Tuesday, August 29, 2017
You may recall from part one of this multi-part series that this year I decided to undertake a new and difficult task (specifically, to grow a giant pumpkin) in hopes of gaining more insight and perhaps empathy for what it's like to be a first year law student. Here’s my second lesson:
The novice and the expert should work together at the start of the endeavor to articulate reasonable expectations for a first project, second project, third project, and so on, which will enable the novice to continually assess herself in light of both current expectations and future expectations.
After you’ve identified the seed that you’ll be planting, you have to establish a planting schedule. Most expert growers begin their season in April with the help of greenhouses, heated soil cables, and indoor grow lights. By planting a seed in April (as opposed to waiting for the last frost in late May), the expert squeezes in several more weeks of growth before the October harvest. Ideally those extra weeks of growing will translate into additional pounds on weigh-off day. This novice, however, was not enamored with the idea of caring for a seedling indoors, while still teaching spring semester courses. So, I had a choice to make. My expert-coach and I then discussed a reasonable goal for a Level One grower. We settled on getting a pumpkin to grow and survive until October, regardless of its size, shape, or color. Next time (I’m making a big assumption here), I could focus on all the Level One details plus shape or size. Then, in a future year, I could hone shape and size.
With the Level One goal firmly established and no longer focused on the potential bonus pounds, I agreed to start the seed indoors in early-May. (I was pretty confident I could simultaneously watch a pot of dirt and grade final exams.) I kept the tiny plant inside until Mother Nature gave the all clear that it was safe to move outdoors. My “late” start in May put me behind the expert growers from the very beginning, but right on target for my Level One goal. Throughout the summer, I was able to measure my progress against other rookies while also taking note of what I would need to do next time if I wanted to compete with the experts.
Below you can see my pumpkin plant making its debut outside on June 3. 2017.
This multi-level plan, where each level becomes increasingly more complex than the last, aligns nicely with ABA Standard 314 regarding formative assessment. For example, in the legal writing context, a multi-level plan might look like this:
Too frequently, students learn the basics of legal writing in their first-year and then inaccurately conclude that the same quality of work will be acceptable on a future project. Arguably, the novice will be in a better position to appreciate the long-term game plan if presented with the entire strategy at the outset. Sharing each level with the learner at the outset should aid a student in understanding that what might earn them an “A” on a Level One project will not earn them an “A” on a Level Two project, such as a law review note or seminar paper. Rather, the benchmark for minimal competence will continue to evolve as the student become more familiar with the foundational skills.
Having firmly established and identifiable benchmarks for each level also enables the student and professor to have a meaningful conversation about expectations. For example, a moot court coach is better positioned to explain that although a particular appellate brief would be “passing” in any Appellate Advocacy course, the work product is insufficient for success at a Moot Court Competition. In addition, establishing the big picture at the outset allows the professor to focus on level-appropriate feedback. As I discussed in the first post, less is more with regard to feedback. Therefore, if a professor and student both know that the student is working on a Level Two project, then the professor can focus her feedback on the skills unique to Level Two success. Meanwhile, the professor can refrain from offering detailed feedback about the skills that will be learned in Level Three.
In short, I suspect that a majority of legal writing programs have firmly established benchmarks for each writing course or year of matriculation. This novice’s advice is to share the big picture with the students at the very beginning, so that both the professor and student can readily and accurately articulate where the students falls on the scale from novice to expert. (Kirsha Trychta)