Using Formative Assessment to Speed Up Doctrinal Coverage

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By Rory Bahadur from Washburn University School of Law

Many professors, especially those teaching bar courses such as torts and contracts, struggle with what appears to be two conflicting goals: coverage and analytical skills training. However, it is possible to increase your doctrinal coverage while also helping students develop their analytical skills and exam preparation by using the assessment process to develop and review the substantive material. This synergistic combination of assessment and coverage can be effectively achieved through active learning exercises carefully designed with specific goals in mind.

The primary goal of such exercises is to encourage students to understand, independently and on their own terms, the concept of legal analysis. It encourages students to apply the substantive material they have just covered by figuring out how the material might be used on a final essay examination. Ultimately, these exercises encourage students to come up with their own schema and contexts for what legal analysis is and to review the substantive law they have just learned I have provided links to one such exercise (31 KB PDF) and the teacher’s guide to the exercise (30 KB PDF) but will also briefly describe the exercise. As with any good active learning methodology, you will get a better sense of the idea if you to try the exercise yourself. Consequently, my description of it is deliberately general.

The gist of the exercise is that students are provided a fact pattern based on a topic they have just covered. Additionally, they are provided with an incomplete IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion) essay answer to the problem. The answer is incomplete because only the issues, rules, conclusions and very small fragments of the analysis are supplied.

Students are asked to fill in the blanks in the analysis section of the essay. In this way, they are asked to do legal analysis in a safe setting where the distractions and stresses of the other skills they are also learning in law school, such as issue spotting and rule memorization, are not present. They work in groups on this task and the process allows them to understand the following:

  1. The substantive topic;
    2. The appropriate use of facts in legal analysis;
    3. The idea that facts can be used more than once in legal analysis;
    4. The reality that a fact may support different conclusions;
    5. The art of counter arguing;
    6. The difference between facts and inferences.

The exercise takes only one class period. Don’t take my word for it— try it in class. The learning outcomes are greater than the sum of the parts of the exercise. Your students will not only learn the doctrine but will also understand how to apply it. More generally, this exercise also demonstrates that students learn more when their teachers get out of the way.

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