Preparing for the NextGen Bar Exam: Questions to Consider

Last week, the National Conference of Bar Examiners released a preliminary set of content outlines for the NextGen Bar Exam. If the timeline holds, this new bar exam will be implemented in 2026. While this seems a long time from now, it is not. Part-time students who enroll this Fall will take this new bar exam. As a result, many schools are now considering how best to adapt to the new bar exam, which has a (1) reduced number of doctrinal subjects tested and (2) increased testing of skills.

Here, I list the questions that I am thinking about both generally and for my school:

  1. What are our school’s goals besides bar passage? It may seem bizarre to start with this question on a blog post about the bar exam, but I think it is the most important. Law schools are not three-year bar preparation programs. We have other goals for our students and ourselves. Career placement, for instance, is an important outcome for law schools. Preparing students for careers in the legal profession requires a curriculum that may not necessarily align with one specifically designed just for the bar exam. Entry-level employers may wish to see students who have knowledge, skills, and values that are not tested on a bar exam. In addition, lifelong success in the legal profession—however we define it—may warrant preparation that does not align with the bar exam. Knowing at the outset what our other goals are will help us to balance what may be competing priorities for a limited number of credits in the curriculum. 
  2. What are our ethical and consumer protection obligations to students? Professor Melissa Shultz (Mitchell Hamline) makes a compelling case in a forthcoming piece in the Journal of Legal Education that law schools have an obligation to prepare students for the new bar exam by taking action now so that students who will sit for that exam will be fully prepared for it. “These monumental changes to the bar exam,” Professor Shulz writes, “do not allow for the legal academy to take a tempered ‘wait-and-see’ approach before taking action.” Her article shares a number of helpful strategies for doing so.
  3. To what extent does our existing curriculum align with the Uniform Bar Exam? If a school has high bar passage and its curriculum is not particularly aligned with the UBE subjects, it may be that only minor modifications are needed. These are likely schools that enroll students who are excellent test takers and will do well with any format of exam. For most schools, however, their curricula may be somewhat or significantly aligned with the UBE content outline. As a result, they will need to do a more significant re-alignment of their curricula to meet the new bar exam while still achieving other curricular goals (#1).  
  4. To what extent does the NextGen bar exam differ from the UBE in doctrinal subjects that are tested? We know that some subjects, such as Secured Transactions, are being dropped from the exam. What are they? Within each subject that remains, how is coverage changing? What is added or dropped? We must all become experts on what the new bar exam is and is not so that we can speak and act thoughtfully on the subject.
  5. Where is the doctrine tested on the NextGen bar exam taught in our existing curriculum? Are there any curricular gaps? Since the NextGen exam largely removes doctrine rather than adding it, I imagine the answer at most schools is that there are no gaps in substantive and procedural law.
  6. Which skills will be tested (or tested more heavily) on the NextGen bar exam? This is the most signficant change to the bar exam in my view—the heavy testing of lawyering skills. 
  7. Where are those skills taught in the existing curriculum, if at all? Are they taught in-depth or just in a cursory fashion? How are they assessed? A curriculum map may be helpful, as are focus groups and surveys of faculty who teach what may currently be specialized electives with low enrollments. 
  8. How do we adapt the curriculum? This is the most significant question and requires consideration of: a school’s other goals (#1), its ethical and consumer protection obligations (#2), the extent to which a school focuses on bar passage (#3), the gaps in doctrine (#5) and skills (#7) between the current curriculum and the new bar exam, and whether there are gaps in faculty expertise that may require a new approach to hiring (#10).
  9. How should our teaching methods and assessments adapt to prepare students for the format of the new bar exam? The new bar exam will employ different assessment tools than we are used to. To what extent should we expose students to them while they are in law school?
  10. How does the NextGen bar exam impact faculty hiring? The number, type, and subject matter expertise of new faculty may need to be reconsidered if a major curriculum realignment is expected.  
  11. What timeline should we follow? Has the NCBE stayed on track with its timeline, suggesting that a 2026 implementation is likely? If so, what steps do we have to take and when to meet our ethical and consumer obligations (#2) and prepare our students for this new exam while still ensuring that current students taking the UBE in interim are well-prepared for that exam?
  12. What should be the process of educating faculty, administrators, and students about the new bar exam and getting buy-in from constituent groups about the new exam? Education and buy-in are two separate considerations.
  13. Will our state’s supreme court adopt the NextGen bar exam? Just as law schools are thinking about the bar exam, state supreme courts are looking at whether they will sign on to the NCBE’s new test or go in a different direction. If most of a law school’s graduates will sit for the bar exam in a state that does not adopt the NextGen bar exam, much of these considerations are mooted. However, the school will still need to think about how it is preparing students for the bar exam that they will take. In addition, a school will need to consider the students who will sit for a NextGen bar exam out-of-state.
  14. Is the NextGen bar exam such a significant shift that it warrants rethinking our admissions criteria? ABA Standard 501(b) requires that law schools only admit students who appear capable of being admitted to the bar exam. If the bar exam changes, it may be that predictors of success change. Should we put different weight on the LSAT/GRE, UGPA, work experience, and references than we do now? Unfortunately, we will not have data on whether our existing admissions framework remains predictive until after the first few cohorts sit for the new bar exam.

It may be there are other questions a school should consider, and I will keep adding to the list as I think of them.

The Point of Curriculum Maps

Over at her blog, Linda Suskie asks the question, “Why are we doing curriculum maps?”  She argues that curriculum maps—charts that show where learning goals are achieved in program requirements—can answer several questions:

Is the curriculum designed to ensure that every student has enough opportunity to achieve each of its key learning goals? A program curriculum map will let you know if a program learning goal is addressed only in elective courses or only in one course.

Is the curriculum appropriately coherent? Is it designed so students strengthen their achievement of program learning goals as they progress through the program? Or is attention to program learning goals scattershot and disconnected?

Does the curriculum give students ample and diverse opportunities to achieve its learning goals? Many learning goals are best achieved when students experience them in diverse settings, such as courses with a variety of foci.

Does the curriculum have appropriate, progressive rigor? Do higher-numbered courses address program learning goals on a more advanced level than introductory courses? While excessive prerequisites may be a barrier to completion, do upper-level courses have appropriate prerequisites to ensure that students in them tackle program learning goals at an appropriately advanced level?

Does the curriculum conclude with a capstone experience? Not only is this an excellent opportunity for students to integrate and synthesize their learning, but it’s an opportunity for students to demonstrate their achievement of program learning goals as they approach graduation. A program curriculum map will tell you if you have a true capstone in which students synthesize their achievement of multiple program learning goals.

Is the curriculum sufficiently focused and simple? You should be able to view the curriculum map on one piece of paper or computer screen. If you can’t do this, your curriculum is probably too complicated and therefore might be a barrier to student success.

Is the curriculum responsive to the needs of students, employers, and society? Look at how many program learning goals are address in the program’s internship, field experience, or service learning requirement. If a number of learning goals aren’t addressed there, the learning goals may not be focusing sufficiently on what students most need to learn for post-graduation success.

She doesn’t view the primary purpose of curriculum maps as identifying where in a curriculum to find assessments of particular learning goals.  I’ve previously argued the contrary: that this is the primary purpose of curriculum maps, but I think I’m coming around to Ms. Suskie’s view.  The point I would emphasize, however, is that curriculum mapping—while valuable—is not in and of itself programmatic assessment.  It does not demonstrate whether students are achieving the learning outcomes we have set out for them, only where evidence of such learning may be found.

As a tool for assessing the curriculum (versus student learning), maps can be helpful tools.  Ms. Suskie offers several suggestions in this regard:

Elective courses have no place in a curriculum map. Remember one of the purposes is to ensure that the curriculum is designed to ensure that every student has enough opportunity to achieve every learning goal. Electives don’t help with this analysis.

My take: I agree and disagree.  Electives are not helpful if you are trying to determine what every student will have learned.  But a map with elective courses can demonstrate a mismatch between degree requirements and learning outcomes.  For example, at our school, a curriculum map showed that although we identified negotiation as a critical skill for our students, it was only being taught in a handful of electives that only a small number of students were taking.  (This led us to develop an innovative, required course for all students in Lawyering skills.)

List program requirements, not program courses. If students can choose from any of four courses to fulfill a particular requirement, for example, group those four courses together and mark only the program learning outcomes that all four courses address.

My take: I agree.  In theory, the courses in the cluster should all revolve a common goal.

Codes can help identify if the curriculum has appropriate, progressive rigor. Some assessment management systems require codes indicating whether a learning goal is introduced, developed further, or demonstrated in each course, rather than simply whether it’s addressed in the course.

My take: I agree.  Note that faculty require definitions for the various levels of rigor, and one should be on the lookout for “puffing”—a course where a professor claims that all of the learning outcomes are being addressed at an “advanced” level.

Check off a course only if students are graded on their progress toward achieving the learning goal. Cast a suspicious eye at courses for which every program learning goal is checked off. How can those courses meaningfully address all those goals?

My take: 100% agree.

Law school curricula are notoriously “flat.”  After the first year, there is not necessarily a progression of courses.  Students are left to choose from various electives.  Courses are not stacked on top of one another, as they are in other disciplines and at the undergraduate level.  There are exceptions: schools that prescribe requirements or clusters of courses in the 2L and 3L year that build sequentially on learning outcomes.  And some schools have capstone courses, a form of stacking.

So much attention in law school curricular reform is paid to which courses are worthy of being required in the first year.  But we have three or four years with students.  In my view, assessment gives us a chance to talk meaningfully about the upper-level curriculum.  And, as Ms. Suskie points out, mapping can help with this endeavor.

What is the point of curriculum mapping?

Curriculum mapping is the process of identifying where in a school’s curriculum each of its learning outcomes is being taught and assessed. We recently posted our curriculum maps on our assessment webpage, including the survey instrument we used to collect data from faculty.

Curriculum mapping was a big discussion item at an assessment conference in Boston last Spring and understandably so. But, to be clear, curriculum mapping is, itself, not assessment. It is, rather, a tool to assist with the programmatic assessment process.  It also furthers curricular reform.

Mapping is not assessment in the programmatic sense because even the best of curriculum maps will not show whether, in fact, students are learning what we want them to learn. Curriculum mapping helps with assessment because it enables an assessment committee to identify where in the curriculum to look for particular evidence (“artifacts” in the lingo) of student learning.

It also helps with curricular reform in two ways:

  • by enabling a faculty to plug holes in the curriculum.  If an outcome has been identified as desirable but it is not being taught to all or most students, a new degree requirement could be created. Our school did this with negotiation. We had identified it as a valuable skill but realized, through a curriculum mapping exercise done several years ago, that it was not being taught to a sufficient number of students. We then created a 1L course specifically on negotiation and other interpersonal skills.
  • by restructuring degree requirements so that smarter sequencing occurs. In theory, advanced instruction should build upon introductions.  A curriculum map will help show the building blocks in particular outcomes: introduction to competence to advanced.

Overall, I hope that schools put serious thought into curriculum mapping, while also recognizing that it is not the end of assessment … but instead the beginning.