Teaching to our students

It’s that time of the year when we are all involved in our favorite activities: writing and grading exams. For many of us, we’re relieved that exam time only comes at the end of the semester. But does that best serve our students’ learning? Daniel Schwarcz (Minnesota) & Dion Farganis (Minnesota) have posted a draft paper on SSRN ( that has been the subject of discussion on Brian Leiter and Tax Prof Blog, and has been mentioned on Faculty Lounge.   The paper, taking advantage of something of a natural experiment, seeks to test the impact of providing individualized feedback in first year courses and finds that such feedback in fact increases performance in classes other than the one in which the feedback is provided.

Their experiment involved first year students at the University of Minnesota Law School. First year students, who take a common slate of classes, and are randomly assigned to sections, some of which provide individualized feedback. The study treated individualized feedback as “assigning grades to individual students’ work products, providing individualized written comments to students, or providing individualized or small-group oral feedback to students” (p. 12). It did not include providing students with a model answer, grading rubric, or generalized oral comments as individualized feedback.In some cases, students from a section with at least one professor providing individualized feedback were paired in a “double section” with students who did not receive the same type of feedback.  Each of the individual sections has been assigned in ways that controlled for entering credentials, and demographic features such as race, gender, age and state origin. The students in the double section then took the same exam. In these double section classes, those students who had been in the individualized feedback smaller sections consistently outperform students in sections without that feedback.  Schwarcz & Farganis found that the effect was statistically significant, approaching about 1/3 of a grade increment even after controlling for other factors. Moreover, the positive impact of feedback appears to be stronger among lower-performing students.

What we find particularly interesting is that individualized feedback in one class during the first-year of law school can improve law students’ performance in all of their other classes. Does this suggest that all first year courses should move towards more individualized feedback, or is one class enough? Does this have anything to do with instructor quality, as Michael Simkovic asks?

There are drawbacks, of course, beyond requiring us to do even more grading. Many forms of individualized feedback in one class, such as midterms, can distract students from their other classes. This also sets up, early in a semester, a system of winners and losers. As the burgeoning literature on student well-being notes (and in the words of Naomi’s colleague, Todd Peterson), “law school classes tend to disassociate students from their own internal values and weaken their connections with others.”  More feedback tied to a hierarchical ranking system may increase that effect.

If the study is right that even limited feedback is better than none, law schools may want to build time for mid-semester examinations back into schedules. Then, again, many of us find the six-unit classes we used to teach to be far more effective than our current one-semester first year courses in identifying students at risk and delivering individuals messages about how to better succeed in law school.



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2 Responses

  1. Solangel says:

    Some law schools have midterms for all the 1Ls in at least one course. This might be the best way to avoid winners and losers. Also, this type of assessment is in line with the recommendations of the Carnegie Report on legal education.

  2. Phil says:

    The headline and the article thesis are clear evidence that law schools care little about andragogy. Professors should not teach “to” students; they should simply teach students. Teaching “to” implies some articulation of received wisdom to the ignorant, and ignores the actual processes of adult learning. And the prevalent practice of having one, and only one, graded assignment at the end of a semester is stronger evidence of professorial laziness than a desire to ensure learning occurs. (Note: I write this as a one who teaches at the graduate level, and who recently expanded his intellectual framework by attending law school. Law school was among the worst educational experiences of my life. I learned a lot, but precious little teaching occurred. The school merely provided a framework for me to teach myself.)