Why Going to Law School is like a Health Club Subscription

yogaI joined a new gym recently. They had a deal where if I go to the gym 36 times in the first 90 days, I get my initiation fee back as a gift certificate to their clothing store/snack shop (protein shakes, power bars, etc.). I really shouldn’t need such external motivation to go to the gym. I need to keep in shape, hold back the ravages of aging, lose some weight, etc. etc. but I found this incentive both annoying and motivating at the same time. Every day I missed, I felt like I was being cheated (or cheating myself) of some benefit that was very easily within my grasp.

Here’s the thing. If I don’t go to the gym, they won’t bug me about it. It’s in their interest for me not to show up – sort of. I pay my monthly fee and the gym sits there waiting for me to take advantage of all its benefits. The more subscribers they get, the more money they make, but they don’t make more money if their subscribers actually use the facility. In which case you can argue they lose money because they wear down the equipment, consume shampoo, hot water and towels and take up space.

Law school can seem like this, but it shouldn’t.

Students pay tuition and if they don’t show up or apply themselves, they likely will get low(er) grades and have poor(er) job prospects at graduation. As I understand it, law schools are required by the ABA to take attendance and motivate students to fill the seats of their classrooms, but I am not sure how vigorously that is enforced. You can go to law school and waste your money just like you do when you join a gym. This, however, is not in the interest of the law school.

Law schools should very much be in the game of motivating and seeing that their students succeed. I don’t hold my gym to this high standard. After all, “I” am not a “product” of the gym. No one is seeing my imperfect health and saying “He goes to SuperGym® and that’s why he looks so pudgy”.

On the other hand, everyone who hires, interacts and deals with a law school’s graduates does attribute the performance of those graduates to the law school they attended. More immediately, a poor performing law student will not pass the bar or get a job and these statistics are very important to law schools. Expectations are projected on the graduates, so law schools should be very very interested in the daily, weekly & monthly progress of their students.

This is what Learning Analytics, Formative Assessment and Big Data are all about.  Technology has a role to play in all of them.

Learning Analytics are anything you can measure about your students and their learning. This isn’t just test scores, it’s also attendance, questions asked, attitudes, material read, time spent – so many things can be part of learning analytics, but not all are interesting or valuable. The Wikipedia definition is…

… Learning analytics is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs..”

studentlaptopI contend that we don’t understand enough about how learning happens in law schools and we are far from thinking about “optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs”. The debate about laptops in the classroom is a good example. For some students, the laptop is the learning environment. They construct it themselves as the school doesn’t give them one when they show up. The articles I have read on both sides of this debate are not very nuanced as they merely discuss the distraction effects of laptops or the “quick look-up” benefits. Having every student with multiple computer screens in and outside the classroom is a massive opportunity that is sorely underused by most law schools.

Formative Assessment is…

… a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures or by students to adjust their current learning tactics.”
—p. 6 from Transformative Assessment by James Popham

Notice that Formative Assessment could be used by either the teachers or the students to change their method of teaching or learning. This brings back the gym analogy. From the subscriber’s viewpoint, success is measured by their health – not the financial or critical success of the gym or school. Sure, it’s great to be able to say you attended a school whose reputation impresses people, but for the 90% of schools that are not in the top 10% (apologies for the tautology), your alma mater is mostly irrelevant. Schools should know to as much detail as possible, how well their students are doing. Formative Assessment provides that data.

I highly recommend that every law teacher read James Popham’s short and very readable book “Transformative Assessment” (www.amazon.com/Transformative-Assessment-W-James-Popham/)

Big Data is the background noise that you need against which you measure individual and cohort performance. Big Data comes into play when we can compare student progress across law schools. A cohort is everyone in a single class, course or program of study where you collect and compare data from time period to time period. You can measure on an absolute scale, but if you want to improve your teaching, support and materials, you need to see if any action you take results in improvement. Every student, course and semester is another chance at iteration and improvement.

Maybe what we need is an app like MyFitnessPal or MapMyRun for legal education. Something that lets the school and the student track how much learning is happening and they compare to the rest of their cohort.

CALI is working on projects in this area as well. We already have LessonLink that lets you create a personal link for your course to a CALI lessons – and then – see your students’ scores in that lesson. This gives you, the instructor, feedback on how well your students understand a topic that you teach. CALI lessons are tutorials that give immediate, substantive feedback to your students as they work through the hypotheticals. This is formative assessment for the student. We are working on adding more features so that students can better track their progress and faculty can see how they are doing before the final exam.

This isn’t enough and we have lots of ideas about the future that we are working on.  Keep in touch.


About John Mayer

Executive Director of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). Follow me on Twitter @johnpmayer. Contact me via email at jmayer@cali.org. Call me at 312-906-5307.
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One Response to Why Going to Law School is like a Health Club Subscription

  1. Ben Weinberger (@BenTheCIO) says:


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