How to assess your law students in real-time

How to assess your law students in real-time

Traditionally, when we talk about assessment in law school we tend to think about exams and essays. Some law schools and teachers have started to adopt alternative forms of assessment to match their teaching objectives. But we still often see assessment as being a one-off, high-stakes, independent activity. But how do you know your law students are succeeding outside formal assessment?  How do you know your teaching is effective while it’s happening? Here are some ideas on how to assess your law students in real-time.

Learning doesn’t just happen

Waiting until the end of the semester, or even half-way through, to find out if your students are understanding is a risky strategy. And it has some practical problems.

Let’s say that while marking the mid-semester assessment you find that some students are having trouble grasping some key concepts. There are too many to just assume it’s one or two students (and even if it is, it still needs to be followed up).  How do you know when the misunderstanding crept in? Was it the content or the way you taught it? Is it even a more fundamental misunderstanding about research or writing in another course?

The diagnostic information you have available even by the middle of the semester is already pretty limited. And you are also presented with some hard choices. Do you ‘double back’ to some of the earlier content to check students’ understanding? That’s going to slow the semester down and frustrate at least some students. Do you set another (unplanned) assessment, adding to your workload and student stress levels? Or do you forge ahead and hope you or your students straighten it out?

Assessment as part of every lesson plan

To avoid these sorts of issues, assessment needs to be part of every interaction with law students.

I am not suggesting for a moment that every seminar ends with a quiz or that students have to write an essay at the end of every week.  Assessment can be simple. It does, however, mean that you need to be ‘present’ in your lecture or seminar room. It means that we need to watch, listen and actively engage with students.

That can be hard. We’re not always ‘on our game’. A faculty meeting went late, editors want amendments yesterday and there is a pile of marking to do. But checking progress early and consistently might just avoid another pile of work or a difficult faculty meeting later.

What does real-time assessment look like?

Assessing and evaluating student progress in real-time is about being ‘present’.  It’s about paying attention to what students are saying or asking. But its also about body language, facial expressions and the quiet conversations you can see happening between students.

It can be easy to see when a student is confused, tense or frustrated. There is the frown, the squint, the raised eyebrows … and eventually the ‘switch off’.  You don’t have to call students out. And there are lots of good reasons not to call out students who are obviously confused. But slowing down, revisiting an idea or even asking questions to test understanding can be a good way to draw out where the misunderstanding is.

You don’t need to wait for those types of student reactions though. Asking open questions designed to encourage the recall and application of concepts (not facts) can help. When I say ‘open’, I mean questions that don’t necessarily have one way of approaching them. They also need a little explanation or justification beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example:

  • So our adverse possessor tells you that the owner drags their boat across the laneway every summer. Is that a problem?
  • So our defendant tells you that they might have taken $200 from the tortfeasor after the tortfeasor’s dog bit them. What sorts of questions might you ask them?
Real-time assessment can be outcome-focused

But perhaps you want to make sure that your students are making progress toward your learning outcomes? Great! That makes it even simpler.

In a perfect world, your lesson would already be hitting your learning outcomes. But even if you have a ‘perfect’ lesson plan, checking in with students is a good practice to adopt. Keeping your learning outcomes in mind can help you plan your questions focused on the understanding or skills your students need to demonstrate.

In my lesson plans, I try to build in some assessment-style questions to ask during the lesson. You’re welcome to download and use my law school lesson plan template for free!

It also helps identify gaps in students’ understanding and where you might need to (briefly) double back to specific concepts and skills, rather than trying to diagnose the problems.

Assessing your own teaching in real-time

The other advantage is that, as professional educators, we’re reflecting on our teaching all the time. But while I have talked about gaps and misunderstanding, real-time assessment can also be about reflecting on what went well.

Did your law students grasp a concept or skill? Excellent! What did you do and how can you repeat that experience? But, if you haven’t checked whether your students did grasp it, how will you know?


About Andrew Henderson

I am a lecturer, lawyer and researcher in Canberra with an interest in the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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