The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Law students quietly agree with my post on pass/fail grading

"I have to admit that I am concerned about my reputation among my peers"


Yesterday, I blogged that professors quietly support my views on pass/fail grading. Since then, I have received several emails from students. They note there is quiet support for my view, but many students are afraid of being shamed by classmates on social media. I post here two such messages, with slight edits.


Professor Blackman,

Thank you for sharing your platform with us. You have no idea how validating it is to know that professors also share the same views on the pass/fail grading system. I have taken the brunt of the attacks on social media. I have to admit that I am concerned about my reputation among my peers, but it is what it is. Here are my thoughts:

Like professors, the main method of attack on students who are against a mandatory pass/fail grading system is a lack of compassion for others. Any reasoning given to support our stance is drowned out by the droves of students claiming we are "gunners who want to screw the rest" and we should be worried about our community, not our GPA.

Based on the comments on social media that I've seen, what I can tell you about students like me who are against a mandatory pass/fail grading system – we are not gunners. The majority of students advocating against pass/fail are those who have suffered extreme personal tragedies during their law school career that negatively affected their grades. Arguably, we are students who have the most empathy for others. Because we know first-hand the challenges a law student will face should they or a family member contract COVID-19. Maybe the issue is that our perspective on problems is irreversibly skewed after what we've been through. Maybe the other law students simply cannot understand us because they are fortunate to never have experienced the things that we have. Things like taking care of someone with cancer, the death of a loved one, or Hurricane Harvey destroying their car and home.

Other students against the mandatory pass/fail system are those who are in their last semester of law school and this is their last chance to achieve the GPA they need to secure the job they are applying for. Students who need scholarships to continue their education. Students who are early in their law school career and are facing being kicked out if they don't up their GPA.

The major problem lurking beneath all this is that future attorneys, lawmakers, and judges are reinforcing the culture of hating anyone who disagrees with them and refusing to listen to the other's perspective. Hate is spread. Rumors are created. People are silenced. That's a problem that I am worried about.


It seems Professors are dealing with the same situation as law students. Currently, students across the nation are utilizing different avenues of social media to brutally wield their opinion as a weapon against all in opposition essentially silencing all that disagree. The opinion—mandatory pass or fail. There are many law students sitting quietly in opposition waiting for someone to be that voice.

Many of the things you have posted are silently supported by law students. However, I can only speak for myself. As a law student, I rely on my graded performance on exams to help gauge my weaknesses and strengths. With that information, I'm able to form a more suitable study approach to the Bar Exam. Without that feedback, I would not be able to identify where I need the most work.

I would consider myself affected by COVID-19. In fact, the other day, my significant other and I made a list prioritizing which bills to pay first in the event either of us lose our job. My new day consists of working from home, home schooling two small children and studying for and attending law school classes virtually. Fortunately, my significant other has a job but the future of it, is uncertain. With these financial and health concerns coupled with the limited time to devote to my studies, I fear I may under perform on exams. However, I have learned from multiple professors and mentors along the way that nothing worthwhile comes easy. I enrolled in law school as a young parent knowing I would face different obstacles than most. I welcomed the challenge at the time and stand ready for this challenge now.

If the Law School I currently attend switches to Pass/Fail (no decision has been made as of yet) it will take away my opportunity to rise to the challenge and learn a very important lesson. Wanting to refrain from a mandatory pass/fail is not wholly about boosting my GPA or maintaining my GPA (as most vying for pass/fail believe is the reason why students oppose). More importantly, it's about learning how to juggle the curve balls life can through because as an attorney, I won't be able to press pause or step away when it gets tough. This is a lesson most people, not just law students, need to learn. Law Schools taking this opportunity away are doing a disservice to their students.

The National Law Journal published a story on this issue. The University of Chicago has (at least so far) agreed to stick with the usual grading curve. Many students are unhappy. But some students were willing to sign a counter-petition.

A much smaller group of Chicago law students signed a counterpetition in favor of maintaining some form of the traditional grading system, citing a desire to have letter grades for 2L summer employment purposes and to ensure high-quality class participation.

"Many students chose to attend the law school due to the balance struck between collaboration and incentives for personal academic growth," the counterpetition reads. "We worry a mandatory pass/fail grading system would disrupt that balance by reducing class participation and lowering the quality of discussion."

I suspect more students agree, but are unwilling to publicly put their names on the petition.

Peer pressure to conform exists at all levels: for students and for faculty. Thankfully, peer pressure never worked on me, even as a kid. I will always voice my views candidly.