Sounding the Charge: How the Vermont Law School is Charging Legal Education with Outcomes-Based Assessment
Vermont Law School (VLS) was founded in 1973 and has worked hard to build a reputation of excellence throughout the legal education community. In fact, VLS’s Environmental Law Program has been ranked number one by U.S. News & World Report for five consecutive years and been in one of the top two positions for the past twenty-three years. The school has a long history of strong environmental concern, placing an emphasis on becoming an innovative, “green” campus. Its motto, “Law for the community and the world,” underscores its goal of making a difference in the lives of people.
Being one of the top environmental law programs in the US did not insulate VLS from the same market factors that have plagued other law schools. A shrinking job market and increased tuition costs resulted in decreased application numbers, smaller enrollment numbers, and more students leaving school. VLS administrators cut faculty and parts of their programs before realizing that they needed to review and revise their curriculum and student services, as well as better prepare students for the Bar and their post-graduation careers.
Since most faculty members assessed students only once a semester, students were receiving little or no information about how they were faring at the course level and in their preparation for the Bar. Faculty also had no indication of how individual students (or their overall classes) were performing on specific concepts, and continued to teach from their syllabi without knowing if their students were actually learning anything. Thus, the program was essentially sending its students into the Bar exam blind. Without having a detailed picture of what core concepts they should be focusing their studies on, students wasted precious time on remedial areas that could have been devoted to subjects that required more of their attention.
By implementing ExamSoft’s full Exam Intelligence suite, VLS has created an outcome-based assessment plan and is “tagging” each exam’s questions back to a specific learning outcome. Adding in a midterm exam and low-stakes quizzes each semester to what was almost a nonexistent assessment program, along with extracting the information generated after each exam, is helping faculty members understand at what level their students are learning specific content. While this is a completely new pedagogy for most law programs to consider, VLS believes that this type of program is the foundation for helping improve student retention, student enrollment, and Bar pass rates.
With recent pressure from accrediting bodies and law school graduates, institutions are now more than ever expected to show the value of the education they’re providing. With two semesters under its belt and a growing number of faculty buying into this new assessment plan, VLS is confident that it’s giving its students a better picture of what objectives they’re grasping well and which topics need more of their attention. This real-time feedback not only helps students with their studies but also helps them develop a plan for their education, especially as it relates to deciding which courses they might be better suited for and which area of law they should focus on in the workforce.
With data being harvested, real-time reports created after each high- and low-stakes assessment, and longitudinal reports maintained throughout their academic careers, students have the ability to prepare for the Bar exam starting from their first day in law school—giving them an immediate advantage over students at other programs who do not receive feedback until the end of each semester.
By creating assessments where each question is “tagged” to an outcome that students will be expected to master for the Bar and giving that information to students immediately following each assessment, VLS can let students know what areas they should devote time and energy to, and students can work on them throughout their time at VLS.
“By ‘tagging’ our questions with learning objectives within our L1 curriculum this past year, we’re already starting to gather the data we’ll need for the changes in accreditation compliance, and more importantly, with helping our students pass the Bar exam and stay competitive in the job market.”
– Ashley Closterman
Other Key Takeaways:
- ExamSoft is already the US leader in computer-based testing technology. With ExamSoft,
schools can immediately begin incorporating innovative ideas into their programs—all they need do is change their way of thinking on how assessment can be a part of the process.
- By putting an emphasis on assessment outcomes, students, faculty, and institutions can help each other move forward and reach their goals. Better mastery of content will create better Bar pass rates, which will ultimately help with job placement and enrollment rates.