The A.B.A.’s new version of Standard 302 requires law schools to identify specific learning outcomes that students should be able to demonstrate upon graduation. This is part of the A.B.A.’s turn towards emphasizing legal skills in an attempt to promote more “practice-ready” law graduates. The ability to conduct legal research is explicitly listed as a required learning outcome by Standard 302(b). While the fact that students will need to be able to conduct legal research in order to practice law shocks precisely no one in legal academia, law schools will now need to account for this outcome by “mapping” it to particular courses and then assessing how students actually perform. As highlighted earlier on this blog, librarians are well positioned to play a valuable role in the turn to “practice-ready” outcomes.
The A.B.A. did not invent the concept of learning-outcomes-based education, which has been around for a while, but anytime an accrediting body mandates specific assessment methods, at least a little bit of trepidation awakens in the minds of educators. (If you don’t believe me, try googling “teaching to the test.”) This may be particularly true for librarians, because we tend to value things like order and continuity and tend to react suspiciously to rapid change. Indeed, when my Library Director and my Legal Writing Director cornered me and told me to organize the development of an outcomes-based rubric for the 1L course, my first reaction was an internal cringe. However, having now used an outcomes-based rubric for a major assignment, I actually highly recommend it.
I suspect the vast majority of librarians already use outcomes-based education, consciously or otherwise. Research is a vast subject, and we get precious little time with 1Ls. Thus, we are forced to pick and choose what we want our students to learn, which is the question at the heart of outcomes-based education. Also, librarians tend to be very structured as educators; many of us probably provide our students with learning objectives for particular lessons, another key feature of outcomes-based education.
I would also urge that mandated skills-focused outcomes for law schools are good for skills professors. Beyond legal research itself, research courses also advance other mandated outcomes such as legal analysis and problem-solving. To benefit fully from the A.B.A. standard, however, we will need to demonstrate that our students actually learn the outcomes we desire. Thus, using outcomes-based assessment will allow us to capitalize on methods we already use.
Finally, though I was worried that outcomes-based assessment would make grading more difficult, I found it actually made grading both easier and more precise than the grading I had done with my former rubrics. The reason for this, I think, is that the grading is based more closely on what the students do instead of on how well the students conform to the results of what I have already done. Furthermore, my students probably received more valuable feedback under the outcomes-based rubric than previous students received under an objective results-based rubric.
In conclusion, just because something is being thrust upon us by an outside force doesn’t mean that it has no merit in its own right, as I found when adopting outcomes-based assessment.