Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Killing them Softly

The State of Florida, as do most states, runs a controlled experiment each year -- the bar exam. Why is it a controlled experiment or, at least, somewhat controlled? Each fall eight or so law schools admit students. Three years later they are given the same exam. Pass rates differ dramatically. Some schools do very poorly. Others have students who, though seemingly less qualified, do much better.

I can think of two possible explanations both of which may fall into the category of no good deed goes unpunished. The first is the availability of courses and the freedom of students to opt out of courses that are tested on the bar. At one school that tends to underachieve, the selection is enormous. Students can go to China over spring break and pick up some credits. The can go to the beach to study environmental issues. The can take a long list of course on a pass/fail basis or spend semesters away and take no classes at all or classes that have no relation to the bar exam. Many of these "opportunities" are vanity courses. These are courses that would not exist if there were not a professor promoting offering the course. I would bet that bar passage rates vary inversely with the number of vanity courses available and directly with the number of required courses. This nonchalant attitude toward bar passage may make sense in private schools (not that any could survive long with dismal pass rates)  but for those that are subsidized by taxpayers it makes sense to prepare the students to actually become licensed. The rub is that funneling students into bar courses likely displeases some of them and would require faculty to give up their pet courses.

The other explanation is more tenuous but what the hell. In a year of teaching I have seen faculty hand out candy, cookies, ice cream, pizza, donuts, coffee and I am sure I am missing something. I personally want to take all of my students to Disney World but cannot afford it. I tell them that is my hope because it is, after all, the thought that counts. My reason for taking them to Disney World is that I want them to realize what a good guy I am. And, if I could just prove to them that I am a good guy maybe they will give me high marks on my course evaluations. OK, I know you are thinking "shouldn't your evaluations be directly related to how much the students learn in your class." In fact, studies have shown that the correlation between evaluations and learning is tenuous and sometimes negative. In one amazing study student were asked to evaluation professors after seeing a short soundless video. Then they were asked to evaluate the teacher after the course. As I recall the evaluations were the same. Actually experiencing the course was irrelevant.  Probably the best evaluations are for those who appear to be rigorous (but not really) and caring. So, if the appearance of caring is positively related to evaluations and your evaluations determine how productive you appear to your bosses, you know what any rational person will do -- stand back the swag is on the way.

Oh, that's Roberta Flack singer of Killing Me Softly.

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