December 19, 2011
Assessment, Teaching, and Memory: More to Think About
James M. Lang's article, Teaching and Human Memory, Part 2, is now available at the Chronicle of Higher Education website. I wrote about Part 1 on November 28, 2011 (here), focusing on the article's point that information about how best to teach students varies widely and often conflicts. For this second article, Dr. Lang discussed some teaching and learning research with Dr. Michelle Miller of Northern Arizona University. Dr. Lang explains:
[M]emory matters, even for those of us teaching the most complex cognitive skills we can imagine. Given its importance to our work in higher education, I sought help from [Dr. Michelle] Miller, first of all, in thinking about how her research might apply to the design and presentation of college courses.
"The mind isn't a sponge that absorbs whatever disjointed information we happen to pick up through our senses," she said. "Rather, we acquire information from the environment that we (a) understand, and (b) care about. It follows that when we design our courses, we should start by asking ourselves how we will capture and direct students' attention, and then plan how we will frame the information in a meaningful, interpretable way. This is different from the traditional approach of starting with the material to be covered and how we plan to spread it out over the course of the semester."
As law schools are now increasingly being asked to consider learning outcomes assessments of law students (and often resisting that request), it's worth knowing what the research says in this area. I'm not one who believes that all law schools are broken or that there is one way to teach anything. Different styles and processes can and should be used to achieve different goals. Students should have different kinds of courses, different assessment methods, and different expectations from year to year and class to class.
It's worth knowing, though, that Dr. Miller's research does not suggest "that certain types of assignments or exams were better than others." Instead, she says, "frequency is more important than format" with regard to assessment. Dr. Lang builds on this:
[The research thus] suggests that we should be testing, quizzing, and assigning homework to our students as frequently as possible—or perhaps as frequently as we can handle the challenge of grading all of that work. A course with a dozen low-stakes exams or quizzes, and plenty of homework, will do a much better job of promoting retention of course material than a class with only two or three high-stakes exams.
I use multiple quizzes and exercises in two of my courses (and it does make grading rather onerous), but I still use one, all-inclusive final exam to end the semester for my Business Associations courses. This is planned -- I think the value of seeing how interconnected agency, partnership and corporate concepts are as a whole, as opposed to viewing them discretely, has value. I also think there is value in preparing students for the bar exam by replicating that process to some degree, because passing the bar is still a threshold requirement to practicing law (barring a few exceptions).
I do use exercises and problems in my BA courses, too, but they are not formally assessed in any way. That's not all bad, either, as it allows students to get a sense of where they are without having the problems impact their grade. Of course, that presumes they care and are engaging in both the exercise and the self-assessment opportunity that follows. My experience suggests that many are and many are not.
Ultimately, as I consider these suggestions as they connect to my courses, it's clear to me I can do better. One of the challenges of making changes to a course to "do better" is that it comes with a risk that I will do something worse. I think it's worth the risk, though, because I want to be a better teacher. And my students deserve that. To that end, I have always found the great basketball coach John Wooden's advice to be especially insightful and motivating on this front. He's was a teacher first and a coach second, just as I strive to be a teacher first and law professor (with all that encompasses) second. Here are a few of my favorite Coach Wooden quotes:
"If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes."
"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."
"Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability."
Business law is a deep and intricate subject. Finding different and varied ways of teaching that allow students to grasp the subject in their own way is the best way to help that information stick.
Posted by: Barry | Dec 20, 2011 8:24:00 PM