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Something strange going on at Appalachian School of Law

January 22, 2009

Students feel that the school is attempting to block students from transferring with this new grading policy because of their previous years of high transfer rates. The grading system does not allow for objective feedback on how they did on exams nor are professors allowed to tell students how they did. There seems to be something strange going on when a student is not allowed to ask questions or is frowned upon when needing more definitive information on their exam performance. The idea is to reduce stress of 1L students but all that is talked about is that it creates more stress on students because they don't really know how they actually did. The student population is somewhat depressed about how administration has made so many changes that don't seem to help students. This also interferes in attempting to obtain scholarships, obtaining the required summer externship since they like to see grades or rank which is no longer provided for 1L's, there is no solution on how the law review offers will be handled, and casts doubt on legal summer employment by employers who wonder what that grading system really is. Below is the grading policy change and reasons for it that was posted on their website last year for incoming 1L's. 

Announcing New Grading Policy

By on March 03, 01:56 pm 

Announcing New Grading Policy

Lessening stress of the 1L year:

An alternative to traditional grading 

Nearly one-in-five practicing lawyers suffers stress-related depression during (and throughout) his or her career. Disturbingly, recent national studies have concluded that the teaching and performance evaluation methodologies used in American law schools may trigger the onset of depression during the first year of law studies. All law schools operate in that factual environment.

The ASL Faculty has decided to take affirmative steps intended to ameliorate the stress and related development of depression during the 1L experience.

The law, as a discipline, requires a different educational methodology than students faced in undergraduate classes. The transition to legal studies, the methods of evaluating student performance, the profession’s preference for Socratic pedagogy, all lead to a highly stressful and unnecessarily competitive(1) introduction to a profession grounded in collegiality. 

A growing body of literature(2) establishes that the traditional approach to legal education may be harmful to the development of legal professionals. Legal education is different than the previous experiences of undergraduate studies for most new law students; the objectives of critical thinking and legal analysis may be counterintuitive and particularly difficult during the first semester or year; the competitive nature of a ranking and rewards system among peers during that initial transition places additional stress on 1L students, and does not foster the tradition of collegiality essential to a well-functioning legal profession. The study of law is different and difficult; it involves a different type of learning, a different type of teaching, and a different type of individual proficiency evaluation. 

Increasingly, national studies have documented the counterproductive impacts of stress during the 1L year. Stress in law school has been identified as “a highly correlated predictor of depression, and lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the United States.”(3) 
Depression levels for students before law school are about 10%. Depression rates for the general population range from 3% to 9%. By the end of the first year, “32% of students reported significantly elevated depression levels,” by the end of the third year, 40% reported significantly elevated depression levels, and two years after graduation 17% still report depression – and this is the constant rate regardless of the length of practice.(4) 
A 2001 study confirmed that law students’ mental health was normal to above average before starting law school and “[b]y April of the first year of law school, ‘Every measure of positive well being (i.e., positive mood, self-actualization, life-satisfaction)’ had significantly decreased and “every measure of negative well being (i.e., physical symptoms, negative mood, depression)’ had significantly increased for these law students as a group.”(5)
According to Daicoff, “The first year of law school itself appears to cause the distress (or trigger it) and, surprisingly, it does not abate after graduation. One might conclude that law school somehow irretrievably damages 10-20% of its graduates.” (6)

And yet, the legal profession remains a respected, desirable, and privileged profession in American society.

The Faculty of the Appalachian School of Law, seeking to ameliorate the stress of unnecessary competition during the first year of law school, and seeking to foster an early introduction of collegiality among peers to professionals-in-training, has adopted an alternative to the traditional grading system applicable to the first year of law school. No “fine distinctions” between students based on grading evaluations, and no artificial rankings among peers will occur during the transitional 1L year. 

During the 1L year, the standard law school curriculum will be taught with the same rigor and expectations of the traditional evaluative system, but the artificial competition cause by 5-tiered letter grading has been eliminated. 

All 1L students will be evaluated to determine whether they have achieved sufficient proficiency in the substance of each course to demonstrate capacity for, and to provide a foundation for, advanced studies of law provided in the 2L and 3L years. 

A grade of “Proficient” will be given to any student who completes the requirements for a course and does so in a fashion that is competent for a law student and future lawyer at this stage of his or her education. This grade confers credit for the course. A grade of “Not Proficient” will be given to any student who completes the requirements for a course and does so in a fashion that is only marginally competent or reflects more than minimal skill (but does not rise to the level of competence) for a law student and future lawyer at this stage of his or her education. This grade confers credit for the course. Finally, recognizing the obligation to determine capacity for law studies early in the educational process, a grade of “Fail” is given to any student who either (a) completes the requirements for a course but does so in a fashion that is not acceptable at all and demonstrates none of the skill or talent generally found in a law student and future lawyer at this stage of his of her education, or (b) does not complete the requirements for the course in a timely fashion. This grade confers no credit for the course. 

To preserve the obligation to provide sufficient rigor in the curriculum, and based on an analysis of ASL’s actual experience with the 5-tier grading system in the 1L year, the total number of “Proficient grades” shall not exceed 85% of the total number of students in the class. 

After the 1L year, traditional 5-tier grading will apply to the 2L and 3L courses. 

This alternative evaluation system will be implemented with the entering 1L class for Academic Year 2008-09.

(1) William M. Sullivan, Anne Colby, Judith Welch Wegner, Lloyd Bond, & Lee S. Shulman, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law 31 (Jossey-Bass 2007) (a Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Study). 
(2) Summarized in Roy Stuckey, et al., Best Practices for Legal Education (CLEA 2007), and Sullivan, supra n. 1
(3) John O. Sonsteng with Donna Ward, Colleen Bruce and Michael Petersen, “A Legal Education Renaissance: A Practical Approach for the Twenty-First Century,” 34 William Mitchell Law Review 303, 339 (2007). 
(4) Susan Daicoff, Lawyer Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality strengths and Weaknesses 9 (2004) (reporting on results from multiple studies).
(5) Id. at 116.
(6) Id. at 124.