Sunday, June 5, 2011

Law Student Evaluations

How Metacognitive Deficiencies of Law Students Lead to Biased Ratings of Legal Writing Professors by Catherine J. Wasson and Barbara J. Tyler at ssrn.

The focus of this article is the aberrant student comment, the comment that generates scalding heat, but no light. We focus on those comments because we believe it is time to expose a deeply disturbing aspect of the student ratings process at its worst: it allows students to use the ratings process to abuse and bully a professor with no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We believe that the aberrant and ugly comments on student ratings arise synergistically from two sources: (1) students’ metacognitive deficiencies, specifically the phenomenon known as the "Dunning-Kruger effect;" and (2) specific factors that have a particular effect on ratings of legal writing professors. Using psychological research on metacognition the authors argue that metacognitive deficiencies in novice learners prevent them from recognizing their own poor performance and from recognizing their professor’s competence. This phenomenon, when coupled with the persistent institutional biases against legal writing professors, can damage a teacher’s career. Research into metacognition offers the legal academy a way to rethink the use of the standard student evaluation form and find ways to solicit more reliable and meaningful feedback from our students.


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I have been an adjunct lecturer at our local Law School for ten years. In teaching Civil Procedure to first year students, my goals are often inconsistent with the student's expectations. Students want the clearest and most efficient path to getting a good grade. Grades, grades, grades. What will be on the exam? What are you looking for? Can I have more feedback please? Did I miss something that might be on the exam at the end of the semester? This cluster of questions defines their main priorities.

When you teach to these priorities, i.e., "teach to the exam," you will get better evaluations. This has been my experience.

I do not teach to these priorities. In fact, my priorities are different. I want the students to learn how to analyze and solve problems, assimilate relevant law and take responsibility for how they approach the purpose, audience and format requirements that are inevitably tied to any procedural question. I do not spoon feed them the law, and I expect them to show up to class prepared and ready to discuss complex issues that they will confront as lawyers. I provide direct feedback, expect good work, and don't accept unplausible excuses. This is not a popularity contest, and my goal is not to make friends (and certainly not make enemies). I treat the students with respect, and I make it clear when their work is good. As a partner in a relatively large law firm, I treat our associates pretty much the same way. Most of them respect me.

So my question is this: as a student, do you want someone to hold your hand up to the examination or encourage you to learn how to use a basic set of skills that will actually help you become a proficient attorney? The practice of law spoonfeeds nothing, and it can be unforgiving. You will be responsible for deadlines, calendars, dealing with judges, opposing counsel, employees and supervisors. In the middle of that, you will actually be practicing law.

My conclusion is simple: At least with respect to first year law students, evaluations have marginal value, if any. When I teach to the test, my evaluations are much better. When I force the students to think and take responsibility for their own learning experience, I am insulted or criticized in a manner that makes it clear that the "evaluator" may be being forced, perhaps for the first time in his or her life, to actually do some work. I take this as a complement.

Posted by: Tim Edwards | Jan 25, 2012 1:58:18 PM

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