The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance
Law Review Article
bar passage correlates, law school curriculum, educational psychology and metacognition
For well over a century, first-year law students have typically not received any individualized feedback in their core "doctrinal" classes other than their grades on final exams. Although critics have long assailed this pedagogical model, remarkably limited empirical evidence exists regarding the extent to which increased feedback improves law students' outcomes. This Article helps fill this gap by focusing on a natural experiment at the University of Minnesota Law School. The natural experiment arises from the assignment of first-year law students to one of several “sections,” each of which is taught by a common slate of professors. A random subset of these professors provides students with individualized feedback other than their final grades. Meanwhile, students in two different sections are occasionally grouped together in a "double section" first-year class. We find that in these double section classes, students in sections that have previously or concurrently had a professor who provides individualized feedback consistently outperform students in sections that have not received any such feedback. The effect is both statistically significant and hardly trivial in magnitude, approaching about 1/3 of a grade increment after controlling for students’ LSAT scores, undergraduate GPA, gender, race, and country of birth. This effect corresponds to a 3.7 point increase in students’ LSAT scores in our model. Additionally, the positive impact of feedback is stronger among students whose combined LSAT score and undergraduate GPA falls below the median at the University of Minnesota Law School. These findings substantially advance the literature on law school pedagogy, demonstrating that individualized feedback in a single class during the first-year of law school can improve law students' exam quality in all of their other classes. In light of the broader literature on the importance of formative feedback in effective teaching, these findings suggest that, at a minimum, law schools should systematically provide first-year law students with individualized feedback in at least one “core” doctrinal first-year class prior to final exams. Doing so would almost certainly have positive distributional consequences and improve the fairness of law school grades. It would also likely promote students’ acquisition of relevant legal skills. Finally, this reform would help implement the American Bar Association’s recent requirement that law schools utilize formative assessment methods in their curricula.