What Does Competency Look Like?

Lately, I find myself asking myself a question right before teaching some material, “What does competency look like in this subject area?”  I ask this in part because of student statements about the opaqueness of legal ed — that they do not know what we want them to be learning, exactly.  I also ask this question in part from recent realizations that teaching from a case book and being attentive to case law (or statutes or even problems) does not indicate what I really want students to learn about that material — namely the frameworks for analysis, the depth of knowledge and the application of that material to other fact patterns.  By covering material, I still am teaching law students as law students — not as test-takers or attorneys.  So I have tried to shift my approach sometimes and be more explicit about what competency looks like.  I may suggest a court’s or student’s analysis merits competency in an area or announce in class, “Here’s what a competent statement of a rule might look like,” or “Here’s how a defense lawyer might argue this issue.”  I know that this might be construed as spoon-feeding, but I want students to understand the general framework of a competent answer before I ask them many more hypothetical fact patterns.  (After all, piano teachers demonstrate competency before asking their charges to practice toward that goal.)  Has this express use of competency been successful?  I don’t know.  I do know it feels right to treat students not always as students, but also as future test-takers and lawyers — as “doers” and not just as note-takers or listeners.

2 Responses

  1. I completely agree with respect to competency. In our clinical program at Albany Law school, we try to emphasize the need to strive for both competency and excellence by observing both and learning from your observations. For example, we begin semesters with shadowing invitations, or have a fellow or professor model competency in court or in class. We emphasize that observing expert practioners is “HOMEWORK” and encourage it by sharing information about opportunities to observe local reputed litigators. We use film clips or videos of former students to demonstrate competence.

    For example, for small parts of classes throughout the semester I bring in experts in prosecution and ask them to do a short demonstration on how they would handle X, Y or Z. I have also developed an e-mail list of expert domestic violence prosecutors in our area and solicit their input on how they might handle tough evidentiary issues. I then cut and paste the responses to share with students. We also believe in true clinical pedagogical style, that students should have the chance to perform a particular skill or task at the beginning vs. the end of the semester or year so they engage in a process of taking what they observe and learn and see how they progress from less than competent to fairly or very competent. Students often mention that the difficulty with conducting, for example, voir dire, motivated them to go watch jury selections, discuss it with a mentor and then use that knowledge to improve their clinic simulations.

    Although my comments focus on how to demonstrate competence in a clinical setting, the same ideas could be used in a subject matter based course.

  2. Given the research that suggests novices learn best when taught explicitly, not implicitly, I’d give you a pass on the old “no spoonfeeding” rap, Steve!

    Your post reminds me of a comment one of my colleagues made recently that students tend to be very assignment driven and have difficulty making the shift to thinking of themselves as professionals who need to take responsibility for developing their skills and their own standards of practice. Seems like your effort is a step in that direction.

    I’m curious whether you’ve been teaching 1L’s or upper class students, and what the students’ response is.

    At my school, like many others, a good number of 1L’s, especially, have difficulty moving away from a belief that good teaching means only teaching “black letter law” in a way that generates clear and organized notes. As has often been observed, the student focus derives in significant part from our methods of assessment. But I think it’s more than that — in part a function of the fact that learning “black letter law” is both necessary, and often difficult. In part, a function of the desire for certainty, for something to hold on to.

    Do you talk explicitly to your students about why you are shifting your focus?

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