An Experiment in Outcomes-Based Education at one Law School

What follows are excerpts from a report presented to the William Mitchell faculty and administration, prepared by the “Future of Legal Education Task Force,” of which I am a member.  It’s exciting stuff.  We’ll see where it goes . . .

“William Mitchell’s Future of Legal Education Task Force began meeting during the fall of 2008 to identify issues and proposals for consideration by the faculty.  Members surveyed and discussed literature on educational trends and deliberated about how Mitchell might pioneer the next generation of innovations in legal education.   

The Task Force paid particular attention to the Carnegie Report, Best Practices, and the ABA Report which challenge law schools to substantially reform their programs. The reports urge law schools to: (1) identify knowledge, skills, and professional attributes that graduates should possess (outcomes); (2) design curriculum based on them; (3) communicate educational outcomes to students; (4) provide feedback on student progress; and (5) validly measure student proficiency with respect to the outcomes. The reports encourage law schools to evaluate their programs based on demonstrated student learning.   

They embrace the practice of outcomes-based education — urging law schools to focus on “output” (what students ultimately know and can do) and rely less on “input” (what students are taught).  In fact, in a remarkable policy shift, the ABA Report recommends that output measures substantially replace input measures for the purpose of law school accreditation. Consequently, Task Force members discussed questions such as: What do we mean by “the practical wisdom to put the law to work”?  What evidence demonstrates achievement of practical wisdom? How should practical wisdom be taught?    

In fleshing out these questions, Task Force members used a four-step structure for curriculum design and review developed by K-12   scholars, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. (Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design (2008))  They define this system, which they call “backward design,” as follows:  First, desired measurable results are identified (outcomes). Second, evidence of student proficiency is identified (assessment). Third, teaching methods and materials are developed. Finally, the success of the educational program or course is evaluated. This blueprint may be used to comprehensively design or review an entire curriculum or it can be used with respect to an individual course.

In an effort to make discussion of outcomes more concrete, Task Force members considered various compilations of knowledge, skills, and professional attributes that a lawyer should possess. The formulation found in the MacCrate Report is one of the most useful. Based in large measure on MacCrate, the Task Force hypothesized the following potential outcomes for William Mitchell graduates.

“Practical wisdom to put the law to work” means that:Graduates have basic legal knowledge.

  • Core subject matter
  • Legal systems, process, sources of law

Graduates are proficient in the skills of analysis, research, communication, and representation.

  • Analysis & reasoning
  • Legal & factual research
  •  Communication (listening, oral, written)
  • Representation (problem-solving, strategic planning, counseling, negotiation, advocacy)
  • Organization and management of work

Graduates conduct themselves professionally and exercise judgment in use of knowledge and skills.

  • Ethics
  • Service
  • Justice

 Adoption and assessment of measureable educational outcomes could provide a useful framework for addressing frequently mentioned issues such as the need for early targeted feedback and remediation for students who do not meet identified benchmarks, clearer sequencing of law school curriculum including more effective use of the second year, poor bar passage rates in the lowest quintile, lack of student preparedness for practice, and lack of clarity about Mitchell’s brand of legal education. Greater transparency and accountability could lead to deeper understanding about students who do not succeed (were these students admitted in error or is it possible that our educational program was insufficient?) as well as yielding valuable information about effective teaching and learning.

If used across the curriculum at Mitchell, an outcomes-based approach has the potential to: (1) assure that graduates have assessed proficiency in identified areas; (2) allow students to progress through the curriculum based on achievement levels; (3) make the steps to “practical wisdom” transparent; and (4) promote program and faculty accountability.

The Task Force chose not to delve deeper into the implications of outcomes-based legal education until issues identified in this report could be explored by the faculty. However, topics for future discussion include how delivery of instruction (teaching methods, faculty structure, and use of technology and resources) might change and how the resulting educational program and individual faculty members might be evaluated.

While these and other related questions are debated, various pilot projects might yield helpful information.  For example, outcomes-based instruction could be implemented in a few existing courses or a committee could undertake curriculum mapping based on proposed educational outcomes.”

I for one am going to keep teaching clinic the way I always have (because we clinicians are always working backwards), but I’m also planning to teach Trusts and Estates next spring paying particular attention to this Outcomes-based stuff.  Stay tuned . . . .

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