Paul L. Caron

Monday, May 1, 2017

Formative Assessment Raised 1L Con Law Grades At Ohio State

Ohio State LogoDeborah Jones Merritt, Ruth Colker, Ellen E. Deason, Monte Smith & Abigail B. Shoben (Ohio State), Formative Assessments: A Law School Case Study, 95 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. __ (2017):

Several empirical studies have shown that formative assessment improves student learning. We build on those studies by reporting the results of a natural experiment at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Students in one of three first-year sections had the opportunity to complete a formative assessment in their spring-semester Constitutional Law course. The assessment consisted of an essay question that the professor had used on a prior exam. Students who submitted an essay answer received prompt, extensive written feedback; they also had the chance to discuss their answer with the professor.

Over the course of three years, about half of the students enrolled in the section took advantage of the formative assessment. Those students achieved significantly higher grades on the final exam even though the assessment score did not factor into their course grade. Notably, students receiving this formative feedback also secured a significantly higher GPA in their other spring-semester classes. Both of these effects persisted after controlling for LSAT score, UGPA, gender, race, and fall-semester grades. These controls helped reduce any effect of selection bias on our findings.

In addition to exploring these relationships between formative assessment and academic achievement, we discuss several race and gender effects that emerged in our analyses. Women, for example, were significantly more likely than men to complete the formative assessment. Women also received significantly higher grades than men in a spring-semester course on Legal Analysis and Writing; men, conversely, received significantly higher grades than women in a Legislation course. A race effect, meanwhile, emerged for students with LSAT scores at or above the school median: Among those students, nonwhite students who completed the formative assessment achieved significantly higher grades in Constitutional Law than white students who submitted the same exercise.

All of these relationships deserve further empirical study. In particular, our results suggest the importance of examining the transfer effects of formative feedback, gender differences in law school learning, and paths for improving the academic experience of minority students.

Deborah Jones Merritt, Does Feedback Improve Performance?

Legal Education, Scholarship | Permalink


An important thing to note is that, not only did the formative assessment raise grades in the class in which it was administered, it raised grades in other classes.

I think it is especially important to use formative assessments with frequent feedback in first-year courses. Waiting until the third year for a bar review course is too late to help many students.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | May 1, 2017 11:46:12 AM

I hope you took into account the selection effect in your paper--- that the students who opted for the feedback are the better ones.
It of course does make sense to have a midterm with an answer key, which is why most problem-oriented courses have midterms.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | May 1, 2017 1:27:52 PM

Actually--- has anyone ever suggested any reason for not having midterm exams in law school except to save grading for the professor? That is a worthy goal, I agree, but professors in other fields think the tradeoff is worthwhile. Indeed, I wonder if I'm being lazy having just two tests in a semester.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | May 1, 2017 1:32:05 PM

This is a great practice and useful data. But it's not a natural experiment if people can opt in. Give the variation in outcomes based on the control variables, the real question is how much of this variation the variables capture, and how much is unmeasurable that drives people to do formative assessment and also to do well in all their other classes. I have mixed views on that.

Posted by: Michael Risch | May 1, 2017 2:36:15 PM

"professors in other fields think the tradeoff is worthwhile."

Depends on the field and the professor. If they have a team of teaching assistants or graduate students to do the grunt work, I imagine the tradeoff looks more worthwhile.

Most law professors are solo acts.

Posted by: Midterms | May 2, 2017 2:51:21 PM

Oh boy.

Law professors, by and large, have about half the class load of the typical tenured college professor. HALF. And the ~70% of American college professors who are adjuncts or non-tenure track folk, who generally scramble across multiple institutions to find four or five classes per SEMESTER to teach in order to break maybe $25k for their efforts have no teams of teaching assistants or graduate students to "do the grunt work." By God your comment is entitled.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 2, 2017 10:37:13 PM

Perhaps the real message is any real teaching is better than reading the book and attending lectures. In my years of practice, I never taught staff by lecturing at them. I instead insisted on a constant feedback loop until I felt they could start standing on their own two feet.

Posted by: Dale Spradling | May 3, 2017 5:50:56 AM


You are what is wrong with legal education today. If something significantly helps your students but creates a little extra work for you, you won't do it. You already have less than half the course load of professors in other fields. What more do you want?

Posted by: Anon | May 3, 2017 9:03:26 AM

I think "Midterms" is just really dedicated to making sure as many people as possible pick up those million dollar law degrees if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

Posted by: Dr, John | May 3, 2017 8:52:09 PM