Making the grade . . . or appealing it

Making the grade . . . or appealing it
If you notice law students looking more disheveled lately, seemingly unaware of what’s going on around them, and constantly checking their cellphones, it’s probably because they’re waiting for first-semester exam grades to be released.

Some students will be thrilled with their grades; others will be severely disappointed. For those who didn’t get the marks they were expecting, they can appeal them — a familiar concept for law students.

The appeal process is different at every school. At Osgoode Hall Law School, students have 21 days after grades are released to file an appeal. Nancy Sperling, manager of programs and records in the student services department at Osgoode, says the appeal has to be based on a significant or factual error. So you can’t just appeal your C grade because you don’t like it. Well, you can, but it’s likely to go nowhere.

Michael O’Brien, an articling student at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, says he knew many students who appealed their grades when he was the academic vice president of the Students’ Law Society at the University of Windsor.

“While it is more likely to see grade appeals from students with marks that come in below the curve, there are a number of students who appeal B+ and A range grades as well,” he says.

Some students appeal their grades because they don’t agree with the mark they received as a result of their school’s bell curve.

At Osgoode, all classes with more than 30 students are subject to the school’s grading profile, which breaks down as: 15 per cent of students in the class get As, 60 per cent get Bs, 20 per cent get Cs, and five per cent get Ds/Fs. Professors are allowed to deviate up or down up to five per cent in any category.

Sperling says the grading profile is to “ensure fairness across the board.” For example, a more lenient professor might give the whole class As, whereas a tougher professor might give every student a C — situations the grading profile is able to prevent.

However, some students feel they’re not getting the marks they deserve.

“I think that the curve is unfair,” says one second-year Osgoode student. “It is not capable of accurately reflecting a student’s knowledge and capabilities. If there has to be a certain proportion of Cs, then the instructor has to make an arbitrary cut-off point somewhere, regardless of the student’s performance.”

“I can’t help but feel that the system is a lottery,” he tells 4Students. “It feels like my best performance ultimately depends on the shortcomings of my peers. Leaving the exam I almost never know whether I wrote an A or a C exam.”  

Other students don’t mind the curve, such as third-year University of Toronto law student Jonathan Bright.

“It’s impossible to mark in any other way at this point,” he says. “If what you’re really trying to do is show to employers who your best students are and who your not-so-good students are, then you need a curve because there has to be some way for students to stand out from the rest of the pack.”

When considering filing an appeal, O’Brien offers this advice to students:

Don’t jump to conclusions
“You don’t know why you received the grade until you’ve looked at your exam. It’s possible that the professor made an error in addition; it’s possible that they made a mistake and meant to give that grade to somebody else; it’s possible that they should’ve awarded you 10 extra marks for a question; or it’s possible that you completely missed the issue.”

Take the exam review seriously
“If you’re not happy with the grade, then go in there, block off a certain amount of time during the day for each exam . . . and take notes. You want to keep track of the question, what your answer was, what the answer key says, as well as your grade.”

Sit down and write a well-reasoned appeal
“Every appeal that I’ve heard about that’s been successful, they’ve taken the writing of the appeal seriously. It’s an opportunity for written advocacy for students.”

Then forget about it
“Wash your hands; it’s going to take months to process, especially if they have an independent review process. Don’t think about it. Worst-case scenario is the mark doesn’t get changed.”

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