Monday, September 11, 2017

If You Build it, They Will Come: What Students Say About Experiential Learning

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how law students could be attracted to law school by adding value to their educations.  (here)  As I mentioned briefly last week, David I.C. Thomson and Stephen Daniels have published an empirical study demonstrating that experiential education can attract law students.  Today, I discuss their study in detail.

If You Build it, They Will Come: What Students Say About Experiential Learning.

The authors write, "Our purpose here is to explore one of the 'natural experiments' cited by the Task Force: the Experiential Advantage™ (EA) program at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law (Denver Law). EA was developed as a part of a greater general focus on experiential learning and is built upon the three 'Carnegie Apprenticeships' -- 'the intellectual or cognitive,' 'the forms of expert practice,' and 'identity and purpose.' It was implemented at Denver Law starting with entering students in August 2013."

They continue, "This article is a first report on the findings of an extensive case study -- a three-year survey-based study of Denver Law students concerning this natural experiment."

The authors first present the context of their study--the downturn in legal hiring.  One of the adjustments that some law schools undertook in response to this downturn was "tuning their curricula towards a greater focus on preparation for practice in order to make their graduates more attractive to employers.  Schools hope this, in turn, will make them more attractive to prospective applicants."  Denver Law, the subject of their study, had offered such courses even before the downturn, but it "felt like it needed to bolster the value proposition for its students by making an additional investment in its experiential learning options."  "In the Fall of 2013, Denver Law provided to its incoming class the option of spending one entire year’s worth of law school credits (for a total of 30) in exclusively experiential courses, including simulations, clinics, and externships."  (Experiential Advantage)  "[A]s part of the development of the EA program, there was an intentional expansion of the “Simulation” course offerings through the Carnegie Integrated Course (CIC) Program."

Denver Law wanted to make students part of the discussion.  "While the EA program was being developed and rolled out at Denver Law, we designed a survey-based study to explore the impact of this program on enrollment and student educational experience."  The 1L studies revealed some startling news: "While Denver Law shared in the general decline of legal training’s attractiveness in the wake of the Great Recession, something more was involved as the discussion above suggests. Responses given by 3/4Ls in Denver Law’s 2008 LSSSE survey provide examples of this contrast. One-third said they would not choose the school again, a troubling figure to be sure. And majorities or substantial minorities said Denver Law was not delivering even on the basics. Fifty-nine percent said the school did not sufficiently contribute to job or work-related knowledge and skills. Fifty-one percent said the school did not sufficiently contribute to developing clear and effective speaking skills. Forty-two percent said the school did not sufficiently contribute to developing clear and effective writing skills. Forty percent said the school did not sufficiently contribute to the development of legal research skills."  "If the school hoped to enhance its attractiveness, and do so in a smaller and more competitive market, it needed to rethink what it offered to perspective students and the value of what it offered. The EA program – together with the greater general focus on experiential learning at Denver Law - was the response."

In addition to the usual factors that draw students to a law school, "what else might be important in the current environment, especially with regard to pedagogy, curriculum, and the idea of value?"  Denver conducted a survey of nine factors that attracted students to law school.  "To allow us to systematically analyze and compare the importance of each of the nine possibilities we used a slider bar on the electronic survey (surveys were administered online using Qualtrics) for each of the nine. The sliders asked students to rate the influence of each factor on a scale that went from 0 at the bottom to 100 at the top."  Denver surveyed 399 1L students on the importance of a factor for choosing Denver.  The mean scores were

  • Location: 84
  • Experiential: 63
  • Job stats: 56
  • Cost: 51
  • EA: 51
  • F Aid: 51
  • Rank: 49
  • Blog/others: 41
  • Faculty scholarship: 20

(*EA = only those aware before deciding)

The authors note, "But location is not the only reason students elected to attend Denver Law. These first year students are noticeably pragmatic in their reasons and they seem to look at things in terms of the value proposition. The second most important reason – and a strong second (among those we asked about) – is Denver Law’s emphasis on experiential education generally and its importance is bolstered by students’ responses on EA specifically." 

"The next issue the survey addresses is whether 1Ls intend to actually take advantage of Denver Law’s EA program. Virtually all 1Ls (94%) said they were interested in the EA program. When asked if they were planning on devoting 24 credit hours to the EA program, only 33% said yes, 12% said no, and the largest percent – 55% -- said 'I think so, but I need more information.'"  "When asked more specifically about the two key parts of EA – clinics and externships – a very different pattern emerged. Eighty-six percent of the 1Ls said they wanted to enroll in a clinic and 97% said they wanted to do an externship. This makes obvious sense given the students’ reasons for choosing Denver Law, as shown in the Promised Value factor from Table 2 above."  (not included here)

The authors also surveyed 3 and 4Ls.  For 3 and 4Ls, experiential education and the EP were even more important reasons for choosing Denver.  "In short, as 1Ls these students started with a pragmatic orientation and became even more so, with the increased focus on jobs, skills, and the cost of their legal education." 

"Overall, 3/4Ls doubled-down on the reasons that drew them to Denver Law. They came knowing their legal education would not be cheap and that they would need to borrow to pay for it. They came expecting that Denver Law’s curriculum with its emphasis on experiential education would provide them with the wherewithal to land a job in the school’s region."

Concerning actual value, "Perhaps the best place to begin, given the importance students attach to experiential education and EA, is whether students took advantage of the experiential course offerings at Denver Law. Regardless of whether or what influenced their decision to attend Denver Law, 85% of the 3/4L respondents said they had taken something from among the experiential offerings. Forty-four percent of those respondents who said they had taken something from among the experiential offerings said further that they had or would be devoting the additional 24 credits to completing the EA program itself for a total of 30 credits, or 1/3rd of their coursework at Denver Law."

Some details:

"As a part of the 3/4L look back questions, students who took something from among Denver Law’s experiential offerings were asked whether those offerings helped prepare them for the kind of law they want to practice. Just over three-quarters (78%) said yes and 10% said no. Interestingly, 12% said it helped them to define what they did not want to do as a lawyer."

"An important benefit of experiential learning is that it can support students’ professional identity formation (the third Carnegie Apprenticeship) and this is a key part of Denver Law’s program.  Students were asked if they were exposed to the idea of “professional identity” at Denver Law. Eighty-three percent of all responding 3/4Ls said yes, they had been; and 86% of those exposed to the idea of professional identity said they had been given explicit opportunities that supported their formation of professional identity.  Denver Law’s experiential offerings play a key role here. . ."

"As for the second question, having chosen Denver Law, would the 3/4L respondents chose Denver Law again; this is perhaps the ultimate look back question.  We asked the question in two similar ways and Figure 6 displays the findings. Whether phrased in terms of a student’s experience with the EA program (92%) or knowledge of Denver Law’s strength in experiential education (91%), the answer was – overwhelmingly - yes. To provide a comparative verification, Figure 6 also includes the 3/4L responses to a more straightforward question that appeared in the 2016 and 2017 Denver Law LSSSE surveys: Would you choose to attend the same school again? Again, the overwhelming answer was also yes (90%)."  This is compared to a 66% yes response rate for 2008.

In conclusion, the authors write, "Denver Law’s effort is one of those natural experiments and this initial study, which focused on students, strongly suggests that 'if you build it' they will come."  "They will, it turns out, come to a robust experiential learning program, and they will perceive a benefit from it. Further, as they graduate, they will be glad they came to that law school, and they will appreciate what it did for them in helping them to get a job and be prepared to excel in it."

Studies like this one are important for the future of legal education and the legal profession.  Law schools can no longer rely on techniques developed in the nineteenth century.  The Thomson-Daniels study demonstrates the importance of experiential education in attracting students to Denver Law. I would expect similar results at similar law schools.  We need studies of dissimilar law schools, however, to see how far the pull of experiential education extends.  I should note that most elite law schools now have some type of experiential education.

Two details in this study were especially notable to me: The importance of simulation courses in the curriculum and the positive effect of experiential education on professional identity development.

Thomson and Daniels have provided an excellent beginning for empirical studies of experiential education.  They have implicitly laid down a challenge for others to do more.  I hope more empirical scholars follow their lead.

(Scott Fruehwald)

P.S.  There is much more detail in the study than I can give even in this long post.  The entire article is very worth reading,

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