March 23, 2011
Masters Forum (Legal Education): "Learning Outcomes" for Law School
Posted by Christine Hurt

I've enjoyed reading all the posts in our Masters Forum on the ABA accreditation standards.  One of the areas for revision has only been touched on, so I thought I would wrap up my contribution with some thoughts on learning outcomes. 

a.  Requirements that law schools articulate student learning goals and periodically measure their students' achievement of the goals;

I have to admit that this one gives me some pause.  Not because I'm paralyzed with fear that this "periodic measurement" will highlight flaws in legal education generally or in my school's curriculum in particular.  Learning outcomes assessment has been a very important movement at universities for awhile, with units articulating learning outcomes and plans for assessing them.  Institutional Assessment is a very big deal.  I am certain that many law schools have had to go through this process at the request of main campus.  I'm not sure if we can assess or measure, however, whether the (time-consuming and expensive) process of articulating these goals and measuring them has actually improved higher education.  (Though I'm sure there are folks working on how to measure that!)  The fruitful process of articulating these goals seems vaguely like a more elaborate exercise than crafting a mission statement, another worthy pursuit with somewhat limited value.  I'm not a psychic, but my prediction would be that we would see law schools articulate learning goals that are broad, general, watered-down and either very easy or very hard to measure.

At some point in my adult life, I was in a discussion with higher education administrators and professors discussing a recent mandate that academic divisions articulate learning goals and then go about designing a way to assess whether these goals were met.  Although I still partly believe that I was unwittingly in a Monty Python skit, one administrator gave this as an example of an acceptable assessment exercise:  "For example, a liberal arts and sciences department might state one of its learning goals as 'creating life-long learners.'  Then, assessment might take the form of exit interviews with graduating students whereby the student answers questions about whether he/she will be a life-long learner."  This example has stuck in my mind for obvious reasons.

So, here are some examples I found on the Interwebs of learning outcomes at research universities (I am presenting them without attribution, but they seem representative):

(Biology): To develop in students an appreciation of the levels of organization of life, its diversity, and the processes by which life has achieved its present form.

(English):  Acquire lifetime learning skills and knowledge dispositions so to continue critical reading and writing.  (This goal was assessed through alumni surveys, not exit interviews.)

(History): History majors will demonstrate skill in chronological thinking.

(Business):  Think logically and analytically about complex problems.

Now, I'm not being entirely fair because none of these learning goals were the sole goal, but one out of four or five for that major.  However, most of these learning goals are stated at a very general level, with words like "appreciation" and "fundamental" and "aware" being used often.  So, I'm thinking that a law school learning outcome could be articulated as:

• familiarity with the development of the common law in the United States in the areas of contracts, torts, property and criminal law and mastery of the basic rules and their application to facts in each area;

• development of critical thinking skills

• development of problem-solving skills

• development of oral and written communication skills

• development of skills to work effectively in a group; and

• development of an awareness and understanding of current topics in the law.

OK, I cheated.  I took most of those from the learning outcomes of a liberal arts college.  But then, I searched for law school learning outcomes and found BYU's, which are quite comparable (I left out ethics, which says more about me than anything).  So, how would we measure these goals?  Some departments have final exams randomly re-assessed by assessment professionals to see if upper-level students' work reflects achievement of the learning outcomes.  We just had our ABA site visit, and I don't think anyone pulled student exams!  Some schools seem to say that by requiring certain courses to be taken, these goals are met.  On the other hand, as a law school, we should hope that the Bar Exam measured these outcomes (ok, not the "works in a group" one), but as Erik has pointed out, that may not be the case.

So, my bottom line is that I don't think the ABA should waste it's time on this one.  Many universities already require units to do this, so why don't we leave it to the universities.  In addition, I'm not completely convinced of the value of the exercise.

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