Prepare Students for their Final Assessments

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By Sophie Sparrow from University of New Hampshire School of Law

“Well, if that is what you wanted, that’s what I would have tried to do!” expressed a student with great frustration. It was my first semester teaching and I had just returned a graded mid-semester assignment. Because I hadn’t been clear about what I wanted on the assignments or what criteria I would use to evaluate them, the student had spent hours working hard to meet what he thought were my expectations. His frustration was understandable. We had both wasted time – he preparing, me commenting upon and grading ineffective work. I vowed to be clearer about my expectations.

The research on teaching and learning shows that students learn more effectively when they understand the criteria by which we evaluate them. While we may think that we have clearly explained what we expect from students on their final assessments, students may well not fully appreciate what we mean. As the end of the semester approaches, consider ensuring that your students understand how you will evaluate their performance on their final exams, papers, or presentations. This will help your students work hard to fulfill your expectations rather than some misconception about what you want. Below are some suggestions for how make your expectations visible.

Put the criteria in writing. Having written criteria is more effective than relying on students’ verbal understanding and note-taking skills. Particularly with high-stakes assessments, such as final exams and papers that have the most weight in determining a student’s grade for the course, it is only fair to give students accurate written material they can refer to as they are preparing. As they react to the stress of final exams, they may doubt their notes and lose sight of what you expect. In addition, having written criteria ensures that students with learning disabilities and non-native English speakers are not disadvantaged. The written criteria can be basic, such as stating that a final written assessment will require students to accurately identify the law (20%); apply the law to the facts (60%); identify and apply policy (10%); and present their analysis in coherent, organized prose (10%). Even basic written criteria are better than none.

Give students a chance to practice. Within the last few weeks of the semester, give students a sample assessment and have them take 15 minutes to outline their analysis. To engage them actively in the process, have students compare their outlines with a classmate or two. This helps them see how others approach the problem and usually reassures them that they are not alone in missing pieces of the analysis. Then debrief, explaining what law, facts, organization, and policy you would expect to see in that outline. Show students how the written criteria match up with the content. If you can, give students exercises like this a few times before the end of the semester. Students benefit from repeated practice.

Provide effective examples of final assessments. Even if your written criteria states, “60% of the grade depends on accurately applying the law to the facts,” students may not know what this means. Showing students examples of presentations or exams that accurately apply law to facts, and explaining how these examples fit the criteria gives them a model from which they can learn.

Final note. Helping students understand your criteria is not “spoon-feeding.” Contrary to what some colleagues suggest, giving students explicit criteria does not mean all students earn “A’s”. It does mean, however, that students are striving to achieve appropriate learning goals.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning