Breathing New Life into Learning Outcomes for First-Year Legal Research

by Cynthia Condit

Cover art
Carolina Academic Press

After attending a presentation on learning outcomes and multiple assessments by librarian from UNT Dallas College of Law at CALIcon 2015, I came away intent on reviewing and revising the current learning outcomes set up for my first-year legal research classes. Then I found Student Learning Outcomes and Law School Assessment by Lori Shaw and Victoria VanZandt. Although the book is directed toward developing a law school institutional assessment plan based on student learning outcomes to meet the new ABA learning outcome standards, it offers useful information on learning outcomes that is relevant to the teaching law librarian.

I was looking for a couple of specifics in my self-study on learning outcomes. One was a clear and definitive explanation of the difference between learning objectives and learning outcomes. I’d seen the terms used interchangeably, and sometimes the definitions in one source didn’t match those in another source. Was I splitting hairs? As I began flipping through the pages of the book, I was elated to see a side column on page four that addressed “the language challenge” and explained that there is no “standardized assessment terminology.” That said, Shaw and VanZandt do suggest creating a shared, uniform vocabulary for use in an institution. They include their own in the book’s Appendix A.

While the authors do not define learning objectives per se, they do define objectives in combination with goals. Essentially, goals and objectives are broad, abstract statements focused on inputs rather than outcomes. Learning outcomes are distinguished by a focus on outputs such as the knowledge and skills you want your students to gain from your teaching. With this, I had clarification on objectives and outcomes that I could work with.  At least according to Shaw and VanZandt.

Now I wanted to get down to my original task: writing fresh learning outcomes for each weekly topic I would be teaching in the fall. The learning outcomes I wanted to breathe some new life into looked like the following (from the week introducing students to legal research platforms):

Learning Outcomes – Students will be able to:

  • Describe the basic organization of legal research platforms.
  • Locate documents on legal research platforms given a citation or a party name.
  • Recognize relevant sources through search and exploration of directories within legal research platforms.
  • Locate information in a legal research platform using one of three access points: index, table of contents, and search field.

There is nothing wrong with these. They express desired outputs. But there was something missing, and this brings me to the second thing I was looking for: information that would help me better identify outcomes for each week’s topic while at the same time describe (for myself and for my students) what was needed to demonstrate mastery of the desired learning outcome.

Floor Plan of Cathedral in Aachen, Germany

Going back to Shaw and VanZandt’s book, I noticed they prefaced each chapter with a learning outcome followed by a list of performance criteria (a.k.a., assessment criteria, performance elements, or performance indicators) designating specific characteristics that must be demonstrated to achieve the learning outcome (Glossary, p. 187). Suddenly, the dots finally connected into a coherent picture for me. All along I’d been desperately seeking performance criteria and didn’t know it. Here’s an example of my revised learning outcomes for the same week using the Shaw/VanZandt approach:

Learning Outcome:  Students will identify, describe, and use legal research platforms and employ efficient and effective methods of retrieving basic legal information.

Students will demonstrate learning outcome achievement by:

  • Describing the basic organization of legal research platforms.
  • Identifying the general citation format for cases and statutes.
  • Locating documents on legal research platforms using a citation or a party name.
  • Recognizing relevant sources through search and exploration of directories within legal research platforms.
  • Identifying and describing common finding aids used to locate primary authority.
  • Locating information in a legal research platform using an index, table of contents, and search field.

A single learning outcome for a weekly legal research topic accompanied by a list of performance criteria serves as a road map for my students and for me. I’ve found that it helps me create updated weekly exercises, materials, and alternative forms of assessment. My students use the performance criteria to identify the most important aspects of the lesson and whether they have missed anything. I’ll continue to tinker with my learning outcomes, of course, but now I have a structure that works well.

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