A Survey Instrument for Cultural Sensibility Learning Outcomes

As law schools begin to grapple with identifying and measuring law student learning outcomes, cultural sensibility [a.k.a. cultural competence] should be on the learning outcomes list. A validated survey instrument has been developed to help measure some aspects of cultural sensibility learning: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2451300.  The instrument helps measure students’ understanding that we all have multifaceted cultural backgrounds, experiences, and biases that affect how we perceive and analyze legal problems and how we interact with clients and colleagues.

As lawyers, we must recognize and grapple with our own biases and stereotypes, as well as the influence cultural factors and systemic racism have had, and continue to have, upon the US legal system. As I note in a forthcoming Nevada Law Journal article: “While racial categories are artificial constructs, there is a long and ongoing history of real differences in the treatment and, therefore, collective experiences of “racial” groups. Those experiences influence how we perceive and assess facts, attitudes, legal problems and legal processes.”

An integral part of legal education involves developing law students’ abilities to identify their own cultural biases and helping future lawyers understand how those cultural perspectives and biases impact their legal analyses and interactions. There are many learning outcomes that contribute to law students’ cultural sensibility knowledge, attitudes and skills, many of which may be measured in various experiential learning and doctrinal courses.

The survey instrument measures some over-arching cultural sensibility learning outcomes, such as recognizing that: 1. one’s own cultural experiences affect how one views the legal system; 2. legal training in “rational thinking” does not insulate lawyers and judges from our own cultural biases; 3. subconscious cognitive processes hinder our ability to identify when we are acting based upon biases and stereotypes, and 4. we need to withhold judgment about others’ behaviors.

The survey instrument may be administered to students as they enter law school and shortly before they graduate. While we did not administer the survey to the same cohort of law students as they entered and then graduated, we did administer it to 309 entering law students and 281 upper level students. Amongst those students, we found that upper level students had a better understanding that one’s own cultural experiences affect how one views legal problems and interacts with clients. To the extent that cultural sensibility education requires that baseline understanding, the survey instrument is one way to measure some aspects of cultural sensibility learning.

At this June’s AALS Workshop on Measuring Learning Gains, Professor Raquel Aldana and I will continue the dialogue on how else one might measure cultural sensibility learning outcomes across the curriculum.

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One Response

  1. I would definitely agree with these thoughts here. Cultural sensibility is an important lesson for lawyers to learn sooner or later, so in law school would be a wonderful time to do so. Thanks for sharing your insight on this!

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