Peer assessment in law school

Peer assessment in law school

Getting law students to assess each other as part of the assessment process is exceptionally challenging. Group work is always a vexed activity. And law students often prefer learning independently. But working with others is a curriculum requirement and something employers expect graduates to do. Managers should be assessing their staff all the time. It’s the way the ‘real world’ works. Here are 10 questions to guide your design for peer assessment in law school.

1. What does the curriculum say about my subject?

Both the Australian and American curriculums require every assessment to have clear links to learning outcomes. What that means is, if you want to include peer assessment in your course, you need to start at the planning stage.

Bear in mind that ‘the curriculum’ includes a whole lot of material. For example, in Australia, law school sits within an overarching tertiary curriculum.

  • The Australian Qualifications Framework applies to all tertiary qualifications. It expects LLB students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills ‘with responsibility and accountability for own (sic) learning and professional practice and in collaboration with others within broad parameters.’
  • The Threshold Learning Outcomes (TLOs) that apply to the LLB expect graduates to ‘collaborate effectively.’ The notes to the TLOs explain that it includes ‘an ability to negotiate and work effectively through team disputes and problems with team dynamics.’

This is a solid incentive to include some group work and peer assessment in law school. It also gives a guide to the outcomes you need to keep in mind in your design. First, there is an emphasis on collaborative learning. So it can’t just be peer assessment as a standalone objective. It has to be linked to another learning outcome. Secondly, the TLOs (helpfully) expect there to be problems. It also means that there is an expectation that you will give your students the tools to manage those disputes.

2. What does my law school say about peer assessment?

Remember also that there’s probably university or college learning outcomes and learning outcomes adopted by your law school.

You might also have been ‘gifted’ with some legacy learning outcomes by whoever ran the course last time that cannot be changed!

3. Will it be assessable?

This might sound like an odd question. But just because you would like your students to do peer assessment in law school doesn’t mean it has to be assessable. You could design an entire series of activities around peer assessment without marking anyone on their performance.

I have done something similar with a course I ran on civil litigation. Students were invited and scaffolded to assess each other’s advocacy skills in class. But none of it constituted an assessable item.

One option might be to not make it assessable the first time you try it. It’s still going to be of value to students. But it will allow you to road test the idea and make changes without running into assessment policy problems or adverse student reactions.

4. If it’s assessable, does it conform to the assessment policy?

All universities and colleges will have a policy about the design and weighting of assessments. In Australia, it’s a requirement for registration as a tertiary education provider.

Some universities have a policy about collective assessment and group work. It might also cover forms of evaluation that assign some part of the mark to something other than assessment by the lecturer or professor. Just check what the policy says before you go on and make sure you follow it.

5. Have you planned your outcomes and your assessment tasks?

You should not have a set of learning outcomes distilled from the curriculum documents. Now have a closer look at them. How will you assess them?

You might have noticed that I have asked how you plan to assess all of them. That’s because sometimes a course is jam-packed. You might have to make some choices about what can physically and realistically be assessed in the time you have available.

Remember also you need to think about how much training, teaching, management and marking you can realistically do. Even if some of the mark is associated with peer assessment, you will have train students to do it, help manage problems and review the marking process.

6. Combined outcomes or combined tasks?

One approach I have found helpful is to build outcomes that encompass different skills and knowledge. There are opportunities to assess writing, research and speaking all within a single assessment task if it’s well designed.

Another approach I found useful is to build semester-long assessment tasks with checkpoints. For example, in civil litigation, I asked students to manage a piece of litigation from advice to summary judgment hearing stage. Even though the task spread across the semester, students were marked on different tasks; advice, negotiation, drafting, and oral advocacy. The advantage was that students could get feedback and adjust their approach to improve their performance over the semester.

For a peer assessment task associated with group work, you could have regular ‘project meetings’ or ‘project briefs’ followed by feedback or a debriefing.

7. What will be assessed?

Having established your outcomes, the next thing to consider is; what will be assessed? Is it students ability to observe, analyse, comment, give feedback or assess against criteria? Or perhaps all of these things? And how are they going to do it? In writing, orally, publicly or privately? These will all affect how the observations, analysis or comments are made.

For example, public feedback is confronting. But it is immediate and authentic. You can also see it happening. On the other hand, written comments are less confronting and probably more considered. But they will take longer to produce. It also adds a step in your own process of reviewing the feedback when it’s submitted.

The other element you might want to consider is feedback on the feedback. If you assess what one student observes about another, consider building an opportunity for the observed student to respond. You could also add the chance for the observed student to reflect on their own performance. This design would hit a whole series of learning outcomes, including communication, collaborative work and self-management. Coincidentally, there are some fantastic resources on teaching law students to receive feedback. 

8. When will you train the students to do it?

It’s not fair to assess someone based on something they have never done before unless it’s to establish a baseline to compare later. You will have to scaffold students to reach a point that they have the tools and skills to assess effectively.

This is possibly the most interesting and exciting part of the process. It’s also the opportunity for you to put something of yourself into the course. After all, you’ve assessed a lot. Think about the skills you use and the approaches you adopt. How would you explain them to others?

Coincidentally, it could also be confronting. Nothing is worse than a professor who proclaims, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. You need to stop and reflect on whether what you do is effective. Do you give good feedback? How do you know? Do you need to change the way you assess as well?

9. Do you need to negotiate?

Odds are that you are about to try peer assessment in law school for the first time if you are reading this. That’s great! But bear in mind that you might not do it perfectly. That’s also OK. Don’t be afraid to negotiate!

Ironically, if you’re training your students to give feedback, they might be more inclined to provide you with feedback as well. Things might not go well. Or they might not happen exactly as planned. Here’s your chance to teach another skill! Negotiation!

Most universities and colleges have policies in place to allow changes to assessment subject to student agreement. If something has gone awry, you might need to use it. So demonstrate your ability to put a position, negotiate and get to ‘yes’.

10. Have you planned to review?

This is the step that a lot of lecturers and professors forget. At the end of semester (or even during), make notes on what’s working, what’s not working, and what could be improved. Remember that reflection is one of the expected skills of a law student and of a legal professional. If it goes well, your notes will help you repeat the experience. If it doesn’t, they will help you re-design.

Peer assessment in law school is doable

Collaborative activities in law school aren’t just desirable. They are essential. With some careful planning, it can be a valuable addition to your toolkit of teaching strategies.

If you would like to chat about some ideas you have for peer assessment, I’d love to talk to you. Contact me using the form below!

About Andrew Henderson

I am a law school teacher in Canberra and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, researching 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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