Publishing Learning Objectives in Course Syllabi

The new ABA standards are largely focused on programmatic assessment: measuring whether students, in fact, have learned the knowledge, skills, and values that we want them to achieve by the end of the J.D. degree. This requires a faculty to gather and analyze aggregated data across the curriculum. Nevertheless, the ABA standards also implicate individual courses and the faculty who teach them.

According to the ABA Managing Director’s guidance memo on learning outcomes assessment, “Learning outcomes for individual courses must be published in the course syllabi.” (Curiously, this requirement is found nowhere in the standards themselves. Instead, Standard 301 requires that the objectives of the program of legal education must be published—that is, the programmatic level outcomes must appear on a school’s website and elsewhere. But the Managing Director’s memo didn’t appear out of thin air. One possibility is that the Accreditation Committee, in making individual accreditation decisions, has been interpreting this provision to also require course-level learning outcomes. The disclaimer at the bottom of each guidance memo notes that the Managing Director cannot bind the Accreditation Committee. Still, a Law School that ignores the memo’s “guidance” on course-level syllabi probably does so at its own peril.)

In higher education, there is a lot written about course-level learning objectives. Some of the advice is overly bureaucratic and silly, with “rules” about which verbs are permissible. (A professor recently got into a very public dispute with his university, which was not too pleased with his use of a quote from Woodrow Wilson instead of a more traditional list of learning objectives. The dispute did not end well for the professor, who decided to retire rather than serve a suspension. He is suing.) At this early stage of assessment in legal education, I hope that we maintain a holistic approach to course-level outcomes. The process of stating one’s objectives for a class is what is helpful, not the particular verbs of the end product. Objective-setting should drive everything we do in a course. Our goals impact the materials we choose, the format of the class, how we teach and the learning activities we engage in with students, and, of course, how and what we assess. It’s important not to lose sight of the end goal: improving learning. Getting bogged down in the minutiae and lingo of assessment is also a turn off to faculty members who may be skeptical of all this “assessment stuff.”

Creating course-level learning outcomes is easy. Begin with the phrase, “By the end of this course, students will able to …” and then list the knowledge, skills, or values students should know or be able to demonstrate by the end of the course. 5-10 objectives is a good, manageable number.

“I could see how a skills course might have multiple learning outcomes. But I teach Torts,” a professor may say. “My learning outcome is … for them to learn Torts.”  Perhaps, but the point is to unpack what is unexpected. In a first-semester Torts class, is the focus solely on the doctrine of the subject? Is the professor just doing a death march through the textbook? Of course not. The course goals likely include learning how to brief, read, and synthesize cases; presenting alternative arguments; understanding the policy behind various aspects of Tort law; identifying and critiquing alternative compensation systems; and understanding particular aspects of Torts doctrine.

Most of us have always had objectives for our courses; the ABA standards just require us to write them down. One of the benefits of this exercise is that it can help identify a mismatch between objectives, teaching techniques, and assessment tools. Let’s say one of a professor’s goals is for a student to be able to write a well-constructed essay that analyzes a hypothetical Torts scenario, which would not be surprising since that is the assessment method on most Torts exams. Well if that is the case, is the professor teaching students how to write well-written essays that answer hypos? If not, there is an outcome-assessment mismatch. Either the objective must be abandoned (along with its assessment) or the professor must teach students the skills they need to meet that objective. If someone else is teaching essay writing—here, I’m thinking of an Academic Support program—perhaps a professor wouldn’t teach how essay writing. But then it shouldn’t be a course goal and the quality of essay writing shouldn’t be assessed, only the content should.

Shortly, I’ll post a few examples from my own courses to give a sense of how I phrase learning objectives and how they have impacted my teaching and students’ learning. In the meantime, here are some webpages that explain course-level outcomes nicely:

For background on the benefits of stating learning outcomes, see: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/Teaching/CourseDesign/Objectives/CourseLearningObjectivesValue.pdf and https://www.scu.edu/provost/teaching-and-learning/digital-resources-for-teaching-drt/planning/writing-stronger-student-learning-outcomes/.