8.2 – Understanding Grades and the Curve


Understanding Grades and the Curve

Grading has curves, mandatory mean, and average.

Let's imagine that you finally do get your grades. It's been however many weeks since you took your exam and your grades have finally posted online, or they've been released to you by a school registrar and you finally get them. They may be better than you expected, they may be worse than you expected, they may be what you expected, you may not have known what to expect. There's a lot of possibilities, but I think it's helpful to try to understand what your grades mean. One thing that I think new law students find a little bit difficult to adjust to is the fact that almost every American law school is graded on something that looks like a fairly strict curve.

Now, people coming from a sciences or math background might be more used to curved grades, but people coming from the humanities, fields like that, are going to find that a bit more unusual because in your undergraduate program, you might not have had any curve at all. It might've just been, if you do a good job, you'll get an A, if you don't do a great job, you'll get a B-range grade or below, and so forth. Law school grades aren't like that at all, in the sense that most schools have some kind of curve. That can mean different things at different places. At some schools, what they have is a mandatory mean. The average has to be something, but it doesn't necessarily tell you how the grades are distributed.

Other schools have something that looks much more like a strict set of grade distributions, in the sense that this many percent can get A's, this many percent can get an A-, this many percent can get B+, this many percent can get B, and so forth through the range of possible grades. Under either system, the idea is the really top grades, the grades that you might have been more used to getting when you were an undergraduate, are not necessarily going to be plentifully available. It may be the case that a law school admits a class, the majority of which had A-range grades throughout all of college, and then they get to a law school with a curve that suggests that most people are not going to have an A average.

Some schools have much tighter curves than others. There are some schools where they have twelve people in a class who have grades that are above a 4.0, and there's some schools where nobody ever gets above a 4.0. How exactly the curve works is going to look a little differently depending on what school you go to, but you need to approach your grades with a little bit of that institutional knowledge. You need to figure out, what exactly do these grades mean? How do they put me on the curve at my individual school? What that means, I think, is that, first of all, you need to try to disregard whatever your prior conceptions are about what is the platonic ideal meaning of an A grade because that's out the window.

Think of it, you're getting an A grade at X Law school, and at X Law School the average grade is a B, and only 8% of the class gets an A, and 12% gets an A- or so forth. You want to try to put that in perspective. The fact that law school exams are curved, though, it can also be problematic and it also can be beneficial in the sense that it changes what you're trying to do. If you imagine a law school that didn't have a curve, it just had absolute standards, in any given class you would just be expected to get most of the points or demonstrate a certain level of knowledge.

In a law school exam, by contrast, I have written exams where the best score was something like half of the possible points, the best score that anyone got was something like half of the possible points. That was totally fine. It was written to be very challenging and it was very easy to grade for that reason. An exam that's really easy actually creates a real grading problem for the professor. There's this old joke about there's two guys out in the woods and there's a bear that suddenly appears and starts chasing them. One of them bends over and starts putting on his tennis shoes and the other says, "What are you doing? You'll never be able to outrun the bear."

Grading is relative and not absolute.

He says, "I don't need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you." That's the goal in law school. You don't need to get perfect knowledge of anything, you just need to perform in a way that's better and really just even a little bit better than a certain number of your peers to get very high grades. If you take an exam where the best person gets only half the points and you get half the points, you're getting an A or an A+. For that reason, how you feel about how you did in any given class is not necessarily going to track how you actually do.

You could take an exam and you could think, "Gosh, I just destroyed that exam. I got so many points. I thought about it so carefully, I wrote such a good idea answer," and you get a middling grade because it turns out maybe it was just an easy exam. Maybe it was a class where the professor wrote an exam that really just tested a bunch of topics that everybody in the class knew really well and it just didn't create enough separation. Whereas you could take another exam where you just feel like, "Gosh, I got completely destroyed. I really didn't know anything. I must have missed half the issues," but it turns out you actually spotted a couple more than other folks and you end up with a very top grade.

I think that's another reason why you shouldn't try to agonize too much about your performance until you get your grades because you're just not going to be able to figure it out just by thinking about it. Your performance depends entirely on how everybody else did. That's something that's going to be entirely invisible to you. If you did well, that's great. If you didn't do as well as you wanted, just remind yourself it's on a curve and this is just the way the curve works. With the curve system, 90% of people in the class are not going to be in the top 10%. That's just definitionally true. That said, there are going to be opportunities for you to improve. That's what I'm going to talk about in the next couple of lessons.

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