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Rethinking Formative Assessment

We've seen an increased significance placed on formative assessment in the legal academy. Standard 314 of the ABA Standards requires that law schools use both formative and summative assessment methods in their curriculum. Its rational for doing so is "to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students." The ABA defines formative assessment methods as "measurements at different points during a particular course or at different points over the span of a student's education that provide meaningful feedback to improve student learning."

Those of us in the legal research instruction business are no strangers to formative assessment. We are leaders in this in the law school curriculum, with rarely a class going by in which students do not practice their skills. Lately, though, I've been wondering whether I'm going about formative assessment in the way that will best provide meaningful feedback to students. In the mandatory workshops we put on for our first year students, we focus intensely on Rombauer's method--research as a process, not a mere gathering skill. More often than not, however, our ungraded formative assessments, while disguised as an open problem because we start them off with a client-based fact pattern, are really designed to lead them from source to source--effectively a treasure hunt that takes them through the process. Now, I'm not entirely opposed to treasure hunts as a tool to teach the mechanical side of research. But, if we purport to be teaching our students process and analysis, we need to let them engage in that process with ungraded assessments where we are not directly telling them which sources to use and in which order. Otherwise, their first opportunities to truly engage in the research process openly is on their graded open memos--which, at least in my students' case, are being graded by their legal writing professors, not the legal information experts who taught them the four-step process in the first place. As such, the focus of the feedback is spread across any number of topics--technical writing, style, and more, in addition to which sources they found. Students are not getting meaningful feedback centering primarily on the research process they used.

Students need practice conducting open research problems without the pressure of a looming grade. Otherwise, students fixate on finding the "right" answer or sources, rather than engaging in and absorbing the process. Without being worried about producing a graded written product, students are able to take in the research process fully because their cognitive loads are lessened. This will also help students view research as more than a rote, mechanical task to gather authorities, as they're able to isolate the skills necessary for successful research from those needed for successful writing.

In my instance, this means creating assignments that students may not be able to complete in the allotted 50-minute time period we have--or at least that we don't have time to review in that short time. This may require buy-in from the legal writing professors to allow us to give students homework, perhaps in the form of participation points, because if an assignment isn't sanctioned by the professors who are responsible for their grades, the students may not take it seriously. We must be willing to have conversations with our legal writing colleagues about creative ways to incorporate ungraded, formative assessments into the curriculum (in those situations where we are not their "grading" professor). We need to be upfront with them about what exactly we are trying to teach our students--process and analysis, and why this particular type of assignment is a necessity.

This also requires us being willing to review assessments from our entire first year class, which may be a challenge depending on the number of instructional librarians you have and how much other for-credit and non-credit teaching they might be doing. One way to get around having to collectively grade ~140 1L assessments might be to create a video walking through the research process you'd use for a given problem. But this isn't a perfect solution, as there are often multiple ways to move through a research problem successfully. I always lean toward wanting to give individualized feedback based on students' attempts--even better if that feedback is in a conference so I know students are absorbing it. Still, the most important point is that students are 1) getting a chance to practice open problems and 2) they are receiving some kind of meaningful feedback. After all, meaningful feedback is our best way to ensure that our students will be able to conduct research successfully in practice. It's also our best way to demonstrate to our students that research is a process that requires critical thinking.

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