Wednesday, February 13, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy . . .

I was sitting with a few colleagues recently and the issue of student performance was the topic. One on the people there produced a list of things the students cannot do: 1) read and follow directions, 2) carefully read fact patterns, 3) apply the law to the facts (this is a big one, they seem to not understand what legal analysis is or why the facts are important), 4) spot large issues. No one objected and most chimed in with their own versions of poor quality perfomance. It is important to note that although we spoke in generalities, if pressed ,I think all would say we were not describing 60 or 70% of our students. I think this discussion takes place in one form or another takes place at virtually every law school.

Although the group had not been convened to suggest solutions, one person indicated that repeated written assignments could improve performance. A recent article in the Journal Legal Education offers evidence that greater effort and intervention by professor can make a difference. That suggestion was ignored. In fact, as a group we seemed to see ourselves as physicians inspecting an injured person. That, of course, is an incorrect analogy. In fact, we are like nutritionists looking at one of our own clients who is suffering from malnutritian.

If the a large percentage of our students are not performing up to par, how can the problem be anywhere but in the classroom? By coincidence that same day a student came by to review his exam from the fall. He went the with common opening of "This was my lowest grade." I asked in what class he got his highest grade and he told me. I asked how was that test different from mine. The answer: "It was multiple choice and one sentence answers and if you had really good notes all you had to do was flip through and the answer was right there."

Is there a solution to the problem of faculty not seeing themselves as the cause of poor student performance? I doubt it. First, a concerted effort to increase the quality of performance almost certainly means more time spent teaching but these days, the teaching role is being minimized. If fact, at my school, it is not uncommon for 4 credit classes, at the professor's request, to teach in 2 two hour blocks. I asked some students about and they like it because "it's nice to get it over with." When pressed a little harder they also conceded that it was often impossible to prepare thoroughly enough to participate fully for 2 hours and that by the middle of the second hour they had lost focus.

Second, it is hard to see how one can increase the quality of performance without having higher expectations of the students and this means more rigor and this can mean lower evaluations. For the students it may be like being required to eat their spinach and how highly did you rate anyone who required that of you? If 10 faculty resolved to be more rigorous the free riders would quickly appear. Plus, although every faculty member I know scoffs at the evaluations, they are pulled up at tenure and promotion time, at yearly reveiws, and when an adjunct is considered for permanent position, gossiped about and taken seriously. It's like saying you do not believe in reading tea leaves but reading them nonetheless.

There may not be an acceptable solution but let's at least take responsibility.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it "malnutrition," rather than "malnutrician"? Is that the sort of error that all these woeful students make? All kidding aside, it seems to me that an overlooked part of the perceived problem with student performance may be the quality of the fact patterns and examination questions that some faculty craft. I am not advocating multiple choice exams or questions calling for one sentence answers that principally test students' ability to sort through their notes. But if students struggle with spotting issues and legal analysis, it is perhaps the case that their struggles are in part attributable to faculty members' innocent missteps in preparing their examinations. When I was in law school, I approached my criminal law professor after our final to discuss the validity of one of his questions (I got an "A" on the exam). He dismissively told me that there clearly weas no problem with the question. When I asked him how he could be so instantly sure, he relied: "Because I drafted it."

2/13/2008 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GIGO. Lawprofs are at the end of the food chain.

2/13/2008 6:44 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Thanks for the spelling lesson. It's a long story about spelling and my generation. Let's say blame it one the Russians. But actually it is the rewarding of memorization that could be part of the problem.

If a teacher teaches legal analysis and issue spotting but fails to know how to test that, he or she may well conclude as you suggest that the student can do neither.

And don't even get me srarted on law professor and administrator arrogance.

2/13/2008 7:48 PM  

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