Thinking About Learning Goals

One of the more surprising aspects of law teaching is how hard it is to articulate with specificity the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Our goals seem too obvious to even discuss – until we try to pin them down. The challenge of identifying learning goals is present at all levels of academic decision-making, from planning individual courses to revisiting a law school’s stated institutional mission. For those of us who are relatively new to thinking about assessment, it can be difficult to get started.

At the Crossroads conference in Seattle earlier this month (Legal Education at the Crossroads:  Ideas to Implementation), Barbara Glesner-Fines presented, among other things, a series of questions that can be used to generate productive thinking about learning goals. During her talk, she asked members of the audience to respond to question 16, “What major misunderstanding, mistaken assumption, prejudice, or bad habit (of thought or practice) do students bring to your course that you would like them to “unlearn”? The responses contributed by conference attendees were vivid and specific – nothing like the broadly meaningless attempts at defining learning goals one sometimes sees/hears/engages in. Attacking the weighty issue of learning goals with smaller, more manageable questions, from different angles, initiates a good dialogue (whether with colleagues or with oneself). Which can lead to actual results.

While Glesner-Fines and her colleagues developed these questions during collaborative discussions about assessment among UM-KC family law faculty, I could also see using variations of these questions to spark a larger discussion about the programmatic goals of an institution. Thanks to Barbara for providing the link. Enjoy.

One Response

  1. Barbara’s list is terrific, which hardly surprises from such an extraordinary teacher of teachers and superlative theorist of professional education. And (notice, I’m not saying “but” or “yet”) I’m still a bit dissatisfied with the section pertaining to skills education; there’s something about the question

    “11. What fundamental information and communication skills do students exercise in your course (i.e., reading, researching, listening / oral and written communication)? ”

    that bothers me. What is it?

    I guess it’s that I fear it may be too easy for my colleagues (and for me, for that matter) to assume that because students are, technically speaking, “exercising” in the sense of, “engaging in” reading, listening, etc., that they are genuinely DEVELOPING those skills — which I don’t believe is necessarly the case unless, e.g., there is structured, conceptualized instruction; actual class hours and/or out-of-class hours are allocated and dedicated; there are reading assignments or observational assignments or videos or some other form of assignment; etc. In other words, within the course framework, are there explicit elements that truly exercise the students’ developing competence? By “exercise” I mean “movement designed to develop greater facility or range or strength,” not just “movement that happens to occur, as opposed to stasis.”

    (I’m pretty sure that I’m not making much sense, but I’m in too deep to abandon this poor metaphor, which I am now officially beating within an inch of its life.) So, if I merely walk down the street at my normal pace, yes, that is exercise compared with sitting in my office. But it is NOT exercise compared with working out in the gym under the guidance of a perceptive, encouraging, and knowledgeable trainer who artfully gets me to repeat all sorts of complex movements that do not come naturally to me at all, but which gradually induce greater agility and flexibillity and build more powerful muscles in particular places. (I wish I could pretend that I have ever actually had this experience.)

    That’s the kind of “exercise” we should be aiming for in that most expensive-gym-our-students-will-ever-join, the law school classroom. But because “reading” and “listening” are such deceptively routine and ubiquitous activities, we may need to refine our inquiry further to determine whether something akin to true “exercise” is going on in that classroom. After all, our students don’t have to pay $$$ and commute to our campus to read and to listen; they can do that at home. (They’re speaking prose there, too.)

    One of Barbara’s next questions:

    13. What skill do students bring to your course that students have an opportunity to master through repeated opportunities for practice and feedback?

    certainly addresses my concern with its focus on repetition, feedback, and conscious effort at mastery, but still I fear that it may be too easy to conflate the _performance_ of a skill — reading, for example — with its _development_. Teachers who have let themselves off the hook by deciding that their traditional law school class inherently “exercises” listening, reading ,etc. skills, may not be detained by this subsequent question.

    This said, I remain in awe of Babara’s fabulous work and would truly believe that I had died and finagled my way into heaven (probably with the help of a good lawyer) were my faculty to begin using this rubric in their daily work.


    ps: Just one more time: I am _so_ P.O.’d that clinic casework kept me from going to the U. Wa. Conference! However, happy to report that we won both our trials in Immigration Court last week — and there were bushels and boatloads of good learning going on, so . . .

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