Whatever Happened to Formative Feedback?

Imagine taking a piano lesson with a teacher who asks questions, but gives little on-the-spot feedback.  Imagine the teacher returning week after week, stating after each lesson, “I will give you feedback after our big, end of the session recital.”  Imagine the recital occurring and the teacher taking notes and walking away. One month later, in the mail, you receive your feedback, a single letter grade,  B.  

That is the way we traditionally do feedback in legal education, including only a single summative final examination as the sole evaluation and feedback mechanism.  Is it not time to formally include formative feedback measures within our educational process? Why not include in each course:  1.  a single multiple choice question, once a week; 2. an “all-write” after a question, (asking all students to write out brief answers to a question posed in class), so everyone is participating and can evaluate their responses against what the teacher says; 3. a note break during class to allow all students to check with others and see if they are answering correctly; 4. posting a sample old exam question followed by a  “model” answer or answers; or  5. a threaded discussion problem to allow students to apply their knowledge.  Other academic fora understand the importance of formative feedback.  Somehow, we in legal education need to get the message.

4 Responses

  1. I think your comment about motivation is right on point — if feedback is so important, how can it be institutionalized? The answer is, we need to focus more on outcomes and results to get across why changes should be made on an institutional level. Would formative feedback make better lawyers? We have to ask that question. If the answer is no, or if it is unclear, legal education won’t be moved to make any significant changes. I hope in my lifetime, though, the mountain is moved in the right direction…..


  2. One way to change institutional practices is to incorporate formative assessments as part of faculty core job performance. As a leader in assessment in medical school said, “People pay attention to what you INSPECT, not what you expect.”

    In a step in this direction, our annual faculty questionnaire – the report we complete before we have our annual performance evaluation meeting with the dean included this question, “What grading and other feedback loops do you employ in your courses?” I know of at least one other school that asks a similar question on its faculty reports, “What formative feedback do you provide your students besides one end of semester exam.”

    Small steps, but start to go a long way.

  3. […] The why of law school I took piano lessons as a kid. I didn’t hugely enjoy them, not least because of the timing –10:00 to 11:00 Saturday mornings was primo cartoon time — but the instructor was my aunt and it was kind of expected that all the nephews and nieces had to do their time. Anyway, I didn’t stick with it, and as a result I now can’t play much more than Chopsticks. But the experience did allow me to appreciate things like 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, as well as this opening to a recent blog entry by Steve Friedland at Best Practices for Legal Education: […]

  4. I absolutely love the idea of asking faculty to report what they do for formative feedback. I hope some Deans are listening!

    Hey, everyone. How did your March 4th experiment go?

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