Saturday, November 17, 2007

Define "Quality" Teaching

It's no surprise that consumers of legal education value most highly the product they consume -- legal education. A quick look at the USNews graduate schools ranking website is all it takes to see that USNews produces the rankings to help students comparison shop for legal education. Why isn't USNews responding to market demand and accounting for what students value most?

USNews doesn't consider qualilty of law school teaching because there is no accepted metric for it. What makes a law teacher great? Teaching and learning are intensely personal and idiosyncratic activities. Students in the same class perceive the professor differently, sometimes radically so. Moreover, evaluating relative quality of teaching takes perspective and comparative experience that law students lack. My story, I suspect, is typical. The quality of my law teachers appeared most clearly in the rear view mirror after I graduated and had occasion to hear their words in my head: "Consider the impact of procedural posture." Or, "You'll just have to come up with something better than that." We could correct somewhat for the temporal problem of judging teaching quality by asking alumni for their retrospective assessments. But, we return to the fundamental and inescapable truth. Teaching quality is in the eye of the beholder and thus controversial.

We law professors know that student evaluations are fickle measures of teacher effectiveness. We review them for "warning signs" not so much of quality but of social deviance: drunkeness, distracting bigotry, sexual predation, and the like. We tend to discount glowing recommendations by attributing some of the glow to a teacher's decision to lower the performance bar for students in order to raise their short term satisfaction. We are uncomfortable passing on the quality of our colleagues' teaching. This is puzzling. We justify our collective abdication of a meaningful quality control role as a noble exercise of respect for academic freedom. While academic freedom surely protects external intrusion into the substance of what we profess in the classroom, I see a kind of double standard. We tend to be far less reticent in passing on the "quality" of a colleague's scholarship (although we are much happier to simply count the number of articles than actually read them). This is so, even though most of the time our evaluation of scholarship is more about presentation than substance, and presentation is a written manifestation of communication skills rendered live in the classroom.

Given the difficulty, expense and controversy inherent in evaluating quality in teaching, it is no surprise both that law schools don't invest much in evaluating it, and USNews doesn't try to account for it directly in the rankings. Ted Seto's observations about the rankings are powerful. I can't help but try to defend the market though. A law student buys a portfolio of law teachers. In any year, at any school, some teachers will pay off and others will not. A quality teaching faculty, like a quality mutual fund, is one that outperforms its competitors over time as a group. Some of the factors USNews does measure may be the best we can do under the circumstances to find quantifiable surrogates for the overall performance of a law school's teacher portfolio.

Cross posted on Red Lion Reports.

2 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

I am not sure we can measure the quality of teaching but, oddly, we may be able to improve it. First, there is danger, as suggested in your post, that student evaluations may lead to lower expectations and a lack of rigor. Second, class visitations are prearranged. How about random visits? That would mean teaching each day like a peer is watching.

In addition, there are some practices that I believe any teaching expert would tell us are out of line with learning. For example, teaching a four credit course in two two hour blocks to first year students. Stressing analysis and critical thinking in class while the students know the exam will be machine graded multiple choice cannot possibly be consistent with effective instruction.

My point is that we may not be able to measure good teaching but with typical law professor arrogance we ignore any information offered by experts on what it means to be a good teacher.

11/18/2007 8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I appreciate the statement regarding the rear view mirror...you did not address the issue of practical training, an historically necessary component in a quality education rooted in apprenticeship, one that leaves students better prepared for actually working the day to day realities of being a lawyer. The students understand this need. Why don't the law schools?

Susan Cartier Liebel

"You were born an original; dont' die a copy." John Mason

Build A Solo Practice, LLC
Newly Minted or Well Seasoned,
Teaching You How to Create and Grow Your Legal Practice
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11/19/2007 8:16 AM  

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