University of Toronto Law May Change Grading System

The Toronto Star recently reported that the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto may change its grading system in an attempt to reduce the stress that law students feel, specially during exam time (“Yoga, foot massage and dogs: This is law school?” by Louise Brown):

[T]he University of Toronto’s law school could become the first in Canada to scrap the often nerve-wracking letter grades of A, B, C, D and F for the kinder, gentler ratings of Honours, Pass and Fail.

I’ve got three thoughts about this, as reported.

First, the writer was wrong to scoff at the law students’ stress. It’s been known for decades that (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear) law school is at the top of the stress causing educational experiences, more stressful in some respects than medical school according to at least one study. It’s worrying and disheartening to be in a position, as I was when Associate Dean, to have to deal with the impacts of this stress on students, and anything that might alleviate it should be tried.

My second thought is that the revision to the grading system, at least as reported in the article, is unlikely to accomplish this alleviation. The exact nature of the proposal is a little unclear. The passage quoted above suggests a move to three grading categories. But later on in the piece, we’re told that the:

faculty is considering a plan to ditch its seven old letter grades (A, B+, B, C+, C, D, F) and introduce five broader categories of marks; High Honours, Honours, Pass, Low Pass and Fail.

My sense of it is that moving from A, B+, B, C+, C, D, F to A, B, C, D, F would do little if anything to help and might in fact increase student stress (some of which comes from the pressure to excel rather than the fear of failure) by removing possible marks of achievement (real or spurious). Certainly calling a C a “pass” or a B “honours” would change nothing. This is particularly true if the law school is planning to introduce a mandatory grade curve, as the article suggests. If it wasn’t the case before, with a curve the competition to escape the force of gravity exerted by obligatory Cs and possibly Ds will be intense.

Finally, I want to note that there is nothing new whatever in this proposal. We at Osgoode mooted this very sort of change to the grading system at least three times during my 30 years on the faculty, even going so far as to consider a simple pass-fail system. And I’m sure we weren’t alone among Canadian law schools in seriously reviewing the system. As I recall, in every case students were hotly opposed to these efforts by faculty to shift the focus off marks and on to learning itself. Students want law school for the credentials it gives them, and the more slices of that baloney the better, even at the cost of gut-wrenching anxiety.

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