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Should McGill’s Faculty of Law make a pass at a pass-fail system

Student in front of a computer

“Given that the time and stress associated with grading has the potential to distract instructors from other, more meaningful aspects of teaching and learning, it is perhaps time to begin scrutinizing our tacit assumptions surrounding grading.”

– Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner (2014)

Pass-fail grading was proposed as a non-competitive alternative to the traditional letter grading in the mid-1960s. Since then, medical programs across Canada and the United States have shifted to the pass-fail model and have reported improvements in academic performance and the overall well-being of students. Following suit, several law schools in the United States now use the pass-fail system, including Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Yale. Just recently, the University of Toronto also switched to the pass-fail model. This begs the question: is it time for McGill Law to drop letter grades in favour of a two-tier grading system?

McGill Law is currently experimenting with the pass-fail grading system for a four-credit course titled Integration Workshop. As a Tutorial Leader (TL) in this first-year law course, I have been exposed to its many benefits. However, before diving into why McGill may consider moving away from the traditional five-interval grading system (A/B/C/D/F), it is worthwhile mentioning the criticisms of the pass-fail system.

Proponents of the traditional grading system often insist that grades are necessary in legal education to allow employers to distinguish among candidates. Although applicants submit a cover letter, CV and transcript, it is no secret that a high GPA guarantees you an interview. This goes hand-in-hand with the common myth that law school grades are a good predictor of who will become a good lawyer. However, a study from Harvard debunked this false assumption when it found that grades are not actually predictive of partnership in law firms – a possible measure of a lawyer’s success.

It is not surprising to find that grades are an inaccurate reflection of who will be a good lawyer, especially when you consider the lack of objectivity of grades in law school. I am not convinced that if you were to give two professors the exact same copy of an exam they would award that exam the exact same number of points. Although rubrics may help, my experience as a TL has shown me how hard it is to be consistent in grading. It is easy to give a lower-than-deserved grade to a paper after having read an excellent assignment. After grading my first set of assignments, I found myself having to go back and adjust grades to ensure consistency.

Another criticism of the pass-fail model is that grades are needed as a source of motivation. But is it really that naïve to expect students to pursue knowledge for its own sake rather than for a grade? Although many may answer this question in the affirmative, I believe that the situation in law school is different. The majority of students already have degrees and are in school because they want to be. At McGill Law, where students have come from being the highest ranked in their undergraduate courses, I doubt that a pass-fail model would decrease student motivation and effort. In my classroom, I am always amazed by the level of student engagement and enthusiasm in activities that are not graded. A study conducted at the Mayo Medical School further rebuts this argument by revealing that letter grades simply change intrinsically motivated learners (influenced by internal and personal motivating factors) into extrinsic learners (influenced by someone else trying to motivate you to do something).

This same study conducted at the Mayo Medical School reveals the psychological benefits of a pass-fail grading system. In 2006, the medical school changed the grading system for first-year courses from the traditional five-interval grading system to a pass-fail grading scheme. The cohort of students evaluated using a pass-fail grading system reported statistically significant less anxiety, depression and stress. The students also exhibited better well-being and group cohesion (less within-group competition) compared to their five-interval graded peers. These benefits were shown to continue to the end of their second year, even though the grading reversed to the traditional five-point system in second year. These benefits are not something to overlook in legal education, especially as depression rates amongst students continue to increase.

Furthermore, my experience is that without a strong emphasis on grades, students are more inclined to participate in classroom discussion. Students seem less concerned about competition, their status in relation to others and the opinion of the professor. This is clearly illustrated in the level of participation during the Integration Workshop. Students seem less afraid to ask a “dumb question.” The traditional grading system may therefore be inhibiting students from participating, a very important learning strategy.

The psychological benefits definitely seem to give the pass-fail system an advantage. Will McGill be the next law school to embrace these benefits?

 

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