July 08, 2009
Evaluating Law Teaching
Posted by Gordon Smith

In the latest Planet Money podcast, Which Teacher's Worth More Money?, Robert Frank comments on the Business Week ranking of business schools, which depends in part on a survey of student satisfaction:

There is an enormous premium nowadays under MBA programs to make sure students are happy, and it's not exactly the same thing to make sure a student is happy and to make sure a student is well trained.

While the most prominent ranking of law schools does not depend on a survey of student satisfaction, law teachers feel some pressure to play to the crowd. At most schools, student evaluations matter for promotion and tenure, and most deans consider student evaluations when measuring job performance. Plus, let's face it, it's nice to be liked. But do evaluations correlate with learning? Probably not, at least not the way most schools do evaluations.

Even when student evaluations are done well, one might reasonable question the ability of current students to judge the quality of what they are learning. The University of Wisconsin Law School has a clever way of signaling its preference for practical learning, and that was to allow recent graduates to select the teacher of the year. (See details here.) Even this, however, does not tell us much about whether our students are being well trained.

Despite huge changes in legal education over the past several decades, some lawyers continue to complain that "legal training is inferior." Compared to what? Well, in the case of the linked article, compared to medical training. It seems to me we can't get very far by comparing legal education to medical training, so I am left to wonder, how do we measure the quality of our instruction?

Bar passage rates say more about the quality of the inputs (the students we admit) than the outputs (the students we graduate). Job prospects for almost everyone have dimmed a bit over the past year or two, but they tend to reflect the prestige of the law school, which has more to do with the publication record of the professors and the LSAT scores of the students than the quality of the training program. Feedback from employers is something, but it's only anecdotal evidence, and the baseline for these evaluations is often a mythical super-graduate who more closely resembles a fifth- or sixth-year associate than any law school graduate I have ever known.

Despite the difficulties in measurement, I believe that anyone who stands on my side of the podium realizes that what we do can make a difference. We realize when our students have learned a lot and when we may have fallen short. We hear it in class discussions, we read it in papers and exam answers. So until I find a more objective measure, my plan is to rely on those bits of evidence as I continue to evaluate and improve my own teaching. If you have a better idea, I am open to suggestions.

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