Oh, yeah … HLS is about learning


One of the loudest complaints that makes the rounds among HLS’ 1L sections every year is the lack of academic feedback. By the time students progress to their second and third years, those complaints are drowned out by a deluge of claims that grading here is “arbitrary” and has little to do with actual learning.

Professors might dismiss those complaints as the moans of students facing less-than-perfect grades for the first time. But some segments of the law school are recognizing the whining for what it is — an attack on the lack of transparency in HLS’ grading system.

In terms of law school norms, Prof. Tribe took a revolutionary step this week. He notified the 100-plus members of his Advanced Constitutional Law class that he was finished grading fall exams and invited them to drop by and take a look. Students who took him up on the offer discovered that Prof. Tribe had not just given each exam a grade. He had hand-written comments on — gasp! — each and every paper. His able assistant even provided students with Xeroxed copies of their graded exams. All this while some professors refuse to turn in their grades in time for the Registrar’s Office to release them in late February.

In theory, a focus on increased feedback played a major part in the revisions made to the 1L curriculum. All 1Ls were given an opportunity to turn in an assignment and receive individualized feedback. Though that project was moderately successful, 1Ls still won’t receive systematic feedback on their January exams. Prediction: Next year’s 2L class will also complain that grading at HLS is arbitrary.

The current system works something like this:

Student takes class.

Student takes exam.

Professor grades exam, evaluating legal arguments, critical thinking and mastery of the subject.

Two months later, student receives grade from Registrar’s Office.

Student does not remember what he/she wrote on the exam.

Student does not remember what the exam was about.

Student has no idea why he/she received the grade in question.

Student never sees the exam again.

Student complains that grading at Harvard Law School is arbitrary.

This isn’t a problem unique to HLS, but the school is special in that it is currently in a period of re-evaluation, restructuring and change. Since the death of grade reform, only a minor part of that change has targeted HLS’ system for evaluating students.

Giving students feedback requires substantial time and effort on the part of professors — professors whose time is in high demand.

But, lest we forget, this is a school. If we don’t know where we went wrong, how are we supposed to learn?