A Colleague’s Thoughts on Curricular Planning

As we have been working on curricular planning, one of my colleagues, Laura Gomez could not attend an early meeting (I think she was at a book signing or her son’s field trip or something). With her permission, I am posting her thoughts:

Initially I’d like to thank Suellyn for turning our attention to the Carnegie report and to the Best Practices for Legal Education report. Together, the books point to deeply entrenched problems with how law schools teach and prepare students for the legal profession; they also suggest strategies for improvement. I share Suellyn’s assessment that we at the Universityof New Mexico are poised to take advantage of the cumulative wisdom presented in these studies. We are well-suited to do so for three reasons: (1) we are a highly collegial group (those of us who have come from other institutions might see this more clearly, but I think we all know it at the gut level); (2) we have a tradition of valuing teaching and truly caring about students; and (3) we have an enviable student-faculty ratio.

Reading these two books helped… crystallize my nagging doubts about the high-stakes exams that characterize many law school courses (and certainly the first-year doctrinal subjects). I am entering my fourteenth year of law teaching, and these reports helped me formulate a vocabulary to describe my concerns about exams and their lack of connection with what we are trying to teach. In this sense, both volumes produced many “aha” moments for me.

Both the Carnegie (chap. 5 especially) and Best Practices (chap. 7 especially) books are highly critical of the high-stakes testing that has dominated legal education since the end of the nineteenth century. The studies challenge us to devise ways of assessing students that include so-called formative assessment (assessment during the course that allows both students and teachers to self-correct to improve the learning process) and more valid assessment (measures of student performance that actually measure what we want them to learn).

I want to comment briefly on a few experiments that I see as relevant to this conversation. I would love to talk further with any of you about these and other ideas.

Fall semester graded midterms for 1Ls

One experiment occurred during the year I was visiting here at UNM. In fall 2003, during the first semester the practicum was implemented, I co-taught criminal law to the same small section with Jenny (contracts) and Rob (torts). We decided to give for-credit midterms to our students during the week in which other sections took practice exams. I don’t recall exactly how this decision came about, but I certainly remember being struck by the luxury of having only 36 students in my criminal law section (rather than the 85 I was used to at UCLA) and being impressed with the faculty’s willingness to undertake the practicum experiment. I’m sure Jenny and Rob have different impressions and recollections, and I hope they will join this discussion.

I know that many faculty here have expressed the concern that 1Ls aren’t ready for a graded exam at this point–but this seems to me to obscure the point that they’re not any more ready at the end of the semester (because we really don’t do anything to prepare them for these high-stakes, one-shot exams). My own attitude toward students here has been to expect as much of them as my UCLA students and, in the main, they have risen to the challenge; I would rather expect more of them and also much more openly prepare them for the final exam by giving them a graded midterm. Some have said that the practice midterms are sufficient but my experience at UNM suggests otherwise: students simply do not prepare in the same way for a practice exam as they do for a graded exam. By the same token, we as faculty don’t give the same feedback we would on a graded exam, so the practice exams do not seem to be working all that well at an institutional level. Finally, let me add a brief word about students’ reactions to having three graded midterms in fall 2003. I remember lots of grumbling at the time, but I also recall students’ comments in January, beyond, and even at their graduation in 2006 that our decision to give graded midterms fundamentally changed their 1L experience for the better.

Constitutional Rights exam-intensive section

A second, ongoing experiment relevant to this discussion is my current Constitutional Rights section in which students will take three exams (one-hour exams on Oct. 4 and Nov. 8 and a three-hour exam during finals). As you’ll recall, Con Rights became a required course in fall 2006 for second year students, and last year and this year, students could elect one of three sections (taught both years by Michael, Jim and me). After consulting with Mike and probably about 10 others of you, I decided to offer an “exam-intensive” section of Con Rights.

There was high demand for the section–I had thought students might be scared away by three exams, but I was wrong. We capped the course at 40 and there are 45 enrolled students. We made a special effort to recommend the section to students who were at bottom of the 2L class in terms of first-year GPA, although I have not met with Pat to see how many of about a dozen such students selected this section. But, and this is important, the section is by no means a remedial section–I have several students with among the highest GPAs in their class, as well as students along the full spectrum of first-year GPAs. I will continue to report to you on how this experiment goes, but what I take from it so far is that a significant portion of our students desire courses in which they receive early, constructive feedback so that they can assess their learning and self-adjust their study habits if needed. It is interesting to me that many high-achieving students (on the current, high-stakes exams) feel the same need. The goals of this course are decidedly modest (all three exams will use the traditional issue-spotting hypothetical that puts a premium on speed and writing, rather than some more innovative assessment like those recommended by the Carnegie and Best Practices books), but I think it will yield some interesting data for us as a faculty and hopefully a more fulfilling experience for students.

A Practice-oriented Law School Admissions Test

The LSAC has funded an effort by Boalt’s Marjorie Shultz and others to develop a new law school admissions test that would predict success as a lawyer (rather than performance in law schools, as the current test does). The Best Practices book describes the project and lists the 26 factors being assessed (p. 51). Currently the test is being studied for its validity (whether it achieves the goals it was designed to measure) and reliability (whether it is consistent over many test administrations). The factors include skills such as problem solving, creativity/innovation, fact finding, stress management, and the ability to see the world through the eyes of others–the list of factors is quite amazing in its comprehensiveness and good fit with lawyering skills.

But what does this have to do with talking about innovations in teaching and methods of assessing students’ learning? A lot, I think. As the Best Practices book points out (p. 253), the new admissions test “will have implications for assessing law student learning, not just their qualifications for law school admission.” It also relates in a more fundamental way to our discussion of our mission and goals for the future. It reminds us that this discussion must also include talk of outcomes–do we see ourselves primarily as preparing our students for practice, or primarily as sorting students for particular audiences (such as employers, for example)? This third experiment also reminds us to think big–it’s easy to say, “well, how can we possibly measure potential success as a lawyer?” Yet, this is precisely what the new test aims to do, and isn’t that worth trying?

I hope our collective reading and discussion of these books will motivate us to experiment in some systematic way–that is, not merely by fostering choices by some of us as individuals to try new things, but by leading us collectively to embrace some new techniques of teaching and student assessment. We are uniquely positioned to take some chances which could position us as a leader in the much-needed reform of legal education.

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