Innovations in the First Year: Outcomes, Assessments and Collaboration, Oh My!

In December 2010, the faculty of William Mitchell College of Law approved a pilot curriculum for one section of the first-year class to run in 2011-2012.  The Deans also created a Pilot Assessment Committee, whose task would be to monitor and evaluate implementation of the pilot curriculum.  I am the chair of that committee.

The goals of the first-year pilot section were the following: (i) to define outcomes for each first-year course and for the first-year curriculum as a whole; (ii) to introduce students to a range of critical doctrinal foundations, including transactional, statutory, constitutional, and administrative law; (iii) to integrate core skills, doctrine, and professionalism in each first-year course; (iv) to achieve greater coordination among the doctrinal courses; (v) to achieve greater coordination and integration between the doctrinal courses and the first year research and writing course; (vi) to foster better communication and collaboration among first-year professors; (vii) to enhance communication with students regarding course goals and expected competencies at the end of the first year; and (viii) to concentrate course hours for each class to allow for more intensive, sustained study of each doctrinal area.

The Pilot curriculum has the following course structure for full-time students:
Fall Semester

1. The Common Law Process 4 credits
2. Civil Dispute Resolution 4 credits
3. Statutory Interpretation: Criminal Law 3 credits
4. Writing/Representation: Advice & Persuasion 3 credit

Spring Semester

1. Transactional Law: Contracts 4 credits
2. Jurisprudential and Comparative Analysis: Property 4 credits
3. Advanced Legal Reasoning: Liberties 3 credits
4. Writing/Representation: Advice & Persuasion 3 credit

All faculty teaching in this section has engaged in collaboration to develop “core” objectives for all first-year classes: each class combines “skills” and “doctrinal” objectives. In addition, faculty have collaborated to develop varied and multiple formative assessments; and a common vocabulary to help students in the section realize the connections between different classes. The section faculty has worked hard to emphasize professionalism in the first year.

Members of the Pilot Assessment committee have met with and gathered information from students, faculty, administrators, and staff about the new curriculum.  Based on information we have gathered over the course of the first semester and plan to gather over the first four weeks of the second semester, as well as our understanding of adult learning theory both in law schools, and in other graduate areas, we believe the following:

  1. The emphasis on statutory interpretation helps student learning in all courses;
  2. The introduction of alternative dispute resolution in the first-year better frames the students’ legal education;
  3. Students learn best by the combination of exposure to skills and doctrine in each class. 
  4. The common framework and vocabulary for all classes increases transference of student learning among first year courses, and into upper level courses and experiences

In other words, the pilot curriculum seems to be on track to achieve many, if not all of the goals of the program.

Concerns remain about doctrinal coverage and academic freedom should the pilot curriculum be implemented across the entire first year, so no formal decision has been made yet about how to proceed with this project.  There is a great deal of enthusiasm and momentum, however, and we look forward to seeing the project through and continuing to explore its implementation on a larger scale.

Stay tuned . . .

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