Author:Cunningham, Larry


A new era of legal education is upon us: law schools are now required to assess learning outcomes across their degrees and programs, not just in individual courses. Programmatic assessment is new to legal education, but it has existed in higher education for decades. To be successful, assessment requires cooperation and buy-in from faculty. Yet establishing a culture of assessment in other disciplines has not been easy, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any different in legal education. A survey of provosts identified faculty buy-in as the single biggest challenge towards implementing assessment efforts. This Article surveys the literature on culture of assessment, including conceptual papers and quantitative and qualitative studies. It then draws ten themes from the literature about how to build a culture of assessment: (1) the purpose of assessment, which is a form of scholarship, is improving student learning and is not just for satisfying accreditors; (2) assessment must be faculty-driven; (3) messaging and communication around assessment is critical, from the reasons for assessment through celebrating successes; (4) faculty should be provided professional development, including in their own graduate studies; (5) resources are important; (6) successes should be rewarded and recognized; (7) priority should be given to utilizing faculty's existing assessment devices rather than employing externally developed tests; (8) the unique needs of contingent faculty and other populations should be considered; (9) to accomplish change, stakeholders should draw on theories of leadership, business, motivation, and the social process of innovation; and (10) student affairs should be integrated with faculty and academic assessment activities. These themes, if implemented by law schools, will help programmatic assessment to become an effective addition to legal education and not just something viewed as a regulatory burden.

Keywords: culture of assessment, faculty, learning outcomes, innovation, change management.


Programmatic assessment is the process by which a college or program identifies, through concrete evidence, whether its students are meeting the learning outcomes that the college or program has identified for itself and using the results to improve student learning. (1) The purpose of assessment is to have a data-driven process in place to improve student learning. (2) This approach is new to law schools--the American Bar Association first began implementing new, outcome-driven accreditation standards in 2016-2017--but has been in effect in the rest of higher education for decades. (3) Indeed, legal education is the last major discipline to adopt assessment. Medicine, dentistry, architecture, and others have all preceded our field in measuring and documenting student outcomes as to learning. (4) The six regional accreditors of colleges and universities, driven by the Department of Education, have also required an outcomes-oriented approach to accreditation. (5) As the proverbial new kid on the assessment block, legal education has the opportunity to learn from those disciplines that have gone before us.

One of the assessment challenges that our colleagues in higher education have noted is getting faculty buy-in for assessment. (6) While administrative support for assessment is important, the faculty play the most important role in assessment, since they are closest to the students, are administering assessments anyway, and are able to make changes to the curriculum or teaching methods as a result of assessment findings. How to develop a so-called "culture of assessment"--where faculty, staff, and students "act on the common understanding that assessment can improve the campus" (7) is the subject of this Article.

There is extensive higher education literature upon which legal educators can draw to help them build a culture of assessment at their schools. (8) This Article surveys this literature and draws from it ten themes for successfully implementing programmatic assessment in a unit. (9) These themes will be important for law schools to utilize as they begin to implement the new ABA standards.

This Article will proceed as follows. Part I will provide an overview of assessment, both its general adoption in higher education and recent efforts to bring it to legal education. Part II will address the importance behind faculty engagement and shifting the focus from compliance and report-writing to the true value of assessment: improving student learning. Part III will address the arguments from the foundational literature on assessment on how to build a culture of assessment. Part IV will review the quantitative and qualitative studies that have explored particular initiatives at faculty and other end users' engagement with assessment. Finally, in Part V, ten themes will be distilled from the literature about how assessment can be effectively deployed in law schools.


    1. Higher Education, Generally

      "Assessment" has varying meanings in higher education. It can refer to the formative feedback that a professor provides student in an individual course, and it can also mean the summative grades that are assigned during or after a semester measuring a student's progress. It may also refer to institution-level metrics around strategic planning goals. (10)

      Since at least the 1970s, a different format of assessment has become prominent on college campuses: programmatic assessment of student learning outcomes. (11) In this context, "assessment" means the process by which stakeholders measure the extent to which students are meeting learning outcomes that have been defined for an institution, school, or program, and using the results to close the loop and improve student learning further. (12) To that end, it involves compiling data on student learning, often across multiple courses. (13)

      This form of assessment is markedly different from what takes place at the course level. No longer is it sufficient for a professor, in the solitude of his or her office, to just assign grades to his or her students. Institutions of higher education are now asked to document learning across courses: by program, school, and even the institution itself. (14) It differs from grading because the assignment of a grade is a summary measure of performance in a particular class and may measure numerous, overlapping outcomes. Grading may also be relative, showing how a student did compared to others in the class, but without telling us anything about how much the student has learned. (15)

      This form of assessment grew out of accreditation and accountability efforts. It has roots in national reports highlighting the varied preparation of college graduates (16) and in government efforts calling for greater accountability in higher education. (17) Following suit, regional and specialty accreditors have demanded, for some years now, that universities and colleges have processes in place to measure the extent to which their students are learning. (18)

      Unsurprisingly, given these external pressures, there is evidence that universities and colleges are engaging in assessment. (19) A Spring 2009 survey of provosts found that most institutions have engaged in some form of assessment, but the most common use of assessment data was for accreditation purposes. When asked what they need to do a more effective job at assessing learning outcomes, provosts identified faculty engagement (66%) and developing greater expertise in assessment (61%) as most needed. (20) At doctoral research universities, 80% of provosts reported greater faculty engagement as the most pressing challenge. (21)

      Many have argued that, to be effective in the long-term, assessment must move from a culture of compliance to one where faculty, administrators, and governing boards are genuinely interested and engaged with assessment for the purpose of improving student learning. (22) Moving an institution's culture from compliance to genuine, scholarly interest in assessment has been the subject of many studies. Researches have sought to identify how a university or college can adopt a "culture of assessment," otherwise known as a "sustainable culture of inquiry," (23) or a "culture of evidence and betterment." (24) The particular focus of this Article is how to adopt such a culture of assessment within law faculty, who, as a group, are among the most skeptical about programmatic assessment yet whose buy-in will be essential to successful assessment efforts. (25)

    2. Legal Education

      Like other units in higher education, law schools are experimenting with assessment as a result of pressure from the accreditation process. Prior to 2014, the ABA Standards for the Approval of Law Schools were primarily focused on "inputs," such as faculty headcounts, library books, and financial resources. (26)

      In 2007, the then-chair of the ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Chief Justice Ruth McGregor (Arizona Supreme Court), appointed a Special Committee on Outcome Measures. (27) This committee was charged with determining how the ABA could use outcome measures, other than bar passage and career placement, in accreditation. (28) That committee very quickly began its work and issued a report in 2008 that recommended the adoption of outcome-based assessment standards. (29) The sweeping report concluded: "a shift towards outcome measures is consistent with the latest and best thinking of U.S. legal educators and legal educators in other countries and is also consistent with insights...

To continue reading