Making the Grade

By: Prof. Abigail Perdue 

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with a wonderful colleague who is teaching Legal Writing for the very first time. She had just released Memo One grades to her anxious 1Ls. During the conversation that ensued, I shared with her several things I wish I’d known as a first-year professor that specifically pertain to grading – lessons that I’ve sometimes had to learn the hard way through the years. Here are just a few:

Lesson One: Adjust Your Expectations

Before you start grading any exercise, remind yourself of where your students are in the learning process. You may have entered Academia straight from the practice or a clerkship where the last attorney work product you read had been prepared by a seasoned practitioner or capable first-year associate. Although we hope our attorneys-in-progress will grow and improve through the year until they can write at that level, we can’t reasonably expect them to achieve that goal after a few weeks of class. Even a capable summer associate has enjoyed at least a full year of law school training, not a few weeks. Adjust your expectations to be high but also realistic.

 Lesson Two: Be Transparent

Using a grading rubric can have countless benefits. I craft a tentative rubric that is customized to each assessment, and I provide it to students at the outset of the exercise. Creating the rubric reinforces concepts I need to emphasize when teaching the module. I encourage students to use it to self-assess their work and even to gauge how much time to spend on each section (for example, spending more time on the Argument, which comprises the bulk of the grade). Sometimes I even incorporate the rubric into an in-class, peer editing exercise toward the end of the module. Using the rubric has been incredibly helpful because students know what I expect, and I am held accountable as I grade each section. Because I understand a rubric cannot be exhaustive, I include a catch-all “Other” at the end of each section where I can include comments that don’t squarely relate to something listed on the rubric. Although I’ve thankfully never had occasion to do so, use of the rubric would also help me explain or justify my grading to students or colleagues. Students, particularly Millennials and Gen Zers, appreciate the transparency.

Lesson Three: Manage Student Expectations

Before releasing grades, explain to students what they will receive and what the comments will mean. Consider providing a comments explanation sheet. Remind them of additional penalties for lateness, exceeding the page limit, leaving in track changes, etc. Encourage them to read all of the areas that were effective before reading the areas that need improvement. Emphasize that feedback is provided to help them learn and grow; mistakes can be the best lessons. Let them know if your feedback style focuses more on what they did well, more on areas that need improvement, or provides a balanced combination of both. Consider sharing the class average and how it compares to past years so that students can get a sense of where they fit in the class. Put things into perspective, encouraging them to not be too hard on themselves because this was their first attempt at a legal memo, only constitutes a small portion of the grade, etc. Offer to meet with them to answer any lingering questions. Encourage them to thoughtfully review the feedback before submitting their next exercise.

Lesson Four: Stand your Ground

Provide a detailed explanation of your grading policies in your Syllabus and follow them absent extenuating circumstances. For instance, it should ideally explain whether the score is raw or curved. It should clarify how students can raise questions about a grade and in what time frame after grades are released. It should clarify whether you will merely correct calculation errors to a grade or entertain more in-depth grade challenges as well as how those will be handled. Unfortunately, first-year professors can be especially susceptible to push back from students who may be testing boundaries. But failing to follow your own policies can damage class morale, lead to unfair results, and invite additional push back. Absent extenuating circumstances, it is far better to be fair and transparent than to allow disappointed students to retroactively negotiate higher grades.

Lesson Five: Share your Fail Stories

 If you feel comfortable, ease the shock of the first grade by sharing your own fail stories with students. I often recount the shock and disappointment I experienced during my sophomore year in college. After receiving high grades in my first-year English courses, I had finally declared English as my major. But during my very first gateway seminar to the major, I earned a C on my first paper. My professor ran the college Writing Center and was a notoriously challenging professor. As I walked home to my dorm room, reading his comments, tears streamed down my face because I had worked so hard on the paper. My friends in the class who I knew had invested far less time had earned higher grades. The grade immediately caused me to second guess my decision to major in English. Perhaps I just didn’t have what it takes to succeed? But the next day, I scooped myself up and made an appointment to meet with the professor, not to challenge my grade, but instead to ask questions that his comments had provoked and to determine how not to repeat those errors in my next piece. Throughout the semester, my grades steadily improved as did my writing. More than that, I began to grow a thick skin; I no longer took his comments as a personal attack. They didn’t bring tears to my eyes no matter how they stung. Instead, I realized that they were meant to help me grow, and that’s exactly what they did. I emerged from the class a far stronger writer who felt prepared for anything. Moreover, our constant meetings outside class had facilitated the creation of a strong, meaningful professor-student relationship so much so that I asked him to serve as my English advisor. Still today, I attribute much of my success in writing and my approach to teaching to that incredible professor. I didn’t learn because he was easy; I grew because he was tough. After I share this story, I encourage my students to allow any perceived setback to be a setup for success – an opportunity for growth and grit.

 Lesson Six: Give Students Time to Process

 Never release grades the night before class or at the beginning of class. Students won’t have had time to process the information, and it risks distracting them from the course topic that day. Furthermore, if they have an emotional reaction to the grade, it is far better for them and for you if they can have that reaction, which may be uncontrollable, in the privacy of their own home, not in the middle of class. It’s far better to release grades after your last class of the week so that students have ample time to process the information and enter the next class with an open, focused mindset.

What advice would you provide to a new professor about grading? Share your thoughts at [email protected], and we might just post them.

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