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Why I Call Students Who Got A's and A+'s in My Class:

A commenter to my post below wrote:

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.

My first reaction: What a strange question. Why does anyone congratulate anyone else on some success? Because it makes the congratulated person feel good, and the good feelings are well earned. Because it's a mark of respect. Because the congratulated person is pleased and even grateful for the congratulations, and the congratulator ends up feeling pleased in turn.

At the same time, maybe I'm missing something, because indeed to my knowledge this is a pretty rare practice. Is there a downside that I'm not seeing? One commenter said, "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?'" Never happened to me, and I doubt it ever will; plus, even if someone reacted this way, it would hardly be a deep insult to me, or reflect deep unhappiness on his part, and it would tell me a little about the person's character (relevant when deciding on whether and how to write letters of recommendation for people). Another wrote, "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." OK, I agree that this particular professor might want to decrease rather than increasing the personal touch.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Grade Inflation:
  2. Why I Call Students Who Got A's and A+'s in My Class:
  3. Grading on a Curve:
  4. Law School Grade Inflation:
  5. Exams Graded!
John Carney (mail) (www):
I would have really enjoyed calls from my professors who gave me As in lawschool. I hope you keep this up.
6.8.2006 5:20pm
frankcross (mail):
It's a nice practice. A friend of mine gives a carefully selected nonfiction book to the top score on his exam.

As for me, though, I think that there is already an undue emphasis on grades in law school and making such calls would make me feel somewhat complicitous in this. I teach a small section first year course and reaching out to talk to some students, but not others, based on grades, would seem to overemphasize them.
6.8.2006 5:27pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Prof. Volokh,

When I was an undergraduate at UC/Berkeley, some professors accepted postcards that they (or their TAs) would fill out with final grades and send home. I never got the memo telling students that professors were formidable and fearsome beasts, so I tended to come up to mine after class if I had a question. So I talked a few times with George Pimentel, who taught the introductory chemistry course at Cal the year I took it. When I got my grade card back from Cal, I wasn't especially surprised at the A+, but I was flabbergasted by the handwritten comment from Prof. Pimentel that he wished I'd come to Cal wanting to be a chemist. Made my day. Made my week. Sustains me even now.

Keep doing what you're doing.
6.8.2006 5:30pm
lucia (mail) (www):
My impression when I read it was "Cool!"

The only down side I can think of are the practice takes a bit of time and many students may have left for the summer so they'll miss the message. I always found when I finished grading, I felt so good about filling in little "A" circles for the students who earned them; I can totally understand why you might love calling to let them know!
6.8.2006 5:39pm
Medis:
As an aside, I've never received such a call. People can draw their own conclusions about what that means.

But anyway, although I certainly applaud taking that much interest in one's students, I wouldn't be tempted to adopt the practice myself. I think part of my reservation would be that when I taught and graded students, I knew that sometimes the students who had put in the most effort, learned the most, made the most progress in their skills, and so on, still did not get As.

In other words, I think in various important ways, what a given individual has actually achieved during the course of a class is not always captured by their final grade. Of course, in a typical law school class with only one exam, it is very difficult to assess what a student has achieved during the class (you are looking at just the end point, with no sense of the starting point or what happened in between). Regardless, I would personally feel a bit uncomfortable limiting my congratulations to the A and A+ students, because I would strongly suspect that some of my other students were equally or more deserving of my congratulations, even if I could not identify who they were.
6.8.2006 5:56pm
Rich F. (mail):
I think the problem is close to what Frank Cross identified above: making the grades themselves seem more important than they are. The spin I'd place on it is somewhat different, though, as the underlying problem is that a faculty member is seen as acknowledging the validity of exam grading as a relevant metric for performance. In other words, it diminishes the import of the idea that exams are just thrown down the stairs. I don't ultimately think this is true, because a faculty member's acknowledgment that one completed a test very well doesn't mean the faculty member lacks confidence in other, non-contacted students' command of the subject, but at a minimum means that the person did a good job in a 3 or 8 hour block of time on a particular assignment.

However, I've received a few notes about being a model exam for next year or getting one of the top grades, and that's always been great. I appreciate even more helpful comments on exams or in faculty memos, particularly for exams where I did pretty well but not great.

Keep up the good work!
6.8.2006 6:03pm
te (mail):
I feel bad that I failed yesterday to mention my first reaction when I read the original post: Good for you. I wish more profs followed your practice.

My best memories of law school were the times I spent talking to the professors in their offices or at times outside of class. Anything that opens the door to that dialogue is a good idea.

Also it prevents a somewhat embarassing situation: on the very rare occasions when I did get the best grade in a class (only twice) I wondered: Should the student say something about this to the professor? If so, how do you do this without seeming like an insufferable self-promoter. I did mention it to one of the professors that I talked to occasionally and he was very warm and even ventured "I wondered if that was your exam as I was grading it." The other professor didn't seem to want to have much interaction with students so I never spoke about it with him. I have to say it was sort of like setting a world records or something with nobody there to recognize it. That sounds too grandiose but the fact that I got a nice little certificate and a notation on my transcript meant far less to me than the "Congratulations" I got from the first professor.
6.8.2006 6:07pm
ak47pundit (www):
When I was in law school grading of exams was strictly anonymous (still is at the school I attended). When I booked a class, a Prof would sometimes write "Please come see me".

Often the Prof was curious as to who had booked it and you generally had a useful chat where you gave some feedback regarding the class to the Prof...quite a nice congenial time.
6.8.2006 6:11pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Medis, I do not understand that reaction at all. Yes, some of the hardest workers will not get the best grades. They're not as good at it. It's a tough universe. Effort does not ability make (e.g. I will never be Michael Jordan, or even Bob Jordan, the guy down the street continually schooling me in basketball).

People get congratulated (and deservedly so) for doing *well*, not for trying really hard (and I mean objectively well, not the disgusting and insulting "well for them"). Your supervising partner isn't going to pat you on the back for trying really hard if you screw something up.

Rich F.,

The only time I was ever chosen as a model exam was solely for the humor included in the exam (the question involved writing a memo to then-newly appointed AG Gonzales and I began, "Dear Al,") Ahh, the good ol' days: I finished second in that class, damn it.

The very best story I have was when grades were released and I had gotten the highest one in a class. I went to the professor's office to ask to look at my exam, he looked at the grade and his response was while handing it to me was, "what are you complaining about?" I couldn't help but laugh.

All of that said, keep calling the students. I can't imagine any of them don't appreciate it. I know I would have.
6.8.2006 6:20pm
dweeb:
Why would someone frown on this practice? Because it smacks of the whole cult of self esteem that seems to have taken over education. Getting an A means you didn't make any errors - everyone starts the semester with an A.
It's like congratulating someone for using their turn signals - even though few do, it's still objectively the baseline expectation. A student is, at least in theory, supposed to absorb and retain the course content.

My girlfriend was astounded when I suggested that most of the population, despite having taken high school chemistry, doesn't have a clue what Avagadro's number is.
She was even more shocked when a quick informal survey proved me right. Does that mean we should heap praise on the few who actually retained their education?
6.8.2006 6:27pm
Steve:
That's a good question. Isn't it "Avogadro's number," by the way?
6.8.2006 6:38pm
jallgor (mail):
I am a former student of Prof. V. who did not get an A or phone call from him. That being said I think the practice of calling A students is simply an example of the many ways in which Prof. Volokh was very available and approachable to his students. For example I recall him inviting our Con Law class to his house for a party. Many professors, consciously or not, seem to try and keep their distance. Perhaps its like a doctor patient thing, they don't want to get to close in case the patient dies. Prof. V. was not like that at all and I think this is simply just an example.
6.8.2006 6:40pm
John Jenkins (mail):
dweeb, getting an A on a law school exam probably means you got 50% - 70% of the possible points. You start a law school exam with NO points and work your way up from there. The person who gets the most points gets the best grade. You're rewarding analysis, not regurgitating data points.

Steve, yes, it is.
6.8.2006 6:41pm
jallgor (mail):
Dweeb,
Getting an A in law school does not mean you didn't make any errors (or even theleast number of errors in the class). It's not like a chemistry exam or a math exam. There often is no "right" answer on a law exam.
I don't know what Avogadro's number is BTW. I took chemistry 15 years ago and, as far as I can recall, noone has mentioned Avogadro's number to me since then (and I am only assuming they mentioned it to me in chemistry class because your post assumes they should have).
6.8.2006 6:49pm
John Wismar:
Dweeb says:

Getting an A means you didn't make any errors - everyone starts the semester with an A.
I was kind of under the impression that everyone starts the semester with a 0, and it was the correct answers that changed your grade. After all, if you don't do anything, take tests, finish projects, whatever, you'll end up with the grade you started with.

As for Avogadro's number. Argh! "Six-point-oh-two-two-times-ten-to-the-twenty-third" rolls off the toungue with ease, twenty years later (to the week). Another trivium unrelated to anything I'll ever again encounter in my life, using up brain cells I could easily put to better use!
6.8.2006 6:55pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Avogadros # is 602300000000000000000000, and is the # of atoms or molecules in a "gram molecular weight" of a substance. H2O has a gram molecular weight of 18 (16gms for the Oxygen atom and 2 gms for the 2 Hydrogens) hence 18 gms of H2O contains an avogadros # of H2O molecules. I learned it in the german equivalent of third grade.
6.8.2006 6:58pm
Joel B. (mail):
I can't help but thinking that calling students who got A's, A+'s is just one of those old school things. (Which from my perspective is a good thing.) I got such a call once. It was really appreciated. I will saying there is little more scary than getting a call from your law professor after school was out, but it was nice.

The professor who called me, "old school" I'd say, which was generally my preference in professors anyways.

Of course, I've long thought well of you Eugene (even when I've disagreed with you), but stuff like this, give me little doubt as to your good character and kindly manner.
6.8.2006 7:28pm
CJColucci:
In my day, we got letters.
6.8.2006 7:36pm
A.S.:
Does Professor V teach any really large classes? I understand UCLA is a pretty school, but are the classes large? (I went to Georgetown, and our first year sections, and a number of other classes, were 120+ students. In that case, there could be a lot of phone calls to make...)
6.8.2006 7:56pm
Hans Gruber (www):
Professor,

I have a question that was spurred by all this talk about grades. What does it mean to get an A in one of your classes? Do you grade on style and creativity? Or does simple recitation of facts and precedent suffice? Is the reasoning more important than demonstrating knowledge of the law? As one your non-lawyer readers, I was just curious what kind of criteria law professors utilize. It would seem that a talented writer with an adequate understanding of the law would in many cases earn a better grade than a mediocre writer with an excellent understanding of the law. Is this a false assumption?
6.8.2006 8:01pm
Medis:
John Jenkins,

You say: "People get congratulated (and deservedly so) for doing *well*, not for trying really hard."

Why not both? And don't forget, the A and A+ students still get As and A+s.

Anyway, I was actually more thinking of people who showed the most improvement, although usually that does indeed take effort. And I might suggest that such a "value-added" sense of educational achievement is just a different way of defining what it means for student to "do well" in a course.

You also say: "Your supervising partner isn't going to pat you on the back for trying really hard if you screw something up."

Again, I was more thinking in terms of improvement than effort per se, but the bottomline is that a law professor is a teacher, not a boss. And in line with the "value-added" analysis above, I would also suggest that a teacher's greatest accomplishment does not necessarily occur when a student does well at the end of the class, but rather when a student does much better at the end of the class than they would have done at the beginning.

But to be clear, I'm not opposed to this practice. Still, if Professor Volokh is looking for reasons why it is not more common, I think this different sense of what it means for a student to do well in a class, or generally to achieve in their education, provides a partial explanation.
6.8.2006 8:08pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I think Professor Volokh's practice is a nice one and wish more professors did it.

Other professors may not do it because (1) maybe they think it rewards "elitism" to give praise to the A or A+ students, who may have had some educational/wealth advantages that the lower achieving students did not have; (2) they haven't thought of it; (3) sheer lazyness; or (4) they don't care as much about their students to do it.
6.8.2006 8:39pm
NatSecLaw Prof (mail):
Because I submit my grades to the Registrar more than a month before the school sends them to the students, I try to ease the tension of my students by making their grades available as soon as they are official. But, I do not do it for just the "A" students. The risk, I think, is that an attractive person of the opposite sex might think that you are seeking a return favor. I send an email to all my students giving them an overview of common mistakes on the exam as well as model answers. I think that this practice helps to make the exam a learning experience. With that email, I advise all students that I will provide their grade if they request it from an official law school email address (no hotmails that could be a forged identity). I have gotten many grateful responses from students across the grade spectrum. In fact, perhaps the ones at the bottom are most releived to learn that they did not fail.
6.8.2006 8:46pm
John Jenkins (mail):
Medis, law school is supposed to be a hard place. It is, in fact, probably too soft, all things considered. I just don't believe in rewarding effort or improvement per se: it's not how far you've come, but where you are that can be assessed.

C.C,,

who may have had some educational/wealth advantages that the lower achieving students did not have

That's a joke, right?

NatSecLaw Prof,

I think some schools frown on that practice. I know mine has a policy that says no grades should be released to students before the grades are all officially released. So far, only one adjunct professor has ever violated that one with me, and he was in a position just not to care about what the administration thought. Nonetheless, good job on turning those in early (it just bugs the living hell out of me that professors have a month to finish grading exams, especially since there are NO classes larger than about 90 people at my school).
6.8.2006 9:41pm
Mark at UofC:
My school doesn't even give out A+'s. I forgot they existed...
6.8.2006 11:55pm
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
CJColucci said in his day they got letters not phone calls. In my day it was carrier pigeons. (wink)

Says the "Dog"
6.9.2006 1:39am
Wild Pegasus (mail) (www):
"Hello?"
"Hi, this is Professor Volokh."
*stroke*
"I just wanted to congra...hello? Hello?"

- Josh
6.9.2006 1:40am
Eugene Volokh (www):
JunkYardLawDog: If you must use that "Says the 'Dog'" line, please don't put it in bold (or italics, for that matter), which is a customary way of drawing the reader's eye for emphasis.

Let me also suggest that, even if "Says the 'Dog'" was funny the first time, it's quite unlikely to be funny the twentieth.
6.9.2006 2:13am
dsn:
As someone who did get an email after getting 100% on an Engineering Midterm (I actually got 100% on the final as well, god bless objectively graded subjects) I must say its a nice feeling, and good on you for calling your students. The thing that always astonished me is how little contact most students have with their professors. Perhaps I'm biased because my dad is a professor, but never found talking to profs scary, and in fact find office hours are often the best way to learn, and once in a while profs have even gone out for a few beers with some of their students. If nothing else, doing that does wonders for the reference letters you get after ;)

One very ironic thing I found is that often the worst profs in the classrooms are the best in office hours. They tended to be the ones who, when you tell them what you don't understand, say things like "yeah, I can never get that right either. But here's the trick I use to keep it straight".
6.9.2006 2:32am
Medis:
John Jenkins,

You say: "law school is supposed to be a hard place."

I'd actually say it is supposed to be a place where you learn a lot. Challenging the students is part of that, of course, but it is the means, not the end.

You also say: "I just don't believe in rewarding effort or improvement per se: it's not how far you've come, but where you are that can be assessed."

First, that is again a false dichotomy. You can both reward people for their performance (eg, the students who write A and A+ exams actually do get As and A+s), and also think that those students who showed the most improvement deserve congratulations as well.

And, of course, improvement CAN be assessed, depending on how you conduct the course. Of course, you can't assess improvement with only one exam at the end, as I noted myself above. But if students have to perform multiple assignments during a course, then you can indeed assess their improvement.

Anyway, I know that when I taught, I took the most satisfaction not from when I helped an A student get an A on the final. Rather, I took the most satisfaction when, say, I helped a student who started off getting Cs work their way up to Bs and As.
6.9.2006 10:49am
jallgor (mail):
A.S.
If memory serves, my con law class with prof. volokh had about 90 people in it. UCLA is not as big as G-town (isn't Georgetown the biggest law school in the country?) but some 2l and 3l classes would have a couple hundred people in them.
6.9.2006 10:58am
dweeb:
dweeb, getting an A on a law school exam probably means you got 50% - 70% of the possible points.
All the more reason it should not merit superlatives.

Getting an A in law school does not mean you didn't make any errors (or even theleast number of errors in the class). It's not like a chemistry exam or a math exam. There often is no "right" answer on a law exam.

Actually, if one believes in objective truth, there is, even if no human knows it. All failures to discover, and perfectly express it, are errors, or failings. The point remains, everyone SHOULD achieve an A, because anything less is substandard performance, and you certainly wouldn't want to be the client for that.
6.9.2006 2:53pm
dweeb:
I don't know what Avogadro's number is BTW. I took chemistry 15 years ago

Not something to be pleased about. 24 years ago for me, and yet, even if I didn't remember the specific value, I'd be remiss not to know what its meaning is, and no, I don't use it regularly.

As for Avogadro's number. Argh! "Six-point-oh-two-two-times-ten-to-the-twenty-third" rolls off the toungue with ease, twenty years later (to the week).

What I asked people for was what Frank below stated, the MEANING of it, which is what is more important.

Another trivium unrelated to anything I'll ever again encounter in my life, using up brain cells I could easily put to better use!

So, the concept of the Renaissance man has no value?

Avogadros # is 602300000000000000000000, and is the # of atoms or molecules in a "gram molecular weight" of a substance

Which is the important part. Actually, the more accurate description is it is the number of atomic mass units in a gram.
6.9.2006 2:56pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):

Actually, if one believes in objective truth, there is, even if no human knows it.

Actually, we used to believe that the common law is not developed, but is in fact a truth that is discovered. We no longer believe that, because it is a fiction. Law is developed by courts and legislatures, and while some questions will have objectively correct and incorrect answers, many will not, and there will be much grey area, inevitably.


The point remains, everyone SHOULD achieve an A, because anything less is substandard performance, and you certainly wouldn't want to be the client for that.

Anything less than an A is substandard performance? I'm pretty sure that part of the reason why we have the A-D scale is that there are different standards for differnet people and purposes, and there is in any case, a continuum, not a line below which everything is substandard, and above which it's meeting or exceeding the standard.

If you want to pay no more than $200/ hr for a lawyer, you will find yourself lowering that straight A's standard quite a bit. If you are paying $700, A's alone will not cut it. This is all a lot more complicated, dweeb, than you are making it appear, and your generalizations do not hold up.

P.S. I'm happy to report that I just got an A+ (in M&A), and didn't do too badly at all, overall. I Wonder if a phone call from Prof. Miller is in order.
6.9.2006 3:21pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
JJ:


C.C,,

who may have had some educational/wealth advantages that the lower achieving students did not have

That's a joke, right?


Actually, it's not. I was merely trying to guess at why someone might object to the practice of calling to congratulate the students who achieved the highest grades, and the best I could come up with is that maybe some think of it as "elitist." As I said, I think the practice is a nice one and wish that other professors follow it.
6.9.2006 3:22pm
te (mail):
self-procaimed "renaissance men" tend to be the sorts of people you hate to be seated next to at a dinner party.
6.9.2006 6:12pm
Xrayspec:
I think an A or A+ says all there needs to be said on its own. The prof graded the exams, so the high grade already contains the prof's opinion of the student's performance.

I'd like to hear about the prof who calls the C- students and says hey, you didn't do so hot on my exam, but don't dwell on it, you'll do fine in your career.
6.9.2006 6:48pm
biu (mail):
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6.10.2006 4:10am