How to Make Test-Enhanced Learning Work in a Law School Classroom

In the public’s mind–and those in the legal academy are a part of that—there has been a growing chorus of criticism that there has been too much testing, and that this over-evaluation leads to student anxiety and too much educational bean counting.  So when there were report of studies – showing that frequent testing might be good for students—many heads were turned.

What’s important to understand is about these studies were about low-stakes practice tests aimed to help learners—compared to the “high stakes” one-time only exams like finals or midterms (or standardized exams) that have a huge impact on how a student is graded or labeled.

Frequent in-class testing can enhance learning in a law school classroom but it needs the structural supports to make it effective. Several recent studies have established the benefits of test-enhanced learning; they include Pennebaker, J.W., Gosling, S.B., & Ferrell J.D. (2013) Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance while Reducing Achievement Gaps. PLoS ONE, 8(11).  and Roediger,  H.L., Agarwal, P.K., McDaniel, M.A., and McDermott, K.B. (2011). Journal of Experimental Psychology, 17(4), 382-395.

Roediger et al.(2011) showed that middle school students in a social studies class performed better when they were given frequent low stakes quizzes. In that study, students were given online multiple-choice tests two days after each lesson was taught. They used clickers to select an answer to a question presented on screen and then the question stem and correct answer would appear on a large screen.

So if low-stakes exams aren’t really bad for you, how exactly are they beneficial to learning?

One possible theoretical explanation for the benefits of test-enhanced learning is that the extra exposure to the material–it’s not the technique but it’s the extra practice that students engage in because of an impending test. But this theoretical explanation can be eliminated because Roediger’s study showed that the frequently tested group did better than students who had been told to study more.

Another explanation is based on the “transfer appropriate processing” theory, which posits that that benefits occur when the format of the practice matches the test upon which the students are assessed. Mirroring the type of questions on the final exam facilitates “fluent reprocessing” of the information needed to answer the questions on the final test.  For example, if the final test consists of multiple-choice questions, the practice tests must also be multiple-choice. Likewise, if the final test consists of questions asking for an essay answer, the practice tests must also be essay-type questions.  By practicing with matching tests, there are stronger neural connections which later help on an exam.

Techniques based on transfer appropriate processing are in wide use.  For example, much of bar exam preparation is premised on it. Bar prep consists of constant practice with multiple-choice questions as preparation for the Multistate Bar Exam as well as essay writing practice. Likewise, law students typically practice for final exams by mirroring the type of questions expected on a final or midterm.    In short, practice is better than not practicing, but practicing with questions that match the format of final exam questions—is even better.

Practicing with matching questions is good but practicing with feedback is superior because the feedback tells learners what they need to fix.  Practice does not make perfect if practice doesn’t lead to corrections in performance; without feedback, practice may simply reinforce imperfections. A first year law student can practice hours briefing a case, but without feedback, the student will continue making the same mistakes.

As good as practice with feedback is, feedback is effective only if the student knows how to employ the feedback and if the student is motivated to use the feedback.  Motivation is what makes us humans and not robots.  A self-correcting machine is programmed to take in feedback and make appropriate changes. But any human has to feel motivated to use the feedback and take corrective action.  Corrective feedback can be perceived as negative–if the student has pre-existing low opinion about his or her ability and believes there is nothing s/he can do to improve; in that instance, feedback may simply be taken as a negative, thus leading to a downward spiral of lower motivation, effort, persistence—and ultimately poor performance which in turn inspires even lower confidence, motivation, and effort.

This means that educators have to make sure that the right conditions exist for students to learn when they make mistakes. In short, legal educators need to maintain relatively high self-efficacy. Psychologist Albert Bandura who developed the concept, defined perceived self efficacy as “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.”   Self-efficacy  shouldn’t be confused with self-esteem; self-esteem is a wide-ranging perception about one’s self-worth whereas perceptions of self-efficacy are contextual –they may be  different from one task to a different one—e.g., “I may have high self-efficacy when it comes to playing tennis, but low self-efficacy for playing chess”

There is abundant research showing that moderately high levels of self-efficacy are associated with academic risk taking, persistence, and effort needed to become a good learner.   Teachers can promote self-efficacy through low-stakes practice tests—tests that have small impact on a student’s grade—and emphasizing the mastery of skills and understandings—rather than emphasizing doing better than others. Psychologist Carol Dweck and others have long established that a “learning goal orientation” which focuses on increasing competence promotes high persistence and effort while a performance goal orientation –which focuses on performance relative to others –fosters lower effort and persistence when students start to make mistakes.

There is well-established research that tells us that having a learning goal orientation is especially important because of the attributions we make when we fail. With a learning goal orientation, we will attribute failure to not being able to use the skills that are connected to the performance outcome; for example, a student with a learning goal orientation will attribute a poor outcome on a law school final to, say, not being able to fully apply the legal rule to a case. By contrast a law student with a performance goal orientation will focus on the low grade on a final exam, and how much lower the grade relative to everyone else. That student is more likely to believe that her abilities are innate and fixed—“I’m just not any good at doing this lawyer stuff.”

Law school instructors can build self-efficacy by establishing learning environments that focus on building specific skills and emphasizing the fact that there are different strategies one can use to improve performance.

In summary, frequent practice tests can enhance learning in the law classroom; but law school instructors can optimize  the benefits from frequent testing by doing the following:

  • First, the practice tests need to be low stakes.  Low stakes because students need stakes to exert effort. But the stakes can’t be too high – since that would undermine student self-efficacy.
  • Second, instructors need to give practice tests frequently and the practice tests need to match the type of questions that will be asked on the final.  Of course there has to be a readily available bank of these tests for this to be feasible.
  • Third, feedback needs to be immediate.  Instructors can do that by presenting the right answer to the questions they answered. Immediate feedback on multiple choice questions is easy to administer, but feedback on essay type answers is hard to generate. Instructors may have to rely on collaborative learning techniques to administer feedback on answers to practice essay questions.
  • Fourth, students need to be trained so that they can use the feedback to identify deficits in their performance and they need to be trained in what strategies they can employ to improve their performance.   For instance, if a pattern of errors shows that the student is overgeneralizing the rules from a case decision, then the student needs to re-calibrate her interpretation.
  • Fifth, students have to be motivated to fix the things they may be doing wrong—learning environments must build self-efficacy so they put in the effort and persist in the face of difficulties.  To do this, teachers have to promote a learning goal orientation instead of a performance goal orientation.
  • Sixth, teachers need to be aware of whether other courses entail frequent testing. The Roediger study showed benefits when there was one single course with frequent testing but it is doubtful that frequent testing in more than one course would be helpful. The student stress of having to prepare that much more for a second, third or fourth course with frequent tests seems counterproductive.

Also law students can do the following:

  • Students should seek out as many opportunities to test themselves using practice exams that match the type of questions on a final or midterm exam.  They should put in the effort to answer the questions so that they truly test themselves and get an honest assessment of what they know and don’t know. Multistate bar exam questions are good sources of multiple-choice questions and many law faculty make available past essay exams containing essay questions.
  • Students should compare their answers to an answer key available for Multistate Bar Exams.
  • Students themselves should compare the answers and assess where the errors are occurring in order to make adjustments.  They should avail themselves of academic support staff in making these assessments.
  • Students should keep in mind that there is always room for improvement; students should be realistic that small incremental steps are more likely to improve achievement.

All in all, frequent testing can work in a law school classroom, but instructors and students need to create the right conditions that allow for feedback and motivation to use the feedback to improve performance.

Suggested books and articles for further reading

Bandura, Albert. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. (New York:  W.H.Freeman).

Dweck, C.S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048.

Zimmerman, B.J. (2000). Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 82-91.

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