Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Defending Self-Critique

Law schools have not yet fulfilled the Carnegie Report’s call for more formative assessment.  One reason for falling short is conflicting narratives about what is “good” formative assessment.  One specific narrative seems particularly troublesome:  That the only legitimate method for providing formative assessment is for the instructor to sit down with each student and explain their errors.  This post pushes back on that narrative.

  1. Self-critique is more effective than we appreciate.

Most would agree that individualized feedback from an instructor, the expert both on the subject and the way the student will be graded, is most effective.  But especially when using a model answer or quality student answer,[1] allowing students to compare their work against the ideal version, doing so not only assists with doctrinal comprehension, legal writing, and exam skills, but also builds metacognitive abilities.[2]  Having the capacity to determine one’s own weaknesses is crucially important, as demonstrated by countless studies showing the performance-enhancing effect of improving metacognition.[3]

The assumption that all feedback must come from the instructor certainly undercuts the mission to improve students’ metacognition.  When students find themselves professorless during bar study, they will scramble around helplessly if they have absorbed the legal education fable that only professor knows best.  Moreover, new lawyers will certainly struggle in the early years of practice when they need to run to the partner/ division chief/ client to do the metacognitive work for them.

Although some students certainly will do a poor job of self-critiquing (“I mentioned res ipsa loquitur just like the model did!  I should get full points!”), this is no reason to underappreciate self-critique.  First, in my experience, most students DO figure out their weaknesses from this process.  While before the self-critique process they think their C-minus should be an A-minus, seeing the student essay that booked the course tends to leave them thinking otherwise.  Second, even if the student still does not see the problems, this is where academic support faculty come in.  In partnering with doctrinal faculty, academic support faculty can meet with underperforming students and comment not on the law but on the student’s metacognition.  This method distributes personnel resources in a way that makes robust feedback more possible, fosters metacognition, demonstrates to students the valuable connection between doctrinal and academic support faculty, and frees up time for doctrinal faculty.

  1. Calcifying the status quo.

A particular danger with the solely instructor-based feedback narrative is that it preserves the status quo.  We all know that formative assessment is lacking in legal education.  The principal argument against remedying that problem is that individualized feedback is so time-consuming that one can accomplish little else.  When those inclined to pursue efficient formative assessment are then met with the chorus of voices claiming that self-provided feedback is inadequate, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, dismiss formative assessment, and turn back to the same one-final-exam process used since 1877.  Therefore, creating this strict dichotomy between individualized feedback and self-provided feedback makes the perfect the enemy of the very good and leaves students with nothing instead of at least something.

Final thoughts.

None of this is meant to say that instructor-led feedback is unnecessary or inferior.  Feedback from course instructors is crucial.  But when that type of formative assessment is not feasible, self-critique is a solid option.  

There is a lot more to discuss on this subject.  Unlike almost all other graduate programs, why do we think that TAs providing feedback is an unspeakable heresy?  Why do we almost never use summative assessment as formative assessment by improving the process of post-semester self-critique?  (FYI, simply letting students see their exam answers does not accomplish this goal.)  Why do we see testing only as formative and summative assessment but not as a learning tool in-and-of itself? 

Unfortunately, the time constraints on writing about the time constraints of formative assessments are such that I have to stop tying now.  Ironic.


Louis Schulze, FIU Law


[1] Self-critique without a model answer is possible, too, but I concede that having a model answer is preferable.  To those who would avoid providing such an answer because doing so would take time to write or risk being imprecise, I would argue that a simple solution is to release the strongest student answer.

[2] Metacognition is the process of assessing one’s knowledge:  Do I really know the felony murder rule, or do I just think I know it?  As I tell my students, it is like hovering over one’s knowledge and objectively scrutinizing one’s real comprehension.

[3] See generally J.A. Gundlach & J. Santangelo, Teaching and Assessing Metacognition in Law School, 69 J. LEGAL EDUC. 156 (2019) (reporting on empirical study of first-year law students, finding that students who demonstrated strong metacognitive skills were more likely to perform well).


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