the class, under our new grading system).

Note to other professors who call to congratulate students, based on experience gained the hard way: If you don't reach the student, and leave a generic message that doesn't mention the grade (particularly important if it's a shared voice-mail or answering machine), say something like "It's no big deal; nothing to worry about; just call me back please at your convenience." A student who just gets an unadorned "please call your professor" message will FREAK OUT.

I'm curious why you decided to call students and why you continue to do it. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but I've never heard of other professors doing it, so it does seem a little odd.... How do students react? (And under your school's system, how soon would students get the grade without the call?)
6.7.2006 9:15pm
Abdul (mail):
I once got a letter from a professor letting me know that he put me in for a transcript notation (The law school allows prof's to add "best exam" or "King Dork Hand-Raiser" to the grades) and it really made my day. Also, the registrar doesn't post grades until 2 months after the exams, so it saved some anxiety.
6.7.2006 9:19pm
Classmate-Wearing-Yarmulka (www):
I'd settle for the grades actually being posted with a month of the final instead of a phone call.
6.7.2006 9:25pm
Anon. 12345:
What, Harvard students didn't need the encouragement when you were visiting?
6.7.2006 9:26pm
proffer (mail):
I once congratulated a student on winning the award for second highest grade, and he said "so, you thought someone did better than I did?" Now I let them read the grades off the Registrar's list.
6.7.2006 9:27pm
Andrew Edwards (mail):
A student who just gets an unadorned "please call your professor" message will FREAK OUT.

Ummm, yes. Yes I would.

Eugene, I think it's kinda classy for you to call to congratulate, especially for the A+s. Good on you.

That said do you have any fear about appearance of impropriety? I can imagine someone especially paranoid construing it as inappropriate to suggest a personal relationship with the top students, and only with them. I obviously don't feel that way, but have you ever heard it or is it so ridiculous it doesn't come up even in academia?
6.7.2006 9:28pm
Humble Law Student:
Wait, students get A+s at UCLA! I'm assuming that your scale still tops out at 4.0 thought right? In which case, A+ = 4.0 and A = 3.67 or something?
6.7.2006 9:34pm
frankcross (mail):
I like to call to inform the C students.
Different personalities, I guess.
6.7.2006 9:59pm
te (mail):
All my exams were graded blind - do you know the student's identity as you grade? Or do you access that after you post grades?
6.7.2006 10:00pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I wonder if Bill Clinton called just the hot chicks to give them their grades when he was a law professor.
6.7.2006 10:03pm
DelVerSiSogna (mail):
I once got a letter (well, an e-mail) from a law professor saying that my final paper was really great, and "deserved" an A+, but because he was "not a nice person" or something like that, I was only getting an A. Thanks a lot, man. Thanks a lot.
6.7.2006 10:05pm
SomeJarhead (mail):
Welcome to life in the "top tier." Your A and A+ students will still need my help to find the courthouse. God help their clients.

Lewis also defends grade inflation, a problem that has brought Harvard national ridicule. The trend matters little, he says, because grades are meant to serve as educational tools, not credentials for prospective employers.

Link to Boston Globe article
6.7.2006 10:11pm
John Jenkins (mail):
The amount of time it takes for law school grades to be published is *astounding*.

te, I don't know how it is at UCLA, but at my school the exams were indeed graded blind. The professor turned in the exam grades and got back a sheet with the names and the exam grades so the professor could "adjust" for "attendance and participation" and other such nonsense. (that's short for there is no such thing as anonymous grading). Presumably that sort of report is what Prof. Volokh is using to make his calls.
6.7.2006 10:14pm
TallDave (mail) (www):
That's pretty cool of you.

I once got a notice from a teacher that I'd gotten one of the few A's in a class. There was even a letter from the Dean. When you're a college kid, that can mean a lot.
6.7.2006 10:20pm
SomeJarhead (mail):
John Jenkins-

Where I came from, the adjustments were done with the first submission (blind exam scores and "boost student X half a grade").
6.7.2006 10:23pm
TWAndrews (mail):
Perhaps I don't understand the grading system, but 12% - 15% of the class getting an A or an A+ seems like an awful lot. Is grade inflation common at upper level law schools?
6.7.2006 10:41pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I once congratulated a student on winning the award for second highest grade, and he said "so, you thought someone did better than I did?"

"Yes, you arrogant little twit! Wait until someone tells you you did the second best job at a trial or an appeal, for the fiftieth or so time."
6.7.2006 10:41pm
Arvin (mail) (www):
A+s get 4.3 at UCLA.

And, professors, don't just say "It's no big deal, call me at your convenience." Say "It's good news, call me at your convenience." "It's no big deal" sounds like a professor way to soften "I lost your exam" or something.
6.7.2006 11:04pm
Steve P. (mail):
Maybe law schools do it differently, but that percentage of A and A+ students seems about right from my background. It's usually not a regular distribution, or you'd have 60% of students failing every class. From my experience, a lot of professors try to make a normal distribution from 50% - 100% in terms of grade, excepting a few outliers that don't show up or try, and get less than 50%. That equates to the majority of students getting C's, which is expected.

Of course, I could be totally off. And I think it's great for a professor to congratulate students who do well... I would have really thought highly of that prof, if any had for me.
6.7.2006 11:09pm
DaveK (mail):
Prof. Volokh: Neat custom. I never heard of a professor doing it, but I would have enjoyed it if any had done it to me.

TWAndrews: 12-15% of students getting an A or A+ sounds like a lot? That doesn't sound particularly inflated to me; it's not too far off the percentages that Georgetown gives out (albeit without any A+'s at all). I think just about all of the top law schools (if not all law schools) curve around a B+ or so, so if you do a normal distribution around that with a standard deviation that's not ridiculously low, that's what you wind up with.
6.7.2006 11:12pm
DaveK (mail):
Speaking of which, how common are A+'s at law schools? They were totally foreign to my experience; I like to joke that my co-clerk had a law school GPA that was numerically impossible at my law school.
6.7.2006 11:14pm
Steve P. (mail):
Edit: not necessarily 'majority', but 'highest proportion'.

Confidential to DaveK: Perhaps there was another reason we were never called by our professors?
6.7.2006 11:15pm
The 12-15% getting either an A or an A+ is high based on my law school experience. The target for A+ and A (combined) at the law school I attended was 10%. Based on the published grade curves most professors stayed at or below that level.

(In case you are wondering, I attended a law school that is ranked above UCLA in the USN&WR rankings.)
6.7.2006 11:23pm
The variation in grading systems argues in favor of the use of class rank. This would mitigate the ability of schools to raise their grade curves in order to make their students appear more competitive. The problem with this is the fact that most, if not all, of the top 25 law schools do NOT publish class rank until after graduation.
6.7.2006 11:27pm
Bearcat (mail):
I commend you on calling students who have done well, despite a numer of A+'s I've never had this happen to me. As for any student who gives you guff, I say to hell with them. Law school ought to teach a student grace under fire if nothing else. If you can't accept praise how will you ever accept an adverse ruling?
6.7.2006 11:35pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Back in the good old days, they posted our grades in the front hall with our exam numbers. Nobody congratulated you for anything, except you got a volume of AmJur if you got the top grade in the class. Then you could say you booked the class. I bet all the kids get trophies now.
6.7.2006 11:40pm
Well done, Prof. Volokh. I'm sure most of your students are very appreciative.

And please inform Dale Carpenter that, should I manage an A or an A+ in his First Amendment class in the fall, I will now be expecting a phone call.
6.7.2006 11:41pm
Fern R (www):

I think just about all of the top law schools (if not all law schools) curve around a B+ or so

Actually, I think most law schools set the median at around a B-/C+.
6.8.2006 12:09am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I must be of a different mind from Professor Volokh, I always wanted to me like Mr. Hand in "Fast times at Ridgemont High" and hand out graded test papers in front of the class..."F!" "F"! "D"! "F"! favorite teacher was in junior high, he would give D"plus"s on tests.
6.8.2006 12:13am
Stamboulieh (mail):
My contracts professor gave one A in her class. Seriously.

40 Multiple choice questions, no scantron. Apparently we are graded blind, but I have a really hard time believing that when we she won't allow us to see our tests.

6.8.2006 12:27am
Humble Law Student:
An A+ is a 4.3. Are you joking!!!!!??!?!?! Such a travesty...
6.8.2006 12:41am
Cornellian (mail):
I never got a call from a prof, even when I got an A+ :(
6.8.2006 1:04am
I'm always amazed at how long it takes grades to come out at other law schools. Our grades were available less than three weeks after exams--and for graduating 3Ls, the Friday before commencement. Alas, no phone calls from professors for As or A+s.
6.8.2006 1:28am
Brian G (mail) (www):
I got one Animal Law!! Every job interview I have had since then I have to explain that away. I took that class as a joke, but the joke has been on me since.
6.8.2006 1:57am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Wow this thread really hits home for me. I finished my exams at the end of APRIL, and grades are yet to be posted. BU's registrar has a generic message to the effect that grades will be up in "mid june." I'm sweating a little bit. Having received a couple of A+'s in the fall, I since learned of "regressing to the mean." Now we wait. And wait. etc.
6.8.2006 2:37am
Cornellian (mail):
Cornell's grades were online only last Monday, and available in person just a few days before that.
6.8.2006 2:58am
Eugene Volokh (www):
(1) A+s are, I believe, pretty common at Top 20 schools, and do indeed count for more than As.

(2) Some professors at UCLAs give A+s to very few students in each class; others give them to more. I tend to give 2 to 4 A+s in a typical 50 to 80 person course, though much depends on the raw scores. My sense is that I'm a bit on the high side in the A+s, and also in the below-C grades. (I tend to, on average, give a D every other year and an F every other year -- not a high number, but a bit on the high side compared to my colleagues, I think.)

(3) The grading in lecture classes (as opposed to in seminars and other similar classes) is indeed anonymous, with each exam being identified only by the student's exam number. I got the names of the students to call after I turned in my final grades.

One can give class participation points, using the "here are the grades by exam number and here is a list of names to bump up or down for participation" (I forget whether one can still bump down, but I think one can). But I don't like to do that, because I think blind grading fosters a better relationship between teachers and students. Students feel freer both in disagreeing with the teacher and in agreeing with him (since agreeing won't be as likely to be seen as currying favor). Students feel freer in refusing, accepting, and making invitations to lunch to discuss law teaching, law review, a student article, common legal interests, or what have you. There's less unease when the professor knows a student through other sources (for instance, when the student is a friend or relative of the professor's friend, or when the professor knows the student from before law school, as I knew commenter Arvin before I had him as a student and so on). And there are a whole bunch of other advantages as well (as well as some costs, though ones that I think are exceeded by the advantages).
6.8.2006 3:29am
Dirty Thirty-First:
Professor V (and others):

Since grading is blind, I've wondered what the justification is for informing professors who got what grade in their class even after the scores are submitted. Obviously students who did well can voluntarily approach their profs the next semester to tell them Thanks and That Was Me and all that, but whence the intrinsic Need to Know across the board? Transcripts are transcripts, but what productive use do faculty have for such info?
6.8.2006 3:49am
I don't call students largely because I feel uncomfortable looking up their home contact information.

I do, however, send a congratulatory email to the students who earned the highest grade in each class.
6.8.2006 8:19am
Waiting for my call Eugene. . .

I have to admit, however, grade inflation is a problem, but not so much for the people near the top of the class, but for people that are in the middle of the pack. I do a lot of hiring for my office (US attorney's office), and I see so many cum laude grads from Harvard . .. I treat cum laude as an average Harvard student, but probably above a B student at regional law schools.
6.8.2006 8:33am
John Jenkins (mail):
At my school, a class rarely if ever has more than one A+, though I am not sure what the distribution of A's is after that (we have a 12 point grading system with an A+ being 12 and going down from there). Some professors are obviously more strict about that than others (I was once told I had the second-best exam in a class and got an A). I never got a call for an A+, but I did get a job offer(as the professor's research assistant), and that position in turn got me the job I have after law school (the professor being fairly well respected in his field), so I can't complain :-)
6.8.2006 9:23am
John Jenkins (mail):
Oh yeah, re: blind grading. I don't doubt that there are meticulous and honest professors who adhere to blind grading like Prof. Volokh. I just know that there are some who do not (one who even said so in class while I was a student) so I wouldn't ever rely on its existence.
6.8.2006 9:25am
Cornellian (mail):
Oh yeah, re: blind grading. I don't doubt that there are meticulous and honest professors who adhere to blind grading like Prof. Volokh. I just know that there are some who do not (one who even said so in class while I was a student) so I wouldn't ever rely on its existence.

I think Cornell has some kind of protocol to protect the integrity of the blind grading process. The exams are anonymous, identified by exam number rather than name, the prof marks those exams, turns the grades into the Admin people, who then match up the exams to the names. Only after that point can the prof adjust for class participation. I'm not sure but I think that's how it works.
6.8.2006 9:50am
Northeastern Grad:
I find this discussion about grades fascinating but foreign. I graduated from Northeastern Law School in 1982. NULS takes a somewhat different approach to legal education.

First, the school follows a "cooperative education" model. All incoming students in a class year spend the first 9 months taking a common track of the usual subjects. Thereafter, the class is divided into 2 groups, with one group continuing in class for the next three months, beginning their second year class work, while the other group takes on a "coop" job for that same period. The groups alternate class work and coops until graduation at the usual time. By graduation every NULS student has had 4 coop positions in which they gain practical experience about what legal practice is really like in a variety of settings, as well as 21 months of in class education.

Second, NULS does not assign letter grades for classes. Instead, professors prepare written evaluations for each student. Some do a better job of tailoring their comments to the student; others adopt a more generic system of comments. You generally can get a sense about how well you did in the class based on the written evaluation, and even where the comments are more generic, one generally can figure out where in the pecking order you fall, which is no different than the grades assigned by letter.

Finally, most NULS exams (at least when I was a student) were open book, which I thought was a sensible way to measure one's legal knowledge. Having the book doesn't help if you don't already know the basic overview and structure of the material.

I think the competition for and overemphasis on grades interferes with the law school experience. I enjoyed my law school years and felt that my classmates were generally supportive of the group. Based on my conversations with friends who attended more traditional schools, my experience is not universal.
6.8.2006 10:52am
Bryan DB:
I think the phone call idea is quirky and, dare I say, "cute." It's something I would have expected at undergrad (1600 students) but not law school, and it adds a nice touch to the overall experience.
Our law school grades are available electronically, and they trickle in (the deadline for grades from the spring semester, which ended mid-May, is mid-June). They tend to come from the smallest courses first and the biggest courses last, which hopefully means the professors are actually reading and thinking about the answers a little bit. I've got 5 of my 6 grades back, with the biggest class (and busiest professor, since he's an adjunct) still to come.
And if every professor called me when I got an A, I'd be on the phone a lot. ;-) I'd never get my day job done.
6.8.2006 11:48am
John Jenkins (mail):
which hopefully means the professors are actually reading and thinking about the answers a little bit.

Don't bet on it.

I think I could have handled 5 or 6 phone calls a semester.
6.8.2006 12:15pm
Houston Lawyer:
Our grades were posted by social security number in the hall. Of course, our first year grades from the May exams weren't actually posted until September. That way you were back in school when they applied that bell curve to you.
6.8.2006 12:22pm
Hans Allhoff (mail):
I don't understand what they're actually being congratulated for. For cramming legal rules into their heads for 3 days and just so happening to spit them out in a compelling way?
6.8.2006 2:05pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Hans, you're confusing law school with the bar exam.
6.8.2006 2:19pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Hans, whatever the validity of the remainder of your post, you are most likely wrong that A's happen by accident. Some A's no doubt happen precisely in that way, but most students who get A's get more than just a few, and the ones who don't, don't get them regularly. There is a lot more there than luck, notably intelligence, and work, (though I suspect that at the high end of the range, the former has greater marginal utlity than the latter).
6.8.2006 3:21pm
UCLA Bruin:
Hi all,

In terms of grades, I have received so far at UCLA Law:

C+ Property
B- Contracts
B- Civil Procedure
B- Criminal Law
A Constitutional Law
n/a Lawyering Skills
n/a Torts

I worked hard in all my courses. Reading, practice problems/exams, etc. So far I have done well only in Con Law and did in fact receive an email from my con law professor congratulating me. I don't really get it and so I have come to accept it.
6.8.2006 3:48pm
UCLA Bruin:
"it" being the curve
6.8.2006 3:49pm
John Jenkins (mail):
UCLA Bruin, they call the person who graudates last in every class "lawyer" if he passes the bar exam. Don't sweat it. I know people with much worse grades than that right now working at really good firms. Just get after it on the networking and interviewing side.
6.8.2006 4:36pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
UCLA Bruin: Why do you think that you'd have better results if it weren't for the curve? I can see being puzzled why the property professor thought you did badly and the con law professor thought you did well -- or why you in fact did badly in property and in fact did well in con law, if you prefer. But what does it have to do with the curve?
6.8.2006 5:18pm
UCLA Bruin:
Thanks John.

My comments were following Mikes on whether some As happen by accident. I don’t really know if I would have done better if there was no curve. In going in to meet with my property professor to get feedback on what I could have done better, he pointed out that I never discussed easements in a question. I pointed out to him that I actually did [pointing to one whole section of my answer]. He looked surprised and said there was nothing that he could do after the fact and went on an explanation on the difficulty that there is in distinguishing the B to C+ range. [the easement section would have put me around the B range according to him]

The point that I want to get through is that knowing the material down cold and the ability to communicate it with professors correctly did not materialize in my exam performance. So maybe I could have done better if there was no curve, but that is something that I have come to realize is not that important in a class where everyone is getting curved. What I don’t understand is the abnormality in that Con law grade, but I take what I can get.
6.8.2006 5:44pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Speaking of abnormalities in grading. Our first-year LR&W class had a required moot court competition. During one round of competition I received the following 3 grades 50/50, 35/50, 17/50.

I can accept that I got a 17/50: I hated moot court, the volunteer attorney judges hadn't read the questions, and they hamstrung us so much on what we could argue (narrowing it to their chosen issue), but I could not fathom how I could possibly be, at the same time, absolutely perfect, and totally abyssmal. It just did not compute (as it happens, the 35 was around my average score for the entire competition). It still makes me shake my head.
6.8.2006 6:31pm
Supermike (mail) (www):
You should totally mess with them on the answering machines "This is professor Volokh; I wanted to call to let you know I noticed something unusual about your final exam"
6.8.2006 10:07pm
biu (mail):
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6.10.2006 4:23am