Legal Education Digest
L M Christensen
83 St John 's Law Review, 2009, pp795-826
Before beginning my teaching career, I practised law for several years. As a result of my practice experience, I have seen the value of skills training from an external perspective – I know that to practice law competently, a lawyer needs to know more than simply how to ‘think like a lawyer’ in the abstract. I believe that my students learn more doctrine when it is placed within a skills or real-world context.
For far too long in legal education, skills instruction has been relegated to secondary status within the traditional legal curriculum. Why is a theoretical subject more revered than a practical one that simply includes applied substance and theory? Indeed, there is a rich history about why this has occurred within the legal academy, but I am interested more in the ‘here and now’ of legal education reform. I believe that law students learn most effectively when doctrine and skills are combined.
One of the purposes of this study was to explore the relationship between law students’ achievement goals and their success in law school. Achievement goal theory examines the goals that students pursue in an academic setting. The current psychological research suggests that there is a correlation between achievement goal motivation, ie, why a student wants to learn, and their overall success.
Dr Carol Dweck’s research suggests that the most successful individuals ‘love learning’; successful individuals look for challenges, they use effort and they ‘persist in the face of obstacles’. Dweck believes that the key to success is not ability so much as it is whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed. Mastery-oriented learners are focused on learning as something valuable and meaningful in itself. In contrast, students with performance-oriented goals want to look smart even if it means not learning as much in the process. So students motivated by performance goals pursue only activities at which they are more likely to shine – and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavour.
I have noticed these different goal orientations in my own students. While some law students seem driven to learn almost exclusively because of grades and exam scores, others appear more interested in developing their overall competence to practise law. Law school is perhaps the most performance-based academic curriculum of all graduate schools. Critics of the traditional law school curriculum argue that law schools rely too much on grading systems (as opposed to evaluation systems); that requiring norm-referenced grading undermines an effective learning environment; and that ranking is wholly counterproductive in a program designed to prepare individuals to serve justice.
The survey used as the basis for this research was adapted from the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Scales or PALS – a questionnaire developed by researchers at the University of Michigan in order to conduct large-scale research on goal achievement theory as applied to elementary school and secondary schools. The main purpose of the PALS research was to determine how goal orientation theory could promote reform within public schools. As a result of their research, the PALS team developed and published scales (comprehensive survey questions) to assess various constructs associated with achievement goals. For consistency and reliability, I adopted the PALS survey with slight revisions to make the questions appropriate to the law school context. The survey questions were designed to examine the relationship between students’ personal achievement goals in law school (mastery or performance-based achievement goals) and correlate those achievement goals with academic success (class rank). We also asked students to provide their LSAT scores, Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA), and Lawyering Skills Grade, as well as their class rank.
The participants in this study were law students from a private, Midwestern law school and included first through third year students. We received 157 responses (81 females; 76 males) and sent out approximately 230 survey requests.
After the surveys were completed, all of the responses were downloaded and a large database was created. All processing of data was done with a STATA statistical package. Descriptive statistics, including means, standard deviations, and percentages were generated, as well as Pearson correlations.
Overall, I found that Lawyering Skills Grade was the strongest predictor of law school success followed by UGPA and LSAT score. The LSAT had a very weak correlation to class rank in this study. I also found a strong correlation between mastery goal orientation and law school success (as measured by class rank). In other words, those students who were mastery-goal oriented were more likely to have higher class ranks than those students who were performance-goal oriented. In addition, I found that law students with higher Lawyering Skills Grades were more likely to have a mastery-goal orientation. The results of this study suggest there is an important connection between mastery-goal orientation, Lawyering Skills and law school success.
One of the questions this study explored was the relationship between class rank and three academic variables: Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA), LSAT score and Lawyering Skills Grade.
In this study, Lawyering Skills Grade was the strongest predictor of law school success. Lawyering Skills Grade had a positive statistical correlation to class rank at a level of 0.57. There was a moderate positive correlation between UGPA and class rank at 0.46. And, there was a weak correlation between LSAT score and class rank at 0.23.
According to the results of this study, Lawyering Skills Grade was a better predictor of class rank than either UGPA or LSAT score.
In this study, I also examined whether there was a statistically significant relationship between those students who had a mastery-goal orientation and their law school class rank. We found that such a relationship existed: the most successful law students were mastery-goal oriented learners.
In the study, I assessed law students’ orientation toward mastery goals with five questions. Law students were asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with the following questions: (1) It’s important to me that I learn a lot of new concepts this year; (2) One of my goals in class is to learn as much as I can; (3) One of my goals is to master a lot of new skills this year; (4) It’s important to me that I thoroughly understand my class work; and (5) It’s important to me that I improve my skills this year.
I used two measures to determine mastery goal orientation. First, I calculated an average of the student responses to each of the five questions; second, I used a dichotomous measure of mastery goal orientation. I then examined the relationship between mastery goal orientation and class rank, as well as other academic variables.
The results revealed that that mastery goal orientation was highly correlated to class rank and the correlation was both positive and statistically significant. Those law students with higher averages for their mastery goal orientation score were, on average, more likely to have higher class ranks when compared to those with lower averages for their mastery goal orientation scores.
This study also explored the question of whether law students who did particularly well in their Lawyering Skills classes tended to be mastery-goal oriented or performance-goal oriented students. The study results illustrated that there was a relationship between Lawyering Skills Grade and mastery goal orientation. Those students with higher Lawyering Skills Grade tended to rate themselves as mastery-goal oriented learners. In contrast, those students with lower Lawyering Skills Grades tended to rate themselves as performance-oriented learners.
There was a positive correlation between Lawyering Skills Grades and the dichotomous variable used to measure mastery goal orientation. In contrast, there was a negative correlation between Lawyering Skills Grades and performance-goal orientation (suggesting that those law students with lower Lawyering Skills Grades were more likely to be performance-goal learners.)
The results of this study show the power of skills courses to enhance the success of law students. In this study, Lawyering Skills Grades was the strongest predictor of law school success. Further, those law students who received higher grades in Lawyering Skills were more likely to be mastery-goal oriented; and mastery goal oriented students tended to be the most successful students in law school. Based upon the results of this study, the best advice we can give to our beginning law students is to devote the most time and energy to their skills classes. In short, it is time for legal education to end its institutional arrogance towards skills courses and to the legal educators that teach them.
In 1996, Professor Jill Ramsfield reported the salary disparity between law professors who teach skills and more strictly doctrinal professors.
Further, the salary gap between legal writing professors and other full-time faculty is increasing. In 1992, 12 per cent of schools reported that their faculty on average made over $30,000 more than their legal writing colleagues. In 1994, that number was 51 per cent.
Even between clinicians and legal writing professors, the gap is sometimes wide. Such a gap is hard to explain in objective terms. These relatively lower salaries are going to professors who have more experience than professors in previous years.
In addition to lower salaries, skills professors often have less power on law school faculties. Non-tenure-track legal writing professors are often not allowed to vote in faculty meetings which leaves them out of key decisions in the law school (and I would argue leaves them on the ‘outside’ of the faculty as well). In addition, although tenure-track faculty are eligible for sabbaticals or summer research stipends, non-tenure track faculty are not.
Further, the worst abuses appear at the highest tiered law schools – the law schools that are revered above all others. Schools in the top tiers have fewer full time skills professors and have consistently relied upon students to teach legal writing and other skills. Schools in the first tier are more likely to grade writing and skills by using a pass/fail or honours/pass/fail system. And perhaps the worst consequence of this institutional arrogance is that it sends our students the message: skills classes are not important.
Yet the results of the current study contradict this message that skills are somehow less important than theory. In particular, this study illustrates that Lawyering Skills Grade were the best predictor of law school success – better than either UGPA or LSAT scores. In addition, those students who adopted a mastery goal orientation were more likely to be successful than those students who adopted the pervasive performance goal orientation of legal education. Further, Lawyering Skills classes appeared to promote mastery goal orientation.
I believe that law students learn more when we adopt a ‘skills’ methodology – when we adopt mastery learning goal structures and provide instruction about the law and rules within a practical legal context. If law schools are concerned about bar passage, then they need to attend to, support and fund their skills programs. We need to integrate skills fully within the larger law school curriculum. And we need to end the institutional arrogance towards skills training.
Mastery goal orientation has been found to enhance adaptive patterns of learning. Evidence suggests that when students report that they do their schoolwork with the purpose of learning, understanding, and improving, they are also likely to report adaptive cognitive, behavioural, and emotional outcomes. For example, mastery goals have been found to be associated with feeling academically efficacious, preferring challenging tasks, and persisting in the face of difficulties. Further, mastery goals have been found to be associated with the use of effective cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies; the attribution of success to effort, interest, and strategy use, positive attitudes toward school and schoolwork; and even with positive general well-being.
This research can be directly applied to law students. If we want to maximise our students’ learning, we need to emphasise the benefits of mastery-oriented learning early on in their legal education. In addition, we need to create classrooms that support mastery goal orientation. Even if the law school curriculum is slow to change over time, i.e., remains performance-based, our students can still be more successful by adopting learning strategies that promote a mastery-goal orientation.
In my own empirical research, I found that the most successful law students read legal cases very differently than the less successful students. The more successful law students read with a purpose. The successful students asked questions, hypothesised and evaluated the cases as they read – they were actively engaged with the text. This way of reading correlated to their success in law school (as measured by class rank). Personally, I strive to teach these important reading strategies in my Lawyering Skills classes.
As legal educators, we have the opportunity to teach these skills – these mastery oriented skills – in our classrooms. In addition to legal reading, we can teach our students reasoning skills ‘such as issue spotting, fact identification, fact analysis, rule identification and application of rules to facts ...’. We may also we introduce the concepts of advocacy, negotiation and client counselling. It is precisely these skills – and their acquisition – that promotes mastery-goal orientation and leads to law school success. If we care about our students’ success, we need to continue to emphasise these skills in our classrooms. Further, if legal education is serious about needed reform, it needs to integrate skills training more equally within the law school curriculum.
Law professors can create mastery-oriented classrooms that will significantly enhance their students’ learning.
Research in achievement goal theory suggests that when students perceive that their classrooms or schools emphasise understanding, improvement, and mastery of knowledge and skills, they are more likely to use effective learning strategies and feel better about themselves than if performance is the only thing that counts.
Some examples of performance goal structures within a classroom were ability grouping within a class, rewards for superior achievement, public evaluative feedback and one-dimensional tasks in which student-to-student comparisons were easy to make. When one considers the typical law school classroom, it fits directly within a performance goal structure. The Socratic dialogue is an example of ‘public evaluative feedback’ (the professor/student dialogue in front of the classroom), and student-to-student comparisons are made all the time with published class rankings.
A mastery-oriented classroom is quite different. In a mastery-oriented classroom, the teacher promotes the idea that students progressively master content and improve skills through hard work. Research has shown that professors can accomplish this by providing meaningful tasks, acknowledging student effort and improvement, using non-public formative and summative feedback, and providing opportunities for revision of work. Applying these examples to the law school classroom, legal educators might consider holding small group conferences, providing feedback several times throughout the semester, utilising practice exams, and allowing for collaborative learning activities. This section will end with three examples that can help legal educators work toward building more mastery-oriented classrooms.
First, Have Your Students Provide Feedback About the Effectiveness of the Class. I give the students a sheet of paper with two or three specific questions about the course content – and room for comments. In a few minutes at the beginning of a class, students can comment upon confusion, ask for clarity, or provide creative suggestions. The students feel they have some ‘say’ in the class content and they see that I genuinely care about whether they are learning.
Second, Use the Students as Teachers. Consider having your students provide class introductions that link past content with present content.
Third, Utilise Collaborative Learning. Prior research has shown that student learning is enhanced when students work in collaboration with others. Using smaller groups (three to five students) allows more students to participate in discussions – it also adds to the amount of personal attention students receive because they can receive feedback and support from other students.
These teaching techniques benefit the strong students in our classes, but they may benefit the weaker students even more – by giving students the opportunity to learn for the love of learning – and not just to perform on an exam.
Finally, the results of this study suggest that legal education reconsider the weight it gives to a single test score: the LSAT. In this study, the LSAT was the weakest predictor of law school success.
If the LSAT is selecting performance oriented learners over mastery-oriented learners, is the LSAT selecting students who will be more successful? Although we cannot know what actually causes the relationship between LSAT and performance-orientation or between class rank and mastery-orientation, the study results do offer another perspective from which to critique the LSAT exam.
The real danger of the LSAT is legal education’s almost exclusive reliance on the LSAT for admissions and scholarship decisions. And this cycle is only exacerbated by the use of the LSAT in the law school rankings ‘game’. Based upon the present research and the prior studies that have questioned the reliability of the LSAT, legal education should seriously reconsider its use and reliance upon the LSAT. Further, LSAC, the institution that creates and administers the LSAT – should consider revising the exam to more accurately reflect the full range of skills required to succeed in law school (and in the practise of law) – likely the very skills that are taught in a Lawyering Skills class.
In my dreams, I envision a law school curriculum that stresses competence over performance. This type of mastery-goal curriculum would prepare our students for the future – and for the actual practise of law.