Utilizing Best Practices for Formative Assessment in a Trust & Estates Course

The summer months often supply the time, energy, distance (from the inexorable demands of the academic year), and desire to re-envision our courses.   A colleague and BP blog author, Carolyn Grose, is engaged in redesigning a Trusts & Estates Course with a focus on using BEST PRACTICES  for Assessment.   The purpose of this Blog post is to gather information from all of you who have designed or redesigned courses from an Assessment perspective.  Feedback from those of you who work in the Trust and Estate area would be of particular interest, but we are also interested in anecdotes  about effective formative assessment/feedback mechanisms you employed.   Equally valuable are cautionary tales:  did an assessment experiment prove overwhelming, too burdensome, frustrating to students, not as helpful as anticipated?  Do you have some teaching tips on this issue of Assessment?

 Carolyn  and a few other BP Blog authors – Peter Joy, Barbara Glesner-Fines and me – will be using this Trust & Estates course revision as the context for exploring Assessment at a workshop session at the Crossroads 3.0 Conference in Denver.  We would invite you to post comments with your ideas and experiences with assessment so that we can share your insight with others at the conference.  We are particularly interested in:

1)  Identifying & Prioritizing Learning Objectives for the Course

2)  How do we Determine Proficiency on an Objective? Are there different levels from  introduction to mastery?

3) How does “formative assessment”/feedback fit with “summative assessment”/ final grade?

4) What kind of activities did you plan in and/or out of class in order to assess?

Looking forward to hearing your comments and gathering your wisdom.

6 Responses

  1. A thought on grading and interim assessments– In skills courses, I had better success in terms of student attention to feedback provided on assessments, when it was given without a grade. For example, in a civil pre-trial course I used various rubrics to review and grade exercises throughout the semester such as client interviewing, case planning, drafting pleadings, etc. When I returned assignments with grades attached, I observed some students look only at the grade and ignore the comments, questions or suggestions. The grade also colored student satisfaction with the exercise and with the class generally. When the same feedback was provided without attaching the grade (assignments were still graded), students seemed to pay more attention and were more likely to follow up. They were advised of this policy at the outset, and invited to meet with me to discuss how they were doing in the course and to set goals. I’d be interested in hearing about others’ experiences with interim grades.

    • You mention that assignments were graded but that the grade wasn’t attached. How did they get the grade? If they learned of the grade during the semester did it color their feeling about the course as you went along? If that’ true I wonder if an A overall at the end of the semester (perhaps because there were large assignments at semester’s end) would make up for some B’s and C’s early in the semester. liz

  2. I read your blog vey carefully. I think it has very knowledgeable information for everyone.

  3. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Maudie Atkinson said, Atticus Finch could “make somebody’s will so airtight you can’t break it.” No two wills or trusts are the same. To some extent each client’s testamentary goals present novel challenges to the drafting attorney. This situation offers students a great opportunity to problem solve and think creatively, while engaging in a very common lawyerly task.

    With that in mind, I think will drafting exercises can be a useful way to assess students’ ability to navigate a statute, identify client goals, and execute an original document that satisfies each. For example, students may be given hypothetical material that requests them to draft a bequest that distributes “a client’s stocks” to the client’s two children. The students should then be asked to: (1) identify what type of bequest (e.g., general, specific, residuary) the client wants to make; (2) draft a bequest that satisfies the client’s intent; and (3) draft a letter to the client as to why the language in the will best accomplishes the client’s intent. The students are asked to hand in the assignment so that I can give individual feedback. Once the assignments are collected in class, I use an overhead projector to present “model” answers for discussion. The model answers incorporate all three types of bequests (general, specific, residuary) and provide me the opportunity to direct the flow of discussion towards my course/class objectives. I then solicit comments from the students and provoke discussion on the issues raised by each model answer to gain insight into the students’ comprehension of the material. These discussions also help me with the individual assessment of each student’s progress when I go back and read the assignments and provide written feedback on each. I sometimes see the issues in a different light based on the classroom discussion.

    The quality of initial student drafts, and subsequent discussion should provide the teacher with a clear indication of the students’ ability and understanding. Additionally, the process of analyzing student drafts, presenting model answers, and asking students to critique the model answers in the context of the applicable statutes and client objectives is one that can be easily transferred to any area of the law where statutory interpretation and client counseling are important.

  4. One diagnostic tool I find very helpful is a hypothetical pattern, which walks the new clinic students through the quagmire of statutes and case law we often utilize in our clinic. Thus, I designed a statutory exercise requiring the students to think through a case from intake to closure. I also include some professional ethics issues and non-legal questions.

    The assignment will take the students at least three days to complete, and I ask them NOT to collaborate [with the caveat that this is the only time in Clinic I will ask them to not collaborate].

    Then in the first few weeks of classes, we have a series of classroom sessions to address the statutory exercise along with the accompanying statutes and case law. I have the students volunteer answers in class and then pinpoint where they found their answer. I will encourage other students to correct them, if they have gone off on a tangent, rather than have myself make the corrections, as I think this is less intimidating to the students during the first week of class. Of course, I already will have their answers on hand, so I tend to call upon those students who have weaker answers in order to illustrate common misconceptions. In contrast, I will have students who have superb answers share them with the class, so that they can feel as if they have mastered a question on their own.

    I do grade the exercise, but will only weigh it minimally in the final analysis. A student’s effort and diligence can increase his/her grade, even if the answers are not always perfect, as the exercise itself is of primary importance.

    Students always say this procedure can be onerous, but credit it as truly helping them navigate the complex web of statutes they need to access during the course of the year. I love to talk about this exercise individually with each of the students at the end of the year too, in order to show them how much they have grown in terms of a comprehensive knowledge of substantive law, as well as learning how to start a case as a new attorney.

  5. These are all terrific ideas! One question which professors raise has to due with the time commitment of different context-based exercises – do “live simulations” take up “too much time” versus the kind of written work context some of the commentators above describe. Can live simulations teach not only about the particular skill – such as client interviewing but also help students learn the substantive and procedural law?

    I have found in my domestic violence prosecution course that students BEST identify what they don’t know about procedure when they are faced with a question about it from a hypothetical client and can’t answer it or have to explain it in lay terms. Have others had that experience?

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