The Need for Embedded Assessment Within Legal Education

July 7, 2014 Stephanie Totty

In the past few years, more and more law schools in the US are having the conversation about the need for outcomes tracking and the need to use formative assessment, something that legal education has shied away from in the past. But with enrollment for law programs down, and the newly proposed ABA standards looming, these conversations seem to be growing in number, and gaining traction within the academic field.

For the most part, the price of a law degree has not decreased, but the amount of positions available to brand new graduates has. Obviously, this makes current students nervous – as they walk the stage and pass the bar with mountains of students loans, what assurances do they have that they possess the knowledge that law firms are looking for? Simply put, a degree is no longer enough to convince potential employers that a graduate has the skills in order to be successful in practice.

So, what’s the fix to these issues? The good news is that low-stakes, formative assessment is an easy answer to tracking student learning and curricular effectiveness (both of which are new standards the ABA is working on implanting). Formative assessment is neither time consuming nor expensive, but is a tool educators in other fields have been using for years to obtain a clear understanding of what their students are and are not learning. Here’s how:

The Solution May Be Right In Front of You

It turns out most of the law schools in the US already have access to a platform that can help law programs track student and curricular outcomes. Although known historically for providing secure computer-based testing, ExamSoft (which is used to host 41 of the 50 bar exams) can also help with item banking, creation of embedded exams, and report generation from those assessments for both students and faculty.

Even for faculty who utilize traditionally subjective assessment (such as essays or research papers), an embedded rubric-grading tool can allow for a more objective evaluation technique and the same easily digestible reports for faculty and students.

Data Is Extremely Useful

By implementing a low-stakes formative assessment plan (or even just simply opting to give a midterm exam); law programs would have a better idea of how well students are obtaining the information faculty are teaching. Once feedback from these assessments are provided to students, it gives them a chance to self-remediate, or seek out help from faculty or Academic Success Programs.

By collecting information on how students are doing earlier on in the course and providing it to them as feedback, students go on to succeed not only in during this course, but in future classes as well – and ultimately the bar. By tracking this attainment of learning from their student-base, faculty and programs can determine where their curriculum need revision, or where they might be able to proceed at a quicker pace due to student attainment.

The bottom line is, students are more focused on what topics they need help with and programs have a clear understanding of what those topics are.

Make Bar Prep Part of The Everyday Curriculum

Ultimately, the time a student spends in law school should prepare them for two things: passing the bar exam and becoming a successful practicing lawyer. Between a rigorous three years in law school, and the debt they’re incurring while there, students are placing a lot of faith with their program to make sure that the end result is worth it – many are disappointed, and most end up having to spend additional money on bar prep courses.

Instead of letting students wait until the end of law school to prepare for the bar, by starting from their very first day and tracking their progress on specific objectives tied to the bar exam, law schools are setting them up for years of concentration on the topics they need to focus on for the most important exam of their lives.

You can’t promise your students any jobs after they graduate, but you can give them the knowledge and skills they need to be competitive on the job market. That’s your job; the rest is up to them.

 

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