What Makes Your Subject Distinctive?

As law schools continue to develop their learning outcomes, an important question we all should consider is, “what makes my course distinctive?”  For example, in my research on assessment in legal research courses, I was struck by how much the analytical and problem solving skills developed by legal research instruction are the same as those developed by many other courses in the law school curriculum.  That led me to ask, “what makes legal research instruction distinctive?”  The answer was not simply, as an outsider might suggest, that legal research classes teach tools for finding law (digests, Westlaw, etc.).  Rather, I was struck that legal research instruction is distinctive in the extent to which an effective legal researcher must have an appreciation for the power of taxonomies, must exercise imagination in the context of realistic boundaries of time, cost, and purpose, must be able to ask for help, and must develop strong metacognitive practices (to continually question “is this process working?”).  The difference is of degree rather than kind of course, but it is a distinctive difference nonetheless.

Given the narrow focus of legal education, it seems that this question of distinctiveness or “value added” is the most critical question I can ask in planning my courses.  Not that the distinctive outcomes of my courses should be the sole, or even dominant outcomes.  Legal education outcomes require an iterative process and cross-curricular experiences for students to become competent and to enable transfer of learning to new settings.  Yet, understanding what makes my outcomes distinctive forces me to justify my outcomes and consider their connections with other law school outcomes.

So what makes my outcomes in Professional Responsibility distinctive?  Certainly the identity of the anticipated uses of the doctrine we are learning leads me to choose to emphasize professional identity formation outcomes as important if not distinctive.  In most law school courses, students are learning the law to serve others and are encouraged to use, interpret, and advocate about the law to achieve a client’s objectives.  In Professional Responsibility, the students will be using the law to advise themselves.  My outcomes include expecting that students will be able to clarify their observational standpoint when considering issues of professional ethics; recognize that self interest clouds judgment and ways to gain more objectivity; and differentiate the approaches to interpretation of law that one might use to advocate for a client regarding past conduct from approaches that are wise, ethical, and effective when interpreting the law to guide our own future conduct.  Finding effective methods to assess students development of these perspective is a challenge but I have found that simply asking students to read cases of attorney discipline and ask, “what went wrong with the attorney’s thinking?” is a good place to start.

What makes your course outcomes distinctive?  How has that led to distinctive assessment practices?

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One Response

  1. Your posting about course outcomes reminds me of advice offered to junior faculty members at the recent AALS conference. The subject was scholarship, and the advice given was that the faculty members, in choosing article topics, should not worry about writing on the same topic as had others, for each article reflects the individual perspective of the author.

    So it is with our classes. While we have plans for them, including expected outcomes, which may mirror those of others’ courses, in all cases no two courses are alike; each professor’s emphases, perspectives, and values ensure that. Even when a professor teaches the “same” class in successive semesters, the distinctions, in students at least (as well as in the professor), will necessarily alter that class. I’d suggest, then, that even when outcomes appear as mirror images, they will each, in their implementation, be distinctive.

    The same can be said about assessment practices. During a subsequent semester of the “same” class (with identical assessment practices), emphases will necessarily change to reflect the relative differences among the students, as compared with prior classes. In the end, whether intended or not, variation is the norm.

    By: Irene Scharf

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