“To See Ourselves as Others See Us”

In my First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic (which will be graded pass-fail), students will work closely with each other on the briefs. Each student will likely work on three briefs during the semester, and I’ll have three students working on each brief, so each student will likely end up working with a total of six other students, reviewing their work and seeing how they review the student’s own work.

I thought this could be an excellent opportunity for me to (1) have students give me evaluations of the people they’ve worked with (with both the positive and the negative parts), and then (2) at the end of the semester synthesize those evaluations myself, try to anonymize them to the extent possible (partly by making the more general), and then pass along the result — likely just a paragraph or so — to the students.

In their future careers, the students will be evaluated by their peers all the time, whether formally or informally, not just on their work product but also on their work habits, personal interactions, and ability to cooperate productively. Yet many of the students might never have been evaluated this way in the past, and might not have a sense of how they come across to their peers. Indeed, many of the students (especially those who have gone straight through undergrad to law school, and who haven’t worked much before, during, or after) might have little experience with cooperative professional tasks and the behavioral habits needed to make those tasks work.

So I think this could be a great opportunity for students to get an outside view of themselves, and see whether some things they’re doing might be coming across badly in a way that can be improved. I’ll stress to the students that their classmates’ reactions may or may not be fair or accurate — but that in any event, it’s useful to know about these reactions. And, since the class is graded pass-fail, students will recognize that these reactions really are just about providing feedback, and not affecting classmates’ grades.

At the same time, I can see ways this could go wrong. Though I’ll try to present the reactions in a way that makes it harder to figure out who was saying what, students will often be able to guess who was criticizing them (whether or not those guesses are accurate). As a result, the reactions that I get might be so sanitized as to be useless. Moreover, if I present these the wrong way, the recipients might just get defensive and not be able to profit from the feedback they’re getting.

Still, I’d like to see if there’s a way that I can make this work, to help prepare students better for life in law practice. Do any of you have any experience with such feedback mechanisms that you think have operated successfully? With feedback mechanisms that have failed? I’d love to hear whatever recommendations you folks might have.

UPDATE: Just to be clear — the (relative) anonymization isn’t there to spare the feelings of the recipient of the criticism; it’s there to encourage the potential critics to be more candid.

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