Several law schools in the United States already use the pass/fail system, including Harvard and Stanford universities, which made the switch in 2008.
The faculty of law announced the proposed changes in September. At a town hall meeting in October, associate dean Benjamin Alarie made a case for the pass/fail system.
“The problem with grading to an average is that faculty members will tend to give everyone a B or B+ to stay with the average if they are uncomfortable with giving out high or low marks, which makes it harder to get a high mark. But some professors prefer to spread out the grades. This is arbitrary in terms of class rank,” he said.
The pass/fail system would eliminate the curve that exists with letter grades, which requires high marks to essentially balance out with low marks. In effect, this has the potential to cause grade inflation as professors would be able to hand out a greater number of high marks. Also without a letter grade, students in the high honours category would have more difficulty standing out from their classmates.
It’s safe to say that most Canadian law students are obsessed with their grades, mainly in an effort to impress potential employers. It is hoped that the pass/fail system would reduce students’ anxiety over grades.
Sarah Armstrong, a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP and a member of the firm’s student development committee, witnesses students’ concerns about grades during recruitment. As a former law student, she says she would have preferred the pass/fail system.
“I think it would actually free you up to feel like there wasn’t so much pressure on grades and that you were there to focus more on what you actually learn than the letter grade that you achieved,” she says.
Along with reducing students’ stress, Diego Beltran, a second-year law student at U of T, says graduates looking to work in the United States could benefit from the pass/fail system as it would make it easier for employers to compare marks.
But in Canada, Armstrong says the pass/fail system wouldn’t make much of a difference in the recruitment process.
“Yes, it will affect our analysis because as I said there’s less to differentiate the marks that the students get, but I don’t think it will have a huge impact on how we do our hiring overall,” says Armstrong.
“We tend to take a bit of a holistic view of a student’s application so marks are only one piece of the puzzle that we focus on.”
Second-year law student Simonne Horwitz worries that the pass/fail system could hurt those looking for jobs in Canada. “[A] ‘pass’ does not sound as good as a ‘B’ even though they presumably correspond to the same category of students,” she says.
Despite the potential benefits of the pass/fail system put forward by the faculty, the Students’ Law Society decided to take matters into its own hands and find out what first-year law students thought about the proposed change. Of the 144 first-year law students it surveyed, approximately 63 per cent said they would prefer the pass/fail system over letter grades.
Although the majority of the 1L student body is in favour of the change, the SLS is critical of the faculty’s lack of consultation with students. Aaron Rankin, SLS president, and Justin Nasseri, SLS vice president, academic, expressed their dissatisfaction in the Oct. 19 issue of Ultra Vires, the law faculty’s student newspaper: “[S]tudents are most affected by and therefore most invested in the school’s grading policy. However, the consultation with limited numbers of students that took place on grading reform prior to the start of this school year was, in effect if not by design, essentially unobserved by most students.”
Law dean Mayo Moran told Canadian Lawyer 4Students that they are still in discussions and no final decision has been made yet. The changes would most likely take place in the fall and only affect the incoming class.
Update: July 26, 2012: The University of Toronto Faculty of Law approved the new grading system on June 29. It will take effect for the incoming JD class in September.