Wednesday, April 15, 2015
The ABA, and I hear, I other accreditation bodies are now looking for faculty members to identify student learning objectives and student learning outcomes (SLOs) on a class-by-class, hour-by-hour basis. I have been told that there are model syllabi circulating that include such learning objectives and learning outcomes, and that they are 12-14 pages long.
I have Googled the subject and everything the literature I have seen on student learning outcomes and objectives strikes me as thoughtful, sophisticated, and completely misguided as to the nature and purposes of legal education. Sophisticated schools like Stanford and the University of Connecticut circulate complex documents with graphs and charts and tables about how to draft the perfect SLOs. These documents are clearly oriented towards undergraduate education.
The model syllabi (and PowerPoints) that Hastings Law provides on the subject provide about as much information about SLOs as I typically include in a course description. But I don't put that course description in my syllabus because it is more usefully placed in our Bulletin, which students look at when they are deciding what course to take. I could cut and paste the same information into a syllabus, but students will not read it if it is on the syllabus, and I will just waste paper in distributing it. What really amazes me about the model syllabi that Hastings supplies is that they lack the things that I think make a syllabus valuable: daily schedules of assigned readings, assignments due and topics to be discussed on a given day (which is my preferred version of SLOs).
You are not a great educator because you announce student learning objectives and student learning outcomes or because you use the words formative and summative assessments to refer to periodic quizzes, homework assignments and a final exam or because you use the word intentional as an adjective usually preceded by "more" when intention is not really a matter of degrees. All of that jargon just demonstrates that you have drunk the Kool-Aid and not that your students can pass the bar and function as lawyers.
Students already cannot be relied on to read my 3-5 page syllabus. They certainly would not read a 12-14 page syllabus, so adding SLOs to my syllabus just wastes effort and trees. But that is not my main objection to SLOs. My main learning objective is to teach law students how to figure out on their own what lessons they are supposed to be deriving from reading cases, statutes, treaties, regulations, deposition testimony or a news story, etc.. Telling students the SLOs undermines my pedagogy.
And hiding the ball is part of the pedagogy. Unless they are dealing with corporate counsel, my students' clients will not come into their offices and say, "I have a contract dispute and I need you to research how these three jurisdictions (the only three that could possibly matter) will deal with different terms under UCC § 2-207." Even if corporate counsel did say that, a good lawyer will usually have to look over the entire transaction and see if there are additional issues worth looking at. But the usual situation is that your client tells you a version of the facts and you have to find the legal issues in a fluid situation in which you discover through the use of your legal skills that your client did not tell you the full story. The process of dealing with that world has to begin in law school, and it will not begin well if I tell my students at the beginning of every hour what skills or doctrine they are supposed to develop in the next 50 minutes.
Fellow educators: Perhaps you disagree with me. Perhaps you had terrible experiences as a law student with professors who never told you what you were supposed to be accomplishing in a course, and you would never teach the way you were taught. To you I say, fine. If you have found a way to teach that enables you to transmit the material to your students, and your students emerge enriched and empowered, keep doing what you are doing. My way would not work for you, and your way might not work for me. But legal education will not be enriched if we replace one system in which everybody teaches the same way (the myth of the Socratic drone faculty) with another system in which everybody teaches law school as if it were college (or high school).