Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
June 7, 2018
The idea of eliminating grades in favour of pass/fail or credit courses has become a popular discussion in higher education. There is some evidence, particularly from medical education, showing that courses without grades help reduce anxiety and help students develop their self-regulation skills.
When Lisa Silver, an instructor in the Faculty of Law, was tasked with updating the course LAW 602: Advocacy, she decided to see how an ungraded credit course would work with her third-year law students. There was some concern from the faculty that the course would lack rigour and intensity, and that students would not be motivated without grades, but they were willing to try it. The course runs during block week, but Ms. Silver expanded it from one week to three. She incorporated more experiential learning methods by centring the class on a trial presentation project.
Whether or not students receive their credit for the course is equally dependent on four factors: attendance, active participation, the trial presentation, and the final trial book. For the three weeks of the course, students are expected to be in class every day. There are group lectures, drills, and discussions that they participate in, Different practicing lawyers and judges visit as guests throughout the course, where they share their advice and act as mentors for the students. Although students are divided into different lecture sections, each of the main instructors has the same training and assessment criteria for active participation. It is feedback-based rather than ranking-based, so students can learn from what they are doing and make improvements.
Students are expected to spend time outside of class preparing for the trial presentation. Prior to the start of the course, they are sent an email asking whether they want to do a civil or criminal case, along with who they would like as their partner and their opposing counsel. The only part that students do not get to choose is whether they are the plaintiff or the defendant. Ms. Silver selects the roles because she wants to ensure that the few students with court experience get the role they are less familiar with. Students are provided with the case files before the start of the course. They are expected to have read them and have some ideas and approaches prepared before the first day. It is a lot of work in advance of the course, but this simulates the process of preparing for a court case as a practicing lawyer. Almost all of the work is done before going into court. Students are not just learning from the content, but also from their approach to the project.
Before the final trial presentation, students are given an opportunity to have a meeting with their opposing counsel and a judge. They get an opportunity to discuss their case, ask questions, and get advice about their arguments. This is the first opportunity that most students have to talk about a case with a practicing judge. On the last day of the course, students meet at the courthouse and defend their cases for the judges. The judges are also provided with criteria to give feedback to all of the students on a number of factors, including their professionalism, body language, and arguments. This is the only component of the course that is formally ranked, as the highest-ranked presentation is recognized and rewarded.
The final piece that is assessed is the trial book. All of the facts, exhibits, cross-examinations, and other details are compiled. Preparing this book helps students get ready for their presentations. They also are asked to do a short reflection on the outcome of the trial, discussing what went well, what could have been improved, what the judge said, and what their overall experience was like. Ms. Silver includes at least one piece of positive feedback to each student, whether it is about the organization of their work or a compliment from the judge, it is important for students to be commended for the work they do.
All of the feedback in the course is designed to be future-focused. Instead of talking about what a student did wrong, all of the people providing feedback are encouraged to discuss what a more effective approach would be, what specifically could be done to improve, and what students should continue to do. This approach is important because the course is so short. Students need to be able to apply feedback immediately so that they can improve with every assessment they get. Feedback is meant to be personalized and not comparative.
This course involves a lot of work in a short period of time. Students are engaged from before it even starts to the very last day. While it is intense, students benefit a lot from the experience. The concerns that students would not dedicate themselves to a course without grades turned out to be unfounded. Ms. Silver says that she sees students work harder than ever in this class and they are always committed to doing well. Before LAW 602 was changed, students just had to get through some content. Now, they have one of the most meaningful learning experiences. Students take this course at the start of their final semester of law school and it often is the motivation that they need to get through their last few courses. It also has become a place for students to find their voice as a lawyer and an advocate.
The course bridges the gap between law school and industry. It gives students an idea of what their lives will be like after they move into articling positions and then start practicing as lawyers. Up to 90 different practitioners and judges volunteer their time to help with the course. Most are excited to return year after year to see how each group of students engages with the course. They love seeing the creativity and innovations that students bring to the cases and are excited to work with future lawyers.
Ms. Silver is always impressed by student work and practitioner feedback. Although it takes her several months of planning to get the course running smoothly, it is worthwhile giving students this opportunity for such a transformative experience. With all of the different components, feedback opportunities, and experiences, grades are not necessary for the class. Students and instructors are focused completely on developing new skills and improving existing ones, which is what learning should be all about.