Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 386-2865.
We all remember the pain and anxiety of working through our first year of law school, not knowing how we were doing or whether we were getting it. For most of us, we couldn’t have known, because our only personalized feedback, the exam, came at the end of the semester. And our feedback—the grade—came only well after the semester was over. Worse, for so many of us this grade was next to meaningless: it didn’t match how we thought we performed; it didn’t tell us how we did well, or badly, or where we might improve; and it said precious little about our mastery of the topic or our readiness to move along.
Not much has changed. The dominant form of student evaluation and feedback, especially in the first year, is still the final exam. And students today feel every bit as anxious as we did in working through the semester and waiting for that return. Part of this is on the students, to be sure. They could visit during office hours, e-mail with us, take practice exams, and seek other forms of feedback along the way. But most of it is on us, in the way we structure our classes and the way we organize our curriculum.
So here’s one thing we might do to give students that all important mid-semester feedback, even within the traditional structure of our large, exam courses: mid-semester live grading. Live grading is direct, face-to-face feedback on student work in real time. The professor sits down with the student, reviews the work in his or her presence, asks questions and initiates a dialogue, and provides immediate oral feedback and even a grade—right then and there.
Live grading fits most obviously with written assignments, like the kind students complete in a legal writing course, for example. These usually come in over the course of the semester, and so they are well suited to mid-semester live grading. But live grading could also work for mid-term exams, mid-semester practice exams, or even occasional written quizzes in large classes. It could even work without a written assignment, as a kind of mini oral exam.
The benefits are numerous. Live grading enhances learning, because it calls on students to engage in the material at a deeper level, throughout the semester, in order to prepare for and participate in this intensive face-to-face interaction. It also requires them to engage in the material at a wider, different level, because it demands engaging in the material in a different (personal, oral) way. And it helps them develop a new skill, a new form of communication, that will serve them well in practice. More immediately, live grading helps strengthen relationships between professor and students, it helps professors learn from students, and it saves time.
Live grading may seem intimidating. After all, it requires professors and students alike to come out of their solitary comfort zones and engage with each other, one-on-one, in a very personal and intimate way, over a very sensitive subject, the student’s performance. But in truth we all do this all the time, anyway, when we visit during office hours, answering questions after class, or chat with students in the hallway. Live grading is just a modestly more formal way of engaging.
Live grading alone won’t quell student anxiety over performance, and it won’t by itself give students that all important mid-semester feedback. But it’s an easy step in the right direction.