Giving Effective Feedback

by Maggie Ambrose

Photo by Alan Levine on Flickr CC

This past year I’ve experimented with feedback for students while teaching the research component to 1Ls.  I will admit I had some failures as well as successes, and as this year comes to an end I’ve been trying to analyze what I’ve learned and think about a game plan moving forward.

I was therefore happy to stumble across the recent article Why Giving Effective Feedback is Trickier Than it Seems. One gem from this article that I think is particularly worthy of note is the pitfall of trying to close all education gaps with one round of feedback. This is a mistake that many educators make, particularly when teaching 1Ls who come to the table with a wide range of skills, abilities, and previous experiences.

Interestingly enough, while it is important to continuously differentiate feedback and meet each student where they are, it is also important to promote equity in thinking and not fall into the trap of focusing on the technical shortfalls of the student who falls or lags behind.

The article ends with a keen insight that ideas are what drive people to learn, and not technicalities. While this article is largely geared to teaching younger students writing, many of the takeaways are still applicable in legal research instruction, though less evident.

Research is a tricky subject to teach because a lot of it is technical ability. It is a challenge to get students excited about the research process and even harder to give feedback on the skill. Students need to learn in a way that is timely and relates to a specific activity that is more than just a set of instructions they can follow to receive a grade or complete an in-class problem.

When it comes to feedback, the challenge is to frame the skills they need to learn in terms of ideas.  Ideas that will drive and motivate them to learn what they need to know beyond that of merely completing an assignment.

To that end, two of my colleagues are using various tactics that are inspired. This past year Malikah Hall taught a course where students received feedback from a local attorney. Having someone from the ‘real world’ who fills the role of someone who might one day be a senior attorney at their law firm reviewing their work is powerful. It brings home to the students the idea that their work product will eventually be judged by members of their intended profession in a way that has real world consequences.

Another of my colleagues, Thomas Mills, puts time limits on his assignment, which is a form of self-identifiable feedback for students. It makes the students aware that the idea is not only to ‘find’ the answer but to do so efficiently. Time is money, and if they can’t complete an assignment in the allotted time, then they need to sharpen and gain more tools for their research toolbox.

While presenting some difficulties, it is by no means impossible to link the technical skills of legal research to larger ideas that will help move students forward. Experimentation is key, and legal research instructors may find that they have the ability to drive legal education forward in increasingly innovative ways.


About margaret.jane.ambrose

I work as a Access & Research Services Librarian at Cornell Law. I am also a Board Member of ALLUNY.
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