New ABA Requirements Bring Changes to Law School Classrooms, Creating Opportunity, and Chaos

Jacob Wentzel | December 1, 2017
Photo by Woody Hibbard. CC-BY 2.0 License.

Unbeknownst to many students J.D. and L.L.M. students, our classroom experiences are embarking upon a long-term path toward what could be significant changes as a trio of ABA requirements for law schools nationwide begin to take effect.

The requirements are Standards 302, 314, and 315 , each of which defines a new type of requirement: learning outcomes (302), assessments (314), and global evaluations of these (315). According to Christopher M. Martin, Assistant Dean and Clinical Assistant Professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, these standards take after similar ones that the Department of Education rolled out for undergraduate universities years ago. In theory, they seek to help law schools improve their effectiveness by, among other things, telling students what they should be learning and tracking students’ progress throughout the semester. Indeed, as a law student, it often feels like you lose the forest for the trees, imbibing immense quantities of information without grasping the bigger picture, let alone the skills the legal profession demands.

So, do these new rules promise modernization of law school curricula and improvement in student performance? Not necessarily. From the perspective of some professors, the new requirements may feel like an intrusive and unhelpful burden on their ability teach effectively.

Although the new standards were issued a few years ago, law schools have been taking time to prepare. Implementation, which takes place in two phases, began for all practical purposes just this semester. In phase one, the Northwestern Law is well on its way toward implementing Standard 302, which divides into two categories of learning objectives: institutional and course-specific. Northwestern Law recently published the final version of its six “Institutional Learning Objectives.” According to Dean Martin, Northwestern Law had excellent participation from faculty when it came to designating course-specific learning objectives on course syllabi. The next step is even better participation in the spring. After Learning Objectives have taken off, the plan for the future is to keep evaluating, correcting, re-evaluating, and refining objectives, especially on the course-specific level, perhaps on a yearly basis.

Northwestern Law students may have seen such learning objectives on many of their syllabi this semester; a quick scan of my own shows four out of five that complied. Few professors designated such outcomes before this semester. And yet, according to Dean Martin, many professors have been grateful for the new obligation because the process of defining learning objectives puts them, perhaps for the first time in a while, back in their students’ shoes, where they can think from a fresh perspective about what students should learn, besides just the daily material.

The real changes come next, when Standards 314 and 315 are implemented. These standards aim to have law schools measure progress toward learning objectives and maintain such data in order to facilitate improvement over the years. Despite these lofty goals, however, given such pressure to collect data,  the standards might also wreak havoc in their implementation, at least until substantial wrinkles are ironed out.

Standard 314 in particular is short but packed with consequences for the conventional  law school approach to assessment and feedback: “A law school shall utilize both summative and formative assessment methods in its curriculum to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback for students.”  “Summative” assessment methods mean big-picture, and they’re familiar to law schools: bar passage rates, employment statistics, etc. The standard does not require the data to be published, just maintained and reported to the ABA. End-of-course assessment is also “summative,” including final exams, papers, and even course evaluations. One new summative method the Law School is considering is to integrate a self-evaluation of progress toward learning objectives into the course evaluation process.

By contrast, formative assessment is about assessing students “at different points during a particular course,” precisely when many courses typically do not. Formative assessments are also about generating information and ideas about what professors do in the classroom. Such assessment methods include quizzes, midterms, drafts, rubrics, and more. Again, professors are not required to show students the results of such assessments, but must maintain and collect the data for institutional purposes—to help law schools track how students are learning material during the semester and to make long-term improvements.

Not all professors will comply with the new requirements; according to Dean Martin, it’s not clear that all must. But many professors will, especially those who will be around for a while. Over time, mid-semester assessments of all shapes and size may well become the norm in law school curricula. Yet even professors who are already used to giving students such assessments may not adapt easily to the new requirements. The issue now is data: it would perhaps no longer suffice, for example, to issue practice questions and give written feedback on student answers. Professors would now have to gather behind-the-scenes data on the assessments: how many students completed them, how did they measure up against the learning objectives and performance criteria, etc. The result may demand myriad complex charts just to keep track of the framework for all the assessment data to be gathered, such as these from Villanova School of Law. In other words, underneath the opportunity for improvement and refinement that such assessment standards bring lurks their potentially chaotic implementation.

Standard 315 gives teeth to this regime of new standards by compelling deans and faculty to “conduct ongoing evaluation of the law school’s program of legal education, learning objectives, and assessment methods” in order “to make appropriate changes to improve the curriculum.” Much like Standard 314, the complex data gathering and analysis of this requirement offers both the opportunity for improvement yet the risk of chaos.

According to Dean Martin, implementation of Standards 314 and 315 is expected to be very gradual given their complexity and novelty. The next deadline is for schools to have assessment plans by spring 2019, though Northwestern Law may be ready to make significant progress in advance of that date. From there, one thing is for sure: the next three to five years of implementing these standards will be interesting to observe.