What Would a Small, Assessment-Rich Core Course Look Like?

I just finished slogging through 85 final exams in my Evidence course, and it got me thinking about how I would teach the course if it was offered in a small format of, say, 20 students. Evidence at our school is a “core” course, one of five classes from which students must take at least four (the others are Administrative Law, Business Organizations, Tax, and Trusts and Estates). Naturally, therefore, it draws a big enrollment. I love teaching big classes because the discussions are much richer, but the format hampers my ability to give formative assessments. This semester, I experimented with giving out-of-class, multiple choice quizzes after each unit. They served several purposes. They gave students practice with the material, and they allowed me to see students’ strengths and weaknesses. I was able to backtrack and go over concepts that students had particular difficulty mastering.

But having read 255 individual essays (85 times three essays each), I’m left convinced that students would benefit from additional feedback on essay writing. In lieu of a final exam, I’d love to give students a series of writing assignments throughout the semester. They could even take the form of practice writing documents, like motions. But to be effective, this change requires a small class. So that got me thinking: how would I change my teaching if my Evidence course had 20 students instead of 85?

First, I’d flip the classroom more. I’d create more videos on simple, doctrinal matters. (I already have a few videos on miscellaneous subjects like preservation and judicial notice, which I created using our University’s subscription to Panopto, a great product.) This would free up time for in-class instruction and feedback on essay writing and group projects. Second, as I note above, I would dump the high-stakes, end-of-semester final exam as the sole summative assessment for the course. Instead, I would have a writing assignment after each unit or two (there are eight of them in my course, so I might do two at a time) of varying difficulty and length. As with any other writing course, I’d offer comments and go over them in individual conferences. The purpose would be to help students understand Evidence and improve their writing skills. Third, I would incorporate an oral argument exercise, probably as a capstone to the course. This would allow students to practice communicating Evidence concepts in a different format. Oral arguments also allow for dynamic, responsive interactions to probe whether students have deep understanding of the material. Finally, I would probably pare back a lot of the textbook reading in favor of legal research on topics that students would discover on their own.

Currently, Evidence meets one or two of our institutional learning outcomes: substantive knowledge and analysis. Moving to a smaller format would open up the course to outcomes in communication and research.

A criticism of this approach is that it adds too many goals to the course.  “Evidence should teach Evidence, not Legal Writing, research, or oral argument skills,” one might argue. Alternatively, one might say that essay writing remediation is the sole province of the Legal Writing or Academic Support departments. “Let them teach these skills and we’ll focus on doctrinal knowledge,” one might say.

Perhaps because I’m a Legal Writing professor who also teaches doctrinal courses, I see substantive knowledge and communication skills as complementary, not competing. Ours is a communicative profession. Knowledge does not stand on its own but, instead, must be communicated in some form. A clearly written essay makes the substantive knowledge underlying it shine. Conversely, writing will be ineffective if the doctrinal answers are wrong.

There are, of course, ways to incorporate formative writing and other assignments in even a large doctrinal course. Flipping the classroom facilitates group problem solving exercises. Multiple choice quizzes, as I learned this semester, can be easily deployed. Polling is a great way to liven a classroom and get everyone participating. But long writing assignments with individualized feedback? They require a small class size.

Of course, most law schools offer plenty of small, writing-intensive courses beyond the first year. Our school, for example, offers “practice writing” courses in Contract Drafting, Pretrial Advocacy, Appellate Advocacy, and many others. But I see advantages to offering core, upper-level doctrinal courses in this format. For one, it shows to students that writing and doctrine are not skills divorced from one another. And active learning exercises, which writing assignments are, promote deep learning of the subject matter. It is why students can often recite in great detail their first Legal Writing office memo years later but have difficulty remembering a concept in a core course mere weeks after the high-stakes final exam.

This is an area worthy of further experimentation and consideration. It is also an area ripe for assessment to compare how students do in a small, intensive format versus a traditional format.