The Move to A New 1L Curriculum, Holistic Admissions Process and Modified Grading System

Illustration for Academic Shift story

By Randi Chapnik Myers / Illustration by Pete Ryan

From the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Nexus

Recent University of Toronto law grad Thomas Wagner is busy preparing for life as a lawyer, but he’s calm compared to how he felt in first year law school. Back then, Wagner found himself juggling seven full courses, hauling a stack of books home every day—all in preparation for a do-or-die end-of-year evaluation.

It was a crazy way to live,” he recalls. “The whole year of work came down to the last two weeks. You’d have a lineup of three-hour exams, each worth 100 percent of your grade. It was more pressure than you’d ever felt, you were competing with the smartest people you’d ever met, and these were the hardest exams you’d ever seen. They mean everything.”

To make matters more stressful, there were December “practice” exams, the results of which you needed to snag a summer job. “There was no time to rest,” he says.

In his final year, Wagner wanted to help make the transition to law school easier for future students, so he joined the Standing Curriculum Committee, a group struck by then-Dean Mayo Moran to review the law school’s 1L curriculum.

The committee was chaired by Prof. Ben Alarie, JD 2002, associate dean of the first year program, and Prof. Ian Lee, LLB 1994, associate dean of the JD program. Composed of administrators, professors and students, including Brendan Stevens, then-president of the Students’ Law Society, it engaged in consultations and dialogue about what was and wasn’t working for students. Specifically, it addressed student feedback about the rigorous, and often stressful, first year workload and set out to restructure the 1L curriculum to reduce law school stress. 

After much review and debate, the committee wrote its report, and its recommendations, which will apply to all first year law students this fall, were approved by Faculty Council in February. The changes mark a progressive step in legal education and make the University of Toronto Law School even more appealing to candidates who may have considered other top North American law schools, such as Harvard or Yale. 

The new 1L Curriculum includes the following features:

  1. Incoming law students will enroll in a new two-week Legal Methods  Intensive course in August to kick start the first year program and ease the entry into law school.
  1. First year students will move to a semestered system, drastically reducing the stress of six 100 percent final exams.
  1. A new substantive 1L Research and Writing graded course will replace the more specialized Administrative Law, which will be moved to the upper year program.

In addition to the 1L curriculum overhaul, the Faculty of Law has made changes to the admissions process and to the grading system that are also designed to help law students learn more effectively. Alarie is excited about these changes in the air at the law school—from the application process to the grading system, right through to exams.

First on the agenda is working towards a greater focus on a diverse and well-rounded class of first year students. With a move toward a more holistic approach to applications, the selection process now takes into account life experience more than ever before, Alarie explains.

The committee starts by studying hard data—which former students, and from which universities and programs, do best at law school? Then comes “the soft side” of applications—what life experience each person can bring to the law school.

To flesh that out, each candidate must write a personal statement and biographical sketch. At least three members of the committee read both, independent of marks. The result is a total admission score with academic strength weighted at 2/3 and life experience at 1/3, so high grades can never overcome a weak or hastily written life story.

“Numbers are no longer enough to get into law school,” Alarie says. “We are interested in what you’ll bring to the class—academics, diversity, experience, thoughtfulness, writing ability, creativity. We are assembling a first year class that has the ‘It’ factor. It’s more than marks.”

That diversity of experience, however, can create an uneven playing field for incoming students, Stevens points out. That’s because some university programs— political science, for instance—prepare you for law school better than, say, an undergraduate degree music or math.

And if you’re the first in your family to pursue higher education and you don’t know any lawyers, you may have no idea what you’re getting into, Alarie adds.

The committee created the new “entry” course in August to combat this problem.  The two-week Legal Methods Intensive will be an ungraded credit course that runs alongside orientation. Now, instead of starting school with a bang right after Labour Day, there’s a chance to learn the basics—reading cases, writing a summary, studying the structure of the courts, and more.

“It’s a relaxing start to first year where students can get acclimatized to law school and get to know each other and their profs without all the stress and frenzy,” Stevens says.

Stress won’t hit the roof once law school begins, either, now that 1L courses will be taught in a semestered system, Wagner says. It’s perhaps the biggest, most encompassing change for U of T law students going forward.

Instead of the seven full-course load ending with as many as six 100 percent exams, 1L students will now take five core courses per year, all of which are offered in each semester: Constitutional, Contracts, Criminal, Property, and Torts.

Each student takes one of these courses as a full-year “small group” class (as determined by the associate dean of first year to balance the demographics, gender, and academic profiles of each small group), while the other four are split into two in first semester, and two in second. A new, expanded Legal Research and Writing course rounds out the first semester while Legal Process, Professionalism and Ethics follows in second.

Alarie explains the new process on the law school’s YouTube channel, UTorontoLaw, in a video designed to help students understand the 1L curriculum.  Students can also follow his U of T Law Tumblr page to get updates on school life:

It’s not the first time semesterization has been on the table at the law school, but it is the first time it has gained majority approval, says Lee. In fact, Alarie says the debate on the issue started as far back as the 1970s. 

The greatest objection was concern that students would lose the “plurality of learning”—the ability to make natural connections between law subjects taken simultaneously. But the gains of semesterization far outweigh this possibility, according to Stevens.

“Student mental health is at risk at the law school, especially at the end of the year, and we have to protect it,” he says, noting that reducing the number of final exams to two or three in each semester will go a long way toward alleviating stress. It will also help students retain information long-term.

“Even students who do exceptionally well on exams report that jumping from one course to the next in such a short time is not conducive to absorbing the material on a meaningful level,” he notes. “Now they will be able to engage more deeply in fewer subjects at once. You can focus more on less.”

At the same time, there are substantive changes to the first year program. The more specialized Administrative Law course, which proved to be a struggle for many first year students, will move to the upper year program. That leaves room for an expanded Legal Research and Writing course, which used to be taught as a weekly ungraded seminar.

“Students have been demanding more instruction to equip them with the skills they need to write papers and exams, and to flourish in summer jobs. A graded, substantive course in first year will really complement learning in the other courses,” Stevens says.

Plus, the year-long small group course, the hallmark of which is a small class size of only 16, remains, giving students a sense of continuity with their professor and peers. 

As students learn, they will be marked according to a new grading system as well—one that has been introduced incrementally and will apply to all JD students as of September. Natalie Lum-Tai, the incoming SLS president, has been subject to the new grades for the past two years.

Replacing traditional letter marks graded on a curve, the new system changes the performance labels to a modified honours/pass/fail system. This change was made after a review of peer law schools throughout North America, a data-driven assessment of grading practices and consultation with faculty and students.

“There were concerns with the old system because each class had to have an overall average to maintain the curve,” Lum-Tai explains. “In order to reward students with As, a professor had to give out more Cs, even if meant lowering a B-student’s grade. Basically, you were punishing the weaker students so you could reward the stronger ones—just to maintain the class average.” 

Why not just bump up the average? “That would make our alumni’s grades look very weak in comparison with a new, inflated system,” Alarie says.

The new system is not constrained by quotas. Instead, it provides guidelines to instructors setting out a reasonable distribution of grades in classes of varying sizes.

In any class, a maximum of 15 percent of students can receive High Honours, 30 percent Honours, 55 percent Pass with Merit, and there is no requirement for a Low Pass, although it is available. The guidelines set forth a range of possible distributions, with smaller classes having more flexibility than larger ones. 

The new labels indicate achievement in a group of excellent students, Alarie says. Work produced “in the middle” of that group—Pass with Merit—indicates a strong performance. Therefore, the system rewards the largest number of students with this respectable grade, while still identifying elite and substandard performances.

The new system works particularly well in a small class setting, Lum-Tai points out, because professors can be more lenient with the number of High Honours they hand out. Because instructors have discretion, they are not as constrained by the curve   and there’s a greater likelihood of higher marks, she says, noting that the evaluation for mooting will be on a credit/no credit basis.

Although universities such as Yale Law School, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, Stanford Law School and Harvard Law School employ similar grading systems, the new language will take some getting used to, Lum-Tai says. “The school has made a huge effort to communicate the grading system to recruiters and employers but I’ve heard stories where an interviewer has scratched out the new grades on a CV and written the letter equivalent.”

It remains to be seen how all of these changes will play out, but the stakeholders are optimistic—especially because the consultative process they engaged in was so robust.

“Being part of this process was one of my most meaningful experiences at law school,” says Stevens. “We all put a lot of time and thought into how to improve student life.”

According to Lee, the participants were careful to be respectful of diverse views. “We provided a space where faculty, who care about what goes on in the classroom, could come together with students in a forum where we all listen to each other,” he says. “What we want is for everyone at the law school to be comfortable that all points of view were carefully considered.”

And they were, Stevens says, noting that the committee heads did an excellent job as leaders by actively listening as opposed to asserting their views. They took time to engage the faculty and students so that the changes were responsive to the community voice.

“This is a pilot project but it was well thought out,” Wagner says. “The main goal was to help students to learn more effectively and we achieved that by focusing on their experience.”

“The process opened people up to the realization that change at the law school was necessary. It’s typical of our profession that change is sometimes difficult to embrace, but when the status quo isn’t working, at some point, you have to take a leap of faith,” Stevens says. “And here you have it. Times are changing.”