Assessing the Hidden Curriculum

I was honored to have been asked to attend St. Thomas (MN) Law School’s recent conference on professional formation, hosted by St. Thomas’ Holloran Center for Professional Formation, which is co-directed by Neil Hamilton and Jerry Organ.  The conference was fascinating and exceptionally well-run (I was particularly impressed by how Neil and Jerry nicely integrated students from the Law Journal into the conference as full participants.).  The two-day conference included a workshop to discuss ways to begin assessing professional formation in legal education.  Speakers included those from other professional disciplines, including medicine and the military.

One of the most important themes was the idea of the “hidden curriculum” in law schools, a phrase used by Professor (and Dean Emeritus) Louis Bilionis of the University of Cincinnati College of Law. The idea is that learning occurs in many forms, not just by professors in a classroom instilling concepts through traditional teaching methods.  Students interact with a range of individuals during their legal education, many of whom are actively contributing to their education, particularly as to professional formation.  Consider:

  • The Career Development Office counselor who advises a student on how to deal with multiple, competing offers from law firms in a professional manner.
  • The Externship supervisor who helps a student reflect on an ethical issue that arose in his or her placement.
  • The secretary of a law school clinic who speaks with a student who has submitted a number of typo-ridden motions.
  • A non-faculty Assistant Dean who works with the Public Interest Law Student Association to put on a successful fundraising event for student fellowships, which involves setting deadlines, creating professional communications to donors, and leading a large staff of volunteer students.
  • The Law School receptionist who pulls a student aside before an interview to help the student get composed.
  • A fellow student who suggests that a classmate could have handled an interaction with a professor in a more professional manner.

These are all opportunities for teaching professional formation, which for many schools is (at least nominally) a learning outcome.  But how do we assess such out-of-classroom learning experiences?  If professional formation is a learning outcome, I suggest that schools will need to develop methods of measuring the extent to which this value is being learned.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Many schools with robust career services programs already assess student satisfaction in this area through student surveys.  They should consider adding questions to determine the extent to which students perceive that their career counselors helped them to become professionals.
  • Embed professional identity questions in final exams in Professional Responsibility and similar courses.
  • Survey alumni.
  • If professional identity is introduced in the first year, assess whether students in the 2L and 3L Externship Program have embodied lessons that were learned in the 1L curriculum.  Site supervisors could be asked, for example, to what extent students displayed a range of professional behaviors.
  • Ask the state bar for data on disciplinary violations for graduates of your school compared to others.

I recognize that a lot of these are indirect measures.  However, if a school has a robust professional identity curriculum (as some do), direct measures can be collected and analyzed.  In doing so, schools should not ignore the “hidden curriculum” to look for evidence of student learning.

2017 Assessment Institute

It’s been a while since my last blog post, for which I’m very sorry! The Fall was a busy semester. I was in Cambodia on a Fulbright and a bug I picked up there knocked me off my feet for a while.  But, I’m better and back to blogging.

Max Huffman at Indiana University McKinney School of Law alerted me that the annual Assessment Institute will be held this year from October 22-24 in Indianapolis.  Law school assessment will be featured on the Graduate Track, which Professor Huffman will be co-directing.  There is a request for proposals. Looks like it will be a great event.