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Law schools move online and into new grading systems

As the gravity of the COVID-19 threat grew, North Carolina’s law schools ordered students out of the classrooms and into living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and wherever else they could find a quiet, solitary place to connect online with their classmates and professors.

North Carolina law school deans told Lawyers Weekly that the transition has been surprisingly seamless, for the most part.

“It’s remarkable that we went from a traditional law school on Thursday to an online-only school on Monday, with a faculty that largely has never done this before and did so with such good humor and resilience,” said Rich Leonard, dean of Campbell University School of Law. “It hasn’t been totally smooth, but it has gone much more smoothly than I could have imagined.”

Jane Aiken, dean of Wake Forest University School of Law, teaches a class and called online instruction a “rich learning environment,” with students engaged, paying attention, and asking questions.

But disagreements have arisen over how to mostly fairly and accurately grade students under the current conditions. Many schools have responded by implementing new grading systems: Wake Forest School of Law and Duke University School of Law have moved to credit/no-credit, and the University of North Carolina School of Law has moved to pass/fail.

Martin Brinkley, UNC’s dean, sent a letter to law students on March 26 announcing that the school’s Academic Affairs Committee had unanimously voted to change the grading policy to the pass/fail system. He said that the committee came to the decision after receiving comments and input from faculty members, reviewing the results of a survey in which 88 percent of students responded, and considering other options.

But the final decision was up to Brinkley, one that he said weighed heavily on his mind, and about which he changed his mind more than once. In the end, he considered that the “world-historical event” of COVID-19 has dramatically altered the students’ learning, and the school had to adapt.

“There are folks with very complicated living situations right now, and if you are living in an apartment trying to look after small children and studying for exams and writing papers at the same time, it’s pretty hard to concentrate,” Brinkley said.

Aiken said that Wake Forest opted for a credit/no-credit system rather than a pass/fail one because a failure could wreck students’ GPA. The pass/fail system would be especially burdensome on students who were close to passing a course, but didn’t because of the stressful circumstances that COVID-19 has brought them as they earn their law degree remotely.

Brinkley said most of the objections that he has heard regarding the new grading systems are more of a philosophical nature.

“They have been playing by the rules that were given to them by the way of the law school,” Brinkley said. “It feels unfair to them to have the rules changed on them in the middle of the semester. “

In his letter to students, Brinkley said he wouldn’t try to persuade them that the new system was fair.

“It is not fair, because fairness of the kind you want is now shattered and illusory,” Brinkley wrote. “When the accustomed tools of common intellectual endeavor are beyond reach; when doors to the workshops of master teachers begin to close; and when these deprivations happen before the time for learning has even expired–then any affirmation of your performance relative to others’ loses its claim to validity.”

Campbell, meanwhile, is now giving students the option of either the standard grading scale or a “descriptive grading” that has four categories: honors, satisfactory, unsatisfactory/passing, and unsatisfactory/failing.

But some students say that it is essentially the same as a traditional grading system and doesn’t go far enough. As of April 1, 50 people had signed a petition urging the school to adopt a pass/fail system. The petition’s author said the descriptive grading system adds stress to people already under constraints because of the pandemic.

“With little ability to escape our homes, it is difficult for students to focus on school and retain the material at the level they are expected,” wrote Troy Schultingkemper, a second-year law student. “The fact that we are still being evaluated as if our instruction has not been altered drastically is incredulous. This policy affects no real change and is simply the same grading system already in place under the guise of a descriptive grading system.”

Schultingkemper listed other objections, saying that the system incentivizes cheating and benefits those who have the stability at home and want to see their “hard work” pay off through a number grade on their transcript.

Leonard acknowledged that there have been some complaints, but said that most of the feedback he’s gotten from students about the new grading system has been positive.

Elon University School of Law said that it is remaining on its standard grading scale. N.C. Central University School of Law could not be reached for comment regarding its current grading policies.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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