My Experiment with teaching Trusts and Estates, Outcomes-Style

For the past two years, I have served on two distinct but related committees having to do with “the future of legal education.”  Here at William Mitchell, I am on the “Future of Legal Education Task Force,” in which capacity I contributed to writing a lengthy report on “Outcomes-based education,” portions of which have appeared on this blog in the past.  In addition, I am a member of the Best Practices Implementation committee, which is charged with figuring out ways to both implement the suggestions made in Best Practices for Legal Education, and to gather information about who is doing what innovations related to the book.  In other words, ideas about the design and delivery of legal instruction in new and more effective ways have been much on my mind over the past 24 months.

 I learned in the spring of 2009 that I would be teaching Trusts and Estates for the first time the following spring (ie right now!).  At that time, the Mitchell Task Force was finalizing its report, and the BPI Committee was finalizing its survey, and it occurred to me that I had a great opportunity here to put these ideas to the test. 

Instead of doing what I have always done when teaching a course for the first time – talk to a bunch of people about what books they use and what they do in their courses, get a bunch of syllabi, maybe some class notes, put together my own syllabus and then start planning my classes – I would start from the end point, ie I would ask myself:  what are my goals for this course? Or, put another way, what do I want my students to be able to do when they’re done with the course?  From there, I would work backwards, through assessment methods (what evidence will I need to know whether they have achieved these particular goals or outcomes?), to delivery of instruction (how do I put together a syllabus and class activities that will facilitate the students’ meeting of these goals?), and finally to evaluation.  That, simply put, is outcomes-based education.

I have been amazed at how satisfying this process has been.  From learning the material myself to designing assessment tools to deciding what to cover in each class, having the touchstone question of “what are my goals for this particular piece” has made each task manageable and a coherent part of the bigger puzzle.  I believe the course I ended up with, and am now half-way through teaching, is more thoughtful and interesting than it would have been if I had gone about planning and delivering it without thinking about goals and outcomes.  I certainly am having more fun teaching it; we’ll have to wait and see the student evaluations to see if the feeling is shared by the consumers!

Stay tuned . . . .

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