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Marks make us into monsters

Ab Initio
|Written By Ted Flett
Marks make us into monsters

With exams behind us and law students merrily settled back at home with loved ones and mom and dad’s well-stocked fridge, school seems a distant memory. However, grades have begun to trickle in and facing the music of marks will continue for many students well into June.

It’s marks — the simple column of letters beneath a transcript’s university seal — that equate with our self worth and drive students to distraction. If that’s not bad enough, it’s the next column of letters that indicate the class average that tends to evoke the worst in students, even if it is intended to bring forth our best.

Zero-sum game

Any grade is essentially moot until the average grade is released. The overachievers that we are, each law student’s goal is to be above average; naturally. This inherently requires that others be average or below average. Simply put, the ranking of law students and bell curving of marks means my success depends on a classmate’s misfortune.

Sometimes the average mark is not provided upon mark distribution and so the speculation begins. Chatter commences. Eyes dart from paper to paper in the hands of nearby students to gauge how people did. It’s often an invasion of privacy that is overlooked given our obsession to know precisely how we did. In the frenzy and anxiety, it can be easy to exercise poor judgment and bad manners.

This mindset — hoping that we did better than someone else — is contrary to the teamwork approach we regularly hear that the profession of law values and fosters. Even law school survival tips emphasize camaraderie. I still vividly recall the sage advice passed on by the law student society president’s remarks during my 1L orientation.

“Your classmates are your colleagues, not your competition,” said Will Russell on the first day of school in September 2013. “When you leave here, these will be your best references. These will be the people you rely on when you have problems and when you find work. Be generous. Be courteous. Be kind.”

“There will be a lot of pressure here,” he continued. “There are some sleepless nights but there will be opportunities to sleep — at Christmas break. Law school is not impossible but it’s easier if you can rely on your classmates beside you. Support each other. Get each other through.”

Russell’s honourable advice is easier said than done when the marks-hungry beast unleashes within even the most community-minded law student. Marks mean scholarships, exchange opportunities, grad school, articling, a job, and more. The stakes are high.

To gain a competitive edge, there are various techniques beyond reading and attending lectures. While stories of missing library text pages at the hands of conniving cut-throat students seem more fable, based on my experience, it is not unheard of, for example, that some students opt to save their questions for office hours with the professor so the wisdom drawn from the Q&A is not shared with classmates during a lecture.

The pains of participation marks

For courses that use class participation as a means of evaluation, it’s a whole different ballgame. Oddly, I can shrug off a less-than-hoped-for exam mark worth 100 per cent of the final grade more easily than a participation mark worth only 10 or 15 per cent.

I liken participation marks to collegiality awards. If I’m likeable, I reckon the professor will reward me with a generous participation mark. A poor or less-than-expected mark feels like the professor thinks that I am stupid as demonstrated by my in-class comments. Or, perhaps my voice is grating. “She doesn’t like me,” I think to myself.

This past semester, the distribution of participation marks in employment law, for example, left tsunami-like devastation among the class. I was with a small group of fellow students when the individual e-mails pinged into our inboxes.

“Eight out of 15,” gasped one friend, who regularly attended and participated in class. “That’s ridiculous!” A prolonged discussion about the possible arbitrariness of grading ensued before we were able to move on to studying.

Consistency across law schools

The variety of average grades across schools in Canada is also problematic. The University of New Brunswick’s comparatively low B- average from which 1L marks are bell curved, can be problematic for students competing in the same employment pool as Ontario, Alberta, or B.C. law school students.

UNB students with out-of-province aspirations like me face a hurdle as some law firm recruiters put our out-of-the-ordinary average into context when comparing apples and oranges.

Moving forward

Solutions such as the pass/fail marking model or removing the bell curve requirement seem worthy of consideration to marry the by-product of the law school’s grading strategy to the profession’s team-minded approach. In the meantime, the law school survivalist mentality is bumping and grinding with the relationship-building lawyer archetype.


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