Assessment of Program Learning Outcomes: Law Schools Move into the Twenty-First Century

In a relatively brief period, law school pedagogy has changed a great deal.  Christopher Columbus Langdell’s nineteenth century approach of case-based analysis featuring Socratic dialogue in class still forms the basis for many law professor’s approach.  The MacCrate Report in the early 1990s, however, led to far more clinical and practical opportunities for law students.  Even more recent publications, the Carnegie Institute’s Educating Lawyers and the Clinical Legal Education Association’s Best Practices for Legal Education have led to greater focus on balancing the Langdellian model with even more experiential education and development of students’ professional identity.

Even more recent reforms in legal education are designed to ensure the law school’s program of learning is clear about the goals the school has for students and can authenticate, through assessment methods, whether graduates have achieved these goals upon leaving school.  These reforms flow from new ABA standards that now require law schools to adopt and publish Program Learning Outcomes (ABA Standard 302). The ABA standard provides certain outcomes that all law schools need to include in their outcomes, but wisely leaves open to law schools the ability to adopt additional outcomes consistent with the school’s mission. In addition, the new standards require schools to evaluate on an ongoing basis the law school’s program, the degree to which students are meeting the law school’s learning outcomes, and the law school’s methods of assessment (ABA Standard 315). Another standard requires law schools to incorporate formative assessment into its program of instruction (ABA Standard 314). Again, most schools in other discipline have used such proven educational methods for many years. Instead of the classic “do or die” final exam, formative assessment requires some form of teaching that allows students to determine whether they are learning the concepts as they proceed. Most teachers would also tell you that it allows the teacher to see whether students are grasping concepts—or not.

For most graduate schools, program learning outcomes, ongoing program assessment, and formative assessment are nothing new; accrediting bodies for other areas of graduate education have required outcomes, program assessment, and formative assessment for decades.

Assessment gurus will tell you to try to develop a culture of assessment at your school. At first that seemed like a daunting task. When presented with the rationale for learning outcomes and assessment of these, however, any fair-minded person would have a hard time arguing that they are not sound ways to ensure a school is delivering on its promises (the “learning outcomes”).  Explaining the rationale helps build faculty buy-in and support.

As someone who started from scratch in dealing with program outcomes and program assessment, I can attest that anyone can implement these pedagogical practices.  I encourage anyone presented with the task of developing learning outcomes and program assessment at one’s school to follow a few suggestions:

  1. Find an expert in assessment. If your law school is associated with a university, you will find that the university has a director of assessment. Take her or him to lunch.  That person will be your best friend in the process.
  2. Read The Rubric Meets the Road in Law School Program Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes as a Fundamental Way for Law Schools to Improve and Fulfill Their Respective Missions. Learn the evolution of best practices in assessment and adoption of those into law school program assessment. Download at
  3. Read Student Learning Outcomes and Law School Assessment (Carolina Academic Press 2015). The article suggested in the download above refers not only to Lori Shaw and Vicki VanZandt’s book but also to work by Trudy Banta and others in general educational assessment. However, Shaw and VanZandt’s book is essential for anyone responsible for assessment in a law school. If you want to go more deeply into assessment theory and practices you can read Trudy Banta’s work. Shaw and VanZandt, however, not only instruct on assessment methodology and best practices; they also do it in the context of a law school program of learning.
  4. Involve your faculty in the process of assessment. Regent Law involves our entire faculty in the first assessment of program learning outcomes related to research and writing.  Because every professor supervises independent studies or academic legal writing for law review students, the rubrics we developed to assess student’s competency in research and writing included not only upper-level writing courses such as appellate advocacy and advanced legal research and writing.
  5. Do not be afraid to engage in self-assessment of your law school’s program of learning and its learning outcomes. Professionals who seek feedback on ways to improve and are willing to incorporate changes tend to be the most successful in any field. The same should apply to institutions. Accrediting bodes like the ABA appear to be looking at whether the institution is evaluating its program with sound methods, not whether the program is perfect. As I have come to understand the process, a program that does not undergo some modification as the assessment process continues from year to year is likely a stagnant program.

Learning outcomes are vital for everyone from prospective students to alumni. Prospective students should be able to look at your learning outcomes and know that attending your school means graduating with competency in those outcomes. Graduates should be evaluated by the school to determine if they have achieved competency in the outcomes adopted by the school.

Creating learning outcomes and developing a program of assessment is vital to improving legal education at any law school.

One Response

  1. Great advice Ben. At Albany, we found our assessment of oral and written communication to be a helpful exercise. We reviewed first year and upper level briefs and papers.
    As a school committed to teaching writing across the curriculum, we are using our results to review our expectations for upper level writing papers. Do we expect students to solve problems in this requirement? Should we? Is a descriptive compilation of legal history sufficient? So our assessment committee is sending interesting questions over to our academics/curriculum committee. Good stuff!

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