Harvard Replaces Grades with Animated Emoticons


An example of some of the new grades professors may assign.

In the wake of mounting student complaints regarding grades and in light of other top law schools, such as Berkeley, maintaining their non-traditional grading systems without plummeting in the law school rankings, Harvard Law has announced that it is getting rid of its traditional grading system. Instead of establishing a high pass, pass, low pass system similar to Yale and Berkeley’s, HLS has opted to try something completely different, perhaps in hopes of distinguishing itself from Stanford Law and really securing its place in the rankings.

Beginning in Fall 2009, all HLS classes will be graded based on a system of large animated emoticons. The Registrar explained that professors may “grade” their students by assigning smiling, really big smiling, winking, surprised/shocked, one eyebrow raised, tongue tied, indifferent, and frowning emoticons. Giving of the flirting or angel emoticons is strictly prohibited.

As with its traditional (now obsolete) grading system, students will not be ranked. But now there will be no more Sears Prize and there will be no more summa, magna, and cum laude – all students will merely graduate from Harvard Law School.

For many years, HLS students have criticized the traditional grading system as random and frustrating. A 3L noted: “One semester I got an A, an A-, a B+, and a B. Now, really, did I know federal courts that much better than administrative law? Aren’t they basically the same thing?”

Remarked Professor Randall Kennedy, “I just want to stress that I never threw the exams down a flight of stairs marked with letter grades. I had my assistant do that for me.”

In response to these concerns and concerns that the emoticons merely replace the traditional grades, the administration explained that they don’t expect or request that professors attach particular significance to certain emoticons. For example, based on a professor’s tendencies, a frowning emoticon may mean the student’s answers were not as insightful as his classmates’, or that the answers were so good that the professor is frowning at himself, or merely that the professor realized the exam question itself was written in such a way that most students could not arrive at the required answer, especially the ones who came to class. The same is true of the big smile emoticon: perhaps the student’s answer was terrific, or perhaps the professor is just really excited that this is the last exam he is grading.

The administration hopes the emoticon system will bring the focus back to the classroom, relieve students’ stress about grades, and encourage professors to really connect with the students in their classes. To this end, the administration has mandated that the final exam or paper (or series of papers) cannot count for more than twenty-five percent of a student’s emoticon. Rather, professors are asked to give students an overall emoticon, reflecting the student’s participation in class, engagement with the subject, lack of surfing the web or texting friends underneath the desk during class, and anything else the professor thinks should be taken into account when assigning emoticons.

Students have reacted extremely positively to the new system. A 2L commented: “Finally! The administration has realized just how arbitrary grading is. I’m so excited that they have designed a system that has the potential to truly reflect the inherent randomness of grading.” Similarly, another 2L noted that she was “:- D.”

“I really feel as though I can approach professors and ask for their help with anything now, that we are on much more equal footing, perhaps even that I will be more prepared and excited about classes,” a 1L stated. “A hearty 😛 to the administration!”

As expected, some of Harvard’s peer schools moved quickly to adopt their own alternative assessment systems. Columbia Law announced that it would be handing out fives, tens, and twenties instead of grades, while cross-town rival NYU opted for rating students with one, two, or three “Che Guevaras.” Stanford Law was due to vote Friday on a grading system based on hugs.

The administration plans to host an emoticon information session for students at the end of the semester to explain the system so that students, in turn, can explain their transcripts to law firms, judges, and other potential employers.

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