by Ashley Ahlbrand
Like law schools across the country, the faculty at my law school have begun a significant conversation about ABA’s Standard 302 requiring learning outcomes for law schools. The RIPS Law Librarian Blog had an excellent post by Beau Steenken on the topic several weeks ago, discussing learning outcomes for librarian-led legal research courses. Here, I would like to add to the conversation with some thoughts on how librarians can help faculty adjust to this new standard in their own courses.
Learning outcomes, simply put, are the takeaways students should have at the end of a particular educational session (I say ‘educational session’ because you can apply learning outcomes to a course, an individual class, or an entire academic program). They are student-focused rather than teaching-focused and should be measurable. For example, it is recommended that learning outcomes emply language like, “students will be able to identify X,” or “students will be able to evaluate Y,” rather than the more vague and immeasurable “students will understand X.”
Bloom’s taxonomy, familiar to many from library school days, is helpful in crafting measurable learning outcomes. Per the taxonomy, there are six different categories or levels of learning, ranging in complexity from basic regurgitation of information to true mastery of a subject. The levels of learning are indicated in the image below, with sample measurable verbs listed for each level. It should be noted that some of these verbs transcend multiple levels of the taxonomy, and can be used in developing a variety of learning outcomes.
Crafting learning outcomes. How one goes about prescribing learning outcomes for a course can vary. Some professors may prefer to craft a syllabus and come up with learning outcomes after the fact, but experts in pedagogy recommend incorporating learning outcomes into curricular design from the outset. For example, in backward design, you begin by establishing the learning outcomes for the course. The next step is to determine what types of assessment will allow you to ascertain whether those outcomes have been met. Finally, you design the week-to-week course sessions and method of delivery last to match the assessments and outcomes planned. Another approach to curricular design uses scaffolding theory, which involves determining the prerequisite skills your students will bring to the course, establishing the learning outcomes for your course that will build on these prerequisite skills, and crafting assessments throughout the course that allow students to build and test these new skills. Law school in general might be thought of as scaffolding, with 1Ls learning how to issue spot, parse a court opinion, and develop basic research and writing skills, while upper-class law students build on these basics with more in-depth expertise.
What does the standard say? ABA Standard 302 seems to focus on learning outcomes for the law school generally, rather than for each individual course. It mentions building knowledge in substantive law, professional skills, professional judgment, ethics, and professionalism (for details in each of these areas, review section (b) of the standard). It also leaves room for schools to develop other learning outcomes unique to their program. I think the standard and its interpretations leave a few questions unanswered. For one, 302(b) says that the learning outcomes should be aimed at “entry-level practitioner” competency. How do we assess that? What is the measuring stick of an entry-level practitioner? Another question I would ask is, if these learning outcomes are for the law school at large, should faculty be including learning outcomes in individual course syllabi? Do they even need to worry about the standard? From the chatter I have heard, this has been the main source of concern – do I need to craft learning outcomes for my course? Ultimately, the answer to this latter question is likely yes. Even if the standard is aimed at the law school generally, it would be prudent—and sound pedagogy—to identify in each course syllabus the law school learning outcomes that can be achieved in that particular course. The standard states outright that an individual course does not need to meet all of the outcomes laid out in 302, but I think it is implied that any individual course should meet at least one. As learning outcomes become a part of the law school curriculum, students will expect to know from the outset how each course fits in with their law school education.
What can librarians and libraries do to assist in the adjustment to Standard 302? Do what we have always done: be a source of information and offer further resources on the topic. Create an internal resource on the topic; pull together resources available at the university level (e.g. Centers for Teaching and Learning) for curious colleagues; be a part of the conversation (legal research is named as one of the professional skills to be included in the learning outcomes, after all). In addition to attending the brown bag sessions where these issues are being discussed and contributing to the conversation, I am in the midst of creating a guide on curricular design, learning outcomes, assessment and instructional styles, and university resources that I hope will benefit my faculty as this conversation moves forward. I’ll be happy to link to it from this post when complete. In the meantime, if you have any other suggestions for how librarians and libraries can contribute to this process, please share!