It's Not for a Grade: The Rewards and Risks of Low-Risk Formative Assessment in the High-Stakes Law School Classroom
Elon Law Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, May 2015
36 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2015 Last revised: 28 Aug 2015
Date Written: May 1, 2015
The American Bar Association recently adopted new standards (Standards 314 & 315) that call for formative assessment. As law schools move to implement changes to respond to the new assessment standards, educators must consider the efficacy of various formative assessment models. The wider impact on the adoption of the formative assessment model should also inform the curriculum and course design. Instructors should consider whether the assessment tools would exacerbate the problem of the high-stakes, high-pressure law school environment. Moreover, law professors wading into the new world of formative assessments should be mindful not to import the overemphasis on grades from the familiar world of summative assessment or final exams. Instead, professors should more expansively incorporate low-risk formative assessment in the law school classroom.
The term “low-risk formative assessment” refers to assessment that does not run the risk of having a high impact on a student’s public performance or grades. They are low-stakes assignments that carry no or very low grade impact. Most importantly, these low-risk assessments focus on feedback over scores and performance. The goal is to provide students an opportunity to practice – and even “fail” – with very little risk. The possibilities for these assessment are almost limitless; they could include in-class practice quizzes that are collected or self-graded, group assignments, games, mock debates, or out-of-class projects crafted by students.
Critics argue that multiple low-stakes practice opportunities are stripped of their validity when they do not have a significant impact on grades. But new thinking about low-risk assessment suggests that low-risk, ungraded assignments offer multiple benefits to students and professors. First, low-risk assessments can help minimize performance-inhibiting anxieties in law students.
Eventually, these performance anxieties can become significant obstacles to learning and development. Frequent opportunities to practice that do not have any or much impact on grades can be valuable. They can alleviate student anxiety and help prepare students for a more effective practice performance. They can also allow instructors to collect a more accurate reflection of what their students know and do not know. These stronger snapshots of student understanding are an essential component for professors who need to make appropriate teaching adjustments. The low-risk formative assessments also put the focus properly on learning and understanding. These types of assessments can optimize student performance and strengthen the feedback loop. This article explores the rewards and limitations of promoting low-risk formative assessment in the law school classroom. It also raises common criticisms of the low-risk formative assessment models and respond with ways that minimize the potentially negative impact. Further, it provides some guidelines needed to create a classroom culture that supports low-risk formative assessment tools, The Appendix contains samples of low-risk formative assessments that can be used in various first and upper-year courses.
Keywords: formative assessment, law student, feedback, assessment, legal education, instruction, teaching, law school, quizzes, student performance, learning
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