Practice Makes Perfect: Assessment to Improve Student Learning and Instruction

by Ashley Ahlbrand

With the spring semester at an end and my summer online courses set to begin next week, I have assessment on the brain. As we know, law school is not traditionally an assessment-heavy institution, with the majority of substantive courses having one graded assessment (summative) at the end of the semester, in the form of a final exam or paper. Professors often include some formative assessment throughout the semester through, most commonly, the Socratic method, to gauge students’ analytical skills and understanding of the course materials.

If my law school experience is any indication, however, students are often called on infrequently through this method, especially if the course has a high enrollment; so it may be difficult for the instructor to know with any degree of certainty whether the student has mastered all course material until the final assessment. Recognizing this, the American Bar Association is calling on law schools to provide more regular assessment and feedback to students throughout their legal education so that they and we will have a better measurement of law student success (see Standards 314, 315).

I think the big question is: What assessments? What kind? How many? Entire books can be written on the subject, but here are some key considerations:

First off, course design should always begin at the end, with learning outcomes – what do you want students to have learned by the end of the course? Everything else – lectures, assessments, readings, etc. – should be planned around those learning outcomes.

Secondly, as alluded to earlier, courses should include both formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are typically ungraded, low-stakes, providing students the opportunity to get their hands dirty and even make some mistakes, without fear of significant repercussions, such as grade impact. The Socratic method is a good example of formative assessment in law school substantive courses. Summative assessment is high-impact, graded assessment, typically at the end of the course, such as a final exam or seminar paper. Formative assessment allows students to build skills; summative assessment allows students to show what they have learned, bring it all together.

In terms of how many to offer, there’s really no right answer, but you certainly want to provide enough assessment that you can truly measure each student’s progress through the course, and provide them meaningful feedback to help them improve with each assessment.

Skills courses, such as Advanced Legal Research, already lend themselves to frequent assessment. Our regular ALR course has assignments due nearly every week, and a larger written assignment (memo) due at the end of the semester. Typically we include in-class exercises with our lectures for formative assessment. While it sometimes takes students a few weeks to get used to this format, in the end I believe most of them appreciate having frequent assessments and frequent feedback, because it takes some of the pressure off (they can mess up on one assignment without it grossly affecting their final grade) and we can definitively track student progress throughout the semester.

So, what is the point of this post? Up to now, nothing I have said is particularly new. As I make final preparations for my summer courses that begin next week, I find myself wondering if there is anything I should do differently? The combination of treasure hunt assignments and final memo has worked well in past semesters, but is that enough variety? Should I go out of my comfort zone more, or push my students out of theirs? Admittedly, these questions are also inspired by the course I took this semester through IU’s School of Education. It was an online course, with a variety of smaller and larger assessments due throughout the semester – weekly discussion board posts, a short reflection paper, and several group projects. This was a foundational, theory-based course, so it would have been very easy to make the assessments regurgitating papers. Instead, the group work challenged us to use our creativity to think about the concepts from the course. For one assignment, we created a diagram to show relationships between several theories; for another, we created a script, with characters debating a particular instructional design application (we used the characters from Alice in Wonderland); for our final project, we were asked to create an advertisement about instructional design, such as a brochure, a video, or a website (we made a website). My first reaction to these assignments was typically skeptical, but in the end, they were much more fun than a boring paper, and I learned quite a lot in the process.

Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie M. Sparrow, and Gerald F. Hess. Teaching Law By Design (2nd ed. 2017).

Should law school courses take the same route? Should I shake up my summer research courses by infusing a little more creativity? Perhaps. In Teaching Law by Design, the authors recommend using a variety of assessment styles, with suggestions such as diagrams and oral presentations, but recommend stating outright the purpose of the assessment (i.e. what learning outcome does it fulfill?) and how it will be scored (see generally, “Chapter 9: Assessing Student Learning”). As with all aspects of course design, every decision should have a purpose.

In the end, there is no one “right” structure for a course – it will always be context-dependent. For example, in last summer’s online Advanced Legal Research course, we tried having a weekly ungraded formative assessment, to give students a low-stakes environment to test their research skills, and found that some students were blowing it off for the same reason – it was low-stakes! If you find that to be the case, you can always create graded formative assessments that are still lower-stakes by making them worth significantly less than your summative assessment(s). As to whether to infuse creativity into your assessments… you’ll never know until you try, right? Make thoughtful, justified design decisions, offer variety in your assessments, and constantly reevaluate to see what works and what doesn’t. Within that framework, make it yours.

Recommended reading: Teaching Law by Design, by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie M. Sparrow, and Gerald F. Hess (2nd ed.)


About ashleyahlbrand

I am the Educational Technology Librarian at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. I am deeply interested in exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education.
This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general), Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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