Exam Review Culture
I had a really fantastic weekend in St. Louis, where I attended the Conducting Empirical Legal Scholarship: The Advanced Course workshop at Wash U. Or, as I heard folks describe it, “Stats Camp: This Time We’re Not Screwing Around.”
In any event, it got me in the mood to measure things. This morning, as I conducted an exam review for one of my students, I considered whether there was a relationship between the curve, exams reviews, and the production of scholarship.
The basic story would go like this. At some schools – including the one where I teach – there is a strong culture of encouraging students to come to professors’ offices after receiving grades to review the exam and find ways to improve their performance. To my mind, this is a very good thing – not just for students, who can be taught to do better on an economically consequential activity – but for professors, who can figure out exactly how badly written exams confuse test-takers. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of my fall semester class came in to meet with me over the last two weeks (at a half-hour a meeting). But, looking back at where I went to law school, I can’t remember ever going to talk to a professor about my exams, nor any of my friends doing so either. Casual inquiry among conference participants suggests that a culture of encouraging colleagues to undertake individualized exam review is more common at schools outside of the traditional top tier.
Why? It surely isn’t because students at top-tier schools lack incentives to get to know professors. And, I doubt it is because professors at elite institutions don’t care about teaching. Nor, in the end, is it because exam review isn’t helpful, or because grades don’t matter at schools without a culture of review.
Basically, I think that an exam review culture is a function of a mandatory curve. When professors give out Cs, Ds, and Fs, students receive a strong signal that their performance is subpar. (By contrast, receiving a B at Harvard, the equivalent to a C at Temple (which mandates a 2.85 mean) in terms of relevant class rank, is no signal at all.) As a result, they demand review. A faculty culture encouraging review is simply a reaction to consumer demand.
So there is a tradeoff, as always. A curve helps increase bar passage by signaling students about their class position. It results in more faculty time spent teaching. More time teaching is traded off against (a) leisure; and (b) other faculty work, most significantly, time spent writing. Thus, one way we might imagine grade inflation is as a subsidy for scholarship. Since scholarship is already well-subsidized by high class size and low teaching loads, this seems to be a weird allocation of school resources. (By contrast, a harder bar exam starts to look like a a tax on scholarship, albiet indirectly.)
More half-baked ideas from the AELSC to come.