To D or not to D, that is the question

Let’s talk for a second about every law student’s favorite subject – grades.

Back when (and where) I attended law school, the curve was right around B+. For any given class, perhaps 25 or 30 percent of students would receive an A or A-minus, perhaps 30 percent would receive a B-plus, and another 30 or maybe 40 percent a B. A small group of stragglers might receive B-minuses, but only truly derelict students – serial killers, for example, or Republicans – ever stood to receive anything less.

Things are different at my current employer. There is a 2.5-2.8 mandatory average, and there are caps for each grade level. As a result, my curve required me to assign a number of B-minuses, C’s and C-pluses.

Below that group lay a subset of exams which is the topic of this post: Those which were clearly going to end up below C level. The question on my mind was just how far below C level these should fall. Should I lump them all together under the C-minus umbrella? Or were some of them destined to receive D’s?


Let me be clear on one thing – none of the exams I received were truly abyssmal; none were, in my opinion, F-worthy. None were pure gibberish, and all demonstrated some grasp of the concepts covered in class. But some exams were better than others. The below-C-level cohort was the weakest group of exams. Each of them suffered from serious deficiencies, such as entirely missing significant parts of the right answer. More relevantly, some of them were worse than others. Should I divide this group into the C-minuses and the D-pluses?

My first step was to investigate local norms. At Columbia, a D is the kiss of death, poison on the transcript. I wasn’t sure if the same applied at TJ. I asked around, and found that D’s are not rare at TJ, but neither are they particularly common. Professors are not required to give D’s under the mandatory curve; where a professor does assign D’s, they usually comprise 5 percent or less of the class.

So now I knew that on the one hand I wasn’t forced to give D’s; on the other hand, I wouldn’t be viewed as an ogre if I did choose to give a few D’s. But the question remained unanswered of whether I should give a D.

In the end, I decided the issue based on a few things. First, I knew that, even if TJ norms provided for the occasional D, some employers would likely still see them as the kiss of death. Second, I felt that I had had a pretty good class. Everyone participated, everyone got involved in the class discussions. Finally, I didn’t feel that any of the C-minus exams differed from the rest by a significant order of magnitude. Some were worse than others, yes, but any line I chose to draw would be my own creation, not something that simply jumped out of the numbers. I had drawn such lines in other places where the curve required them, but there was no such requirement here.

And that is the story of how I chose to assign no D’s this semester. I don’t know whether I’ll be doing the same in future semesters, but I feel pretty good about how it turned out this time around.

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2 Responses

  1. Mike Dimino says:

    I think you correctly note that each class will be different in terms of how much worse the bottom of the pack is from the rest. So far, though, I definitely side with being a lower grader than necessary. I have given Fs to students the past two semesters, and though I feel sorry for some of the students, I know that the exams they turned in did not show a minimal competence in the subject matter (or, generally, in English usage).

    Giving grades at the very low end of the curve allows me to make up for it at the high end, and also helps give me a reputation as a tough grader, which means that students self-select into my classes to some extent. Both of these are side-effects, though. I give low grades because I cannot honestly satisfy myself that the students should receive credit for the course given their exams (and papers).

    If Ds are the kiss of death, then there is a substantial detrerence function to giving them — deterring, that is, slacking off. Additionally, low grades encourage students who would be poor lawyers or who would fail the bar exam to find other careers. This last effect also helps the school, as U.S. News will get better bar-passage and post-graduation employment statistics.

  2. J says:

    “Additionally, low grades encourage students who would be poor lawyers or who would fail the bar exam to find other careers.”

    Are you kidding me? It is presumptuous to make all those generalizations. A student does not deserve an F unless they were incapable of spotting any issues and failed to provide a semblance of something that looks like a response to the fact pattern. I know I got a couple of D’s for not outlining. I had a mental block on two separate occasions and forgot to analyze an issue. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the concepts or fact patterns.