Beyond Letter Grades: Personalized Feedback Boosts 1L Students’ Performance

December 1, 2018

At all levels of education, meaningful teacher feedback is crucial to a student’s growth. But until recently, law schools seldom gave students more than a cold letter grade on exams weeks, if not months, after the completion of their first-semester core classes.

Thanks to professors such as Minnesota Law’s Daniel Schwarcz, that’s starting to change. In the autumn 2017 edition of the Journal of Legal Education, Schwarcz and Dion Farganis ’17 published “The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance.” (Co-author Farganis recently completed a clerkship for U.S. District Court Judge Joan N. Ericksen ’81 and joined the law firm of Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis.)

Professor Daniel Schwarcz and 2L Sarah Trautman

The article is based on a natural experiment arising from the long-standing law school practice of randomly assigning first-year law students to sections, each taught by a shared set of professors. Some of these professors provide students with individualized feedback during the semester, such as a graded midterm exam, while others do not. Schwarcz and Farganis measured the impact that receiving such feedback in one class (such as torts) had on students’ performance in other classes (like civil procedure). To do so, they focused on first-year “doublesection classes,” where students from two different sections were taught in single first-year class, such as torts. They found that students in double-section classes who received individualized feedback in one of their single-section classes consistently outperformed students in that same double-section class who had not received such feedback.

“I had been looking for empirical literature that went into whether this might be beneficial,” says Schwarcz. “There’s a ton of study about providing feedback, but not much about providing it in law school. That prompted the studies—I wanted to figure it out myself.”

The response, from both inside and outside the classroom, was swift. A well-known law blog declared the information in the study “could have a profound impact on the way the law is taught.” And Stanford Law School’s Lisa L. Ouellette identified the article on Twitter as “one of the best” on legal education in the last several years.

More important, though, students loved it. Formative assessments for first-year students, a simple enough concept, could be the difference between succeeding and failing as a 1L.

“I found that I had missed some important issues on the midterm,” says Linfan Zha, a student of Schwarcz’s who is now in his second year at the Law School. “There were other times when I got a question correct, but didn’t provide enough analysis. That led me to talk to Professor Schwarcz about how I could do better.”

Zha’s first-semester final showed marked improvement, thanks in large part, he says, to that midterm feedback.

Sarah Trautman, also now in her second year at Minnesota Law, says that attached to her midterm was a full, single-spaced page of feedback from Schwarcz.

“It covered everything from my writing style to how I addressed a particular issue,” Trautman says. “Where I misunderstood; where I fell within the curve of the class; just really thorough, helpful qualitative feedback.”

The Law School, meanwhile, was partially prompted by the article to make midterm feedback an official policy in April 2018. Going forward, its 1L schedule will be organized so that students take at least one course in the fall semester that includes a substantial midterm assessment.

“That change in policy is pretty big,” says Schwarcz. “Now professors must be really concrete about how we adapt our approach to teaching 1Ls on the basis of this work.”

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