ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

SLOs and Why I Hide the Ball (and Why You Don't Have To)

TeachingThe 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).
ScholarYou 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).

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Right on! Your comments are especially relevant to the study of contracts. With contracts, lawyers are called in to problem-solve before the deal is done, unlike tort and criminal law (the other nearly universal first-year courses), where lawyers aren't involved until after the deed is done. Spoon-fed students will not be up for the task.

Posted by: otto stockmeyer | Apr 16, 2015 6:51:59 AM

Allowing students to think through fact patters dynamically and identify legal issues is an acceptable teaching method; however, some professors take it too far. They actually mislead students by providing incorrect information and incomplete answers. They then grade students according to who is able to unscramble the misleading morass that they have provided. The result of this unfairness is that students who know to ignore these professors' lectures because they get the tip early from family members who are lawyers etc get the better grades while some students who would actually make better lawyers get lower grades. Law school is supposed to test intelligence and what these professors often end up testing is who got the "tip off" first.

Posted by: Guest | Apr 16, 2015 9:52:38 AM

I agree that some aspects of how legal education is supposed to be changing are highly problematic. One is the "dumbing down" aspect of it such as spelling out things in detail for the students, as Jeremy writes about here. Combine that with, for example, institutional requirements that a certain amount of student obtain not only passing grades, but also grades _above_ a certain level, and you have an untenable and unacceptable situation. In "real life," employees must perform at the A level every day. Law schools should reflect that reality and not require so much handholding just for students to figure out the basics. The American educational system is in crisis for good reason.

Posted by: Myanna Dellinger | Apr 16, 2015 10:38:55 AM

Some day our students may be able to review an entire transaction and see the additional issues that are worth looking at. IMO, that day is not the first day of law school in our contracts class. Nor was it at the end of their first semester. We'll see how they do on the final... Until they demonstrate greater competency with this skill, however, it seems reasonable to provide a more supportive learning environment.

I have a related question. How do you teach issue-spotting? Do you give feedback to students about their issue-spotting skills so that they can adjust their method and improve those skills? I'm new to teaching contracts and I haven't found many good exercises for teaching this (undoubtedly) crucial skill.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 21, 2015 6:32:32 AM

It is very exciting to get comments on the blog, so I want to respond to everyone and thank them for their comments.

Otto: Thanks for your support! I’m not sure I agree with you about criminal law and torts. Your client in a torts case or in a criminal case knows a version of the facts, but she does not know all of the legal ramifications of those facts. In a torts case, the client is unlikely to be aware of statutory remedies, for example, and in both cases there may be defenses of which your client is unaware.

Guest: There are many ways to be a good instructor and an infinite and entertaining (in retrospect) variety of ways to be a terrible instructor. I’m sorry that you had some bad experiences that go in the latter category but what you are describing would be a problem regardless of the instructor’s pedagogical approach.

Myanna: I take your point about dumbing down the curriculum. I am not opposed to all versions of dumbing down. I think I teach now in much more straightforward, real-world focused way than I did when I started teaching law, and I think it is far more effective for my students and challenges them in a way that I think is far more conducive to their grasp of the material. I have nothing to say in this context about your second point, which seems to be about grade inflation.

Matthew: I think you think you disagree with me, but I agree with you. I do not expect my students to be fully developed on the first day or at the end of the first year (or really at the end of law school, despite all the sloganeering about having students “practice-ready”). One of my points is that law schools have to push back against the profession and resist the notion that practicing attorneys have no roll in the training and professional development of new lawyers.

As to your question, that is a great segue to my next post, which will be about the integration of skills and doctrinal teaching. For now, I will say that my colleagues in legal writing help students develop their issue-spotting skills, but I use the Socratic method to do so. I ask students to tell me what they think the issue(s) is/are for every case, and we usually have some discussion about what the real issue(s) is/are and how you go about spotting it/them. Ideally, I would collect and comment on case briefs and sit down with students to talk over that written work, and I will talk about why I do not do so in the next post.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Apr 21, 2015 7:41:34 AM

Dear Author, I agree with your response to my original comment. I would only add that the "hide the ball" method makes it much easier and acceptable for professors to carry out such acts. The method also makes it near impossible for students to challenge professors who "cross the line" when they employ the method.

Posted by: Guest | Apr 21, 2015 2:23:47 PM

Thanks for your response, Jeremy. I look forward to learning more about how you help students develop this skill. Perhaps you'll even consider writing something up (or encouraging your colleagues to do so) about the concrete ways in which you teach this skill, give feedback to students, and assess their development. I've read through some of the teaching and learning literature looking for ideas and haven't found much that is terribly useful (at least in my view). Frankly, I've come to the conclusion that the best way to teach "issue-spotting" is to create an environment in which the students can teach themselves the substantive law well enough that the issues just "pop" off the page at them.

To the point raised in your post though, even experienced lawyers benefit from headnotes on cases, reading treatises, learning to pick up on contextual clues, etc. And your casebook likely has a table of contents that situates the case you're reading in class within a range of issues and sub-issues. I suppose that if you situate the case for the students, there is a risk that students will stop trying to pick up these contextual clues for themselves. But if you don't, there is also a risk that students won't ever appreciate why you read a case in the first instance, etc.

We definitely practice reading cases, extracting relevant facts and issues, understanding a case' procedural history in my 1L contracts class. But by second semester, I'm giving them the issue flat out and then we spend the whole class working on legal analysis trying to understand why the court reached the conclusion that it did.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 21, 2015 2:40:01 PM