Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Better writers vs. better papers

I’ve had little time to blog recently because I’ve been grading the end-of-semester legal briefs in my legal analysis, writing, and research course. These students have learned a ton over the course of their first year in law school, but their writing and analytical skills are still developing, and there are a lot of ways their papers could still improve. Reading their year-end briefs always gets me thinking about the teaching process.

One of the challenges of teaching the class – and I assume that some version of this challenge is true of all teaching – is in deciding how much help to give students along the way, and what kind of help. In my class, each student submits a draft of each section of the brief, which I give extensive comments on; then the student revises the drafts to produce a final brief. So the question arises: how much should I give away at the draft stage? If I think there’s a great argument that the student isn’t making, should I point it out? If the student is misreading a key case, or not citing the case at all, should I point it out? If a sentence is unnecessarily wordy or confusing, should I suggest a clearer alternative?

It’s a fine line to walk. I comment as much as I can on whether the draft makes sense, whether it raises unanswered questions in my mind, whether it says anything that sounds so improbable that it should be double-checked, whether its language is confusing or abstract, whether its organization is hard to follow, etc. But I have to constantly fight the temptation to be too prescriptive about what the draft should say. I want the students to keep wrestling with the analysis. I want to give them a chance to find the missing case, or discover the strong argument, on their own. That means taking the risk that they won’t all write the perfect brief, but if I were to short-circuit that process by being too prescriptive, they’d miss out on the most valuable part of the learning process.

In other words, I have to keep reminding myself that the goal is to produce better writers and better thinkers, not better papers. There’s an easy way to get better papers: just tell the students what to write. But no one learns how to write, or how to think through a legal problem, simply by taking dictation.

Now imagine that all of the briefs were sent to a standardized testing company. Imagine that the testing company had its employees (or even a computer!) assess the quality of the briefs and give them a score. Imagine that my salary, or even my job, depended on those scores. Even if we assume that the company could validly assess the quality of the briefs, wouldn’t I have to teach very differently? Wouldn’t I have to focus on the product at the expense of the process, and on the short-term at the expense of the long-term? Wouldn’t I have to tell the students how and what to write, as much as I could get away with, instead of letting them reason their way through the analysis on their own?

It’s always going to be easier to raise test scores artificially and through short-cuts than to facilitate real learning. High-stakes testing just makes that temptation irresistible. That’s part of the problem with what Ken Robinson calls the “fast food model of education.” I’m lucky – and I think my students are, too – that that model hasn’t yet taken hold at the law school level. Kids in K-12: not so lucky.


Doris said...

Great post, Chris! Wish I had time to comment, but I'm too busy grading papers and exams!

Chris said...

Thanks, Doris. You have my sympathy -- that end-of-semester grading is one of my least favorite times. It's when I feel least like an educator and most like a people-sorter.