When we’re writing assessment instructions, we try to be as transparent as possible about what students have to do and when. We know why they are doing the assessment. But do they? Are you explaining the ‘why’ of assessment to students? And does it matter?
Rules, policies and practice
When we’re designing assessments, there is a battery of policies and practices that we have to observe. They are essential. Universities and law schools have to link assessments to learning outcomes. They explain why assessment is important. In Australia, a clear link between assessment is fundamental to accreditation as a university and law school. The beneficiaries of the rules and policies are students. But when you look at the rules and policies, they are rarely the audience being addressed. They seldom explain why assessment is important to students. There are some good examples of student-focused policies, but they are uncommon.
We can say the same for statements about the capabilities admitting authorities expect graduates to demonstrate. In Australian law schools, two documents set the majority of expectations: the Threshold Learning Outcomes and the Prescribed Areas of Knowledge (also called the ‘Priestley 11’). Both talk about graduates or students rather than talking to them.
Arguably, discussing students as the subjects of rules or practices is sensible. Most framework documents set expectations for law schools (not students) about what accreditation bodies want to see. But, if students are the beneficiaries, shouldn’t they know why assignments are consuming their nights and weekends?
Is the why important?
Explaining why students are being assessed serves at least two closely-associated objectives. First, it can act as a motivator. Second y, it might mitigate students’ overwhelming focus on assessment as a tool to find employment.
Motivation and law students has attracted more attention in the last five years in connection with well-being. In 2015, Krieger and Sheldon asked ‘What makes lawyers happy?’ Krieger and Sheldon argued that for lawyers (or any employee) to be happy, they needed to feel competent, that their work was authentic, and that they were connected to others. They also needed to see a purpose to their work that aligned with their personal values. Achieving those outcomes provides an intrinsic motivator.
The idea is not a new one. Krieger and Sheldon applied an existing theory of motivation called self-determination theory. It argues that competence, authenticity and connection contribute to intrinsic motivation that ‘can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts.‘ But, what Krieger and Sheldon did, was link intrinsic motivation to well-being. That is, working in a role that spoke to our intrinsic motivation was more likely to sustain our mental well-being.
Importantly for law teachers, Krieger and Sheldon had already done similar research with similar outcomes with law students in 2007.
Explaining why you’re assessing students is not going to magically improve their health. But, explaining how assessment contributes to the skills they will need after graduation establishes its authenticity.
Why break their focus?
My research with Australian law students has found that they tend to treat content and assessment as separate things. In interviews, law students described assessment as being a task that they undertake independently of the content. They also tended to see grades as a literal measure of employability.
That idea of assessment is worrying. It might mean that students aren’t making use of content to help with assessment. It also means that any link to authentic, real-world connections isn’t seen. Consequently, whatever feedback they receive about assessment, they might not apply to a similar task post-graduation.
How do you explain the why?
If your assessment is authentic, explaining the why doesn’t need to be complex or time-consuming. My experience has been that law students also understand learning outcomes and objectives. What that means is that an explanation can even draw on the framework documents themselves. Here is an example from a reflective writing assessment in ethics:
This assessment is designed to provide you with the opportunity to reflect on your
learning and experience. The capacity for you to engage in reflective practice is also a skill required of all Bachelor of Laws graduates as part of the Threshold Learning Outcomes (TLOs). TLO 2 deals with ethics and professional responsibility and requires that all pre-admission lawyers be able to demonstrate.
Ethical challenges and dilemmas can arise suddenly and unexpectedly in legal practice. From the gentle pressure of other lawyers to act in a particular way to the overt demands of clients to provide advice that will ‘get them out of trouble’. Conduct rules provide a guide to professional conduct, but we do not always have a copy handy and they only partly provide an answer to what is ‘professional conduct’. Reflection and evaluation can provide a way of resolving new or challenging problems.
Explaining the ‘why’ of assessment to students
Answering the question ‘Why is assessment important?’ is arguably simple. Rules and policies make the role of assessment very clear. But explaining the ‘why’ of assessment to students might make assessment more valuable than just the grade at the top of the paper.