Layers of Pressure and Student Performance

Ontario Law Student, Class of 2016

 

You have probably heard the saying that “Grades are not everything in law school.” But, you and I both know they do count. They count in the decision-making for assistantships, internships and law-related jobs. And, while I do think grades are important for these decisions, I also think it is appropriate to understand how grades are arrived at.

I remember receiving one of my very first midterm grades in law school. It was Property. I got a ‘C’. I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck. “Did I really deserve that grade?” “How do I expect to do well when I have started off on the wrong foot?” resounded in my head. What brought my mark down to a ‘C’ was the ‘essay’ component of the midterm evaluation. I quickly thought to myself, “Is my professor telling me I can’t write an essay for goodness sake?” Emotions aside for a second, I needed to figure out how to do well on essay exam-writing. So, I prepared a new essay answer (based on her comments) and then met with her. She appreciated my effort in crafting this new answer and gave me some pointers on how to write. One pointer was “Pick a side and run with it and be very argumentative if you need to be.” It was difficult for me to hear this because I am not generally argumentative or polemical. Yet, it was something I needed to learn, and learn fast because if I know if didn’t I would definitely feel more unnecessary anxiety.

I tell you that story because I have a weakness: I can’t write ‘good’ legal essays in an exam setting. For me, it’s the idea of wanting/needing to feel like my essay is perfect but then knowing that there is not enough time for it. I can hear someone reading this and saying “strategize” or “manage your time.” But I did come from a discipline where writing essays was common practice. You did not have to think on the spot per se whereas in law school, it is an absolute must. My learning ability conformed to a certain way. For the record, I can write good legal essays outside of an exam setting. Yes, this is not just a hopeful sentiment, but I actually perform better outside of the law school exam. For me, I need time to deliberate, research (know both sides), analyze and synthesize. I look at essay-writing as an inherently thoughtful process sort of like taking abstract ideas and giving them practice – seeing how they unfold in daily life.

You may find that you are a better fact-finder than you are a legal essay writer, or the opposite could be true or you could be great at both. But with much emphasis on grades and curves, law faculties should expect their students to be and continue to be anxious bean counters. When it comes to how professors arrive at grades, you will have some faculty have different methods of evaluation than the traditional exam because they do not feel that by writing the traditional exam, a student is somehow necessarily better prepared/equipped for the profession than someone who writes a client advice letter for example.

I think it would be helpful if more professors gave their students options on the method of evaluation for their courses: write an exam or write an advice letter. Doing so will speak to the strengths of all students who had been evaluated in a prior life based on exams or essay writing. It will also reduce the anxiety levels on campus and restore some confidence in those who are traditionally at the margins of quantitative success.

If I believe my success depends on my grades then my grades should be arrived at by my strengths (and my weaknesses) to some extent. But of course, I may not necessarily believe that success solely depends on my grades. You, my friend, also have a great personality. Remember that!