Part 2 of a Series: Adult Learning for Lawyers Defining Learning Objectives

Part 2 of a Series: Adult Learning for Lawyers Defining Learning Objectives

Randall B. Christison, Attorney at Law

When we last met, I proposed we should train lawyers as adults. If you’re willing to accept that proposition, I would like now to talk about goals. It’s hard to know how to start if you don’t know where you’re going.

Let’s assume your New York and Washington firm has announced it is merging with Blackstone, Holmes and Cicero of Los Angeles and San Diego. Suddenly your firm has to become knowledgeable in the weird world of California’s unique civil procedure system. (You’ve heard of a demurrer, but you’ve never seen one in captivity.) The litigation group practice head tells you to get on it immediately.

You ask three of Blackstone’s litigation partners to put on a day-long panel presentation. They are to cover the important points your litigators need to know. Jim, Jane and Julie of the Left Coast prepare their lectures and have their associates write handouts. The day comes. Six hours of lecture, five pizzas, four gallons of coffee, and three binders of handouts later, everything is covered. As you expected, the evaluations are good; Jim, Jane and Julie are talented and witty litigators.

But a month later the practice group chair calls to ask, “Why the heck didn’t anybody learn anything in that stinking class of yours? My associate couldn’t even draft a California summary judgment motion. I’m writing off seven billable hours, and I’m asking the compensation committee why we’re paying you so much. Harumph. <click.>”

What went wrong?

The reasons are many, but let me suggest it started with the definition of the class. W hat were you aiming for? You aimed to “cover the material.” And indeed, cover it you did.

What if, instead of “cover” you aimed at “understand” or “apply” the new act? “Covering” is what the instructors did. The teachers “cover” the material whether there is anyone else in the room with them or not. “Understanding” means we focus on the learners and what they know at the end of the session. “Applying” suggests not only they know something, but they’re able to use it the next day. Or you could think of some other term s to label your goal.

But how do you find the right word and put it into action? Fortunately, this wheel has been invented. Unfortunately, the wheel’s legal model is years from the assembly line. My purpose here is to suggest that selecting the correct goal–and phrasing it accurately–is the essential, crucial first step in any training program.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Adult Lawyer

A proverb, in one of its many forms, says:

Tell me, I forget
Show me, I remember
Involve me, I understand,
but Get me to think, I learn.1

Benjamin Bloom converted this concept a half-century ago into an organized listing of “cognitive levels.” Now generally known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” they are in rising order:

  1. Knowledge–the ability to remember material previously learned.
  2. Comprehension–the ability to grasp the meaning of material.
  3. Application–the ability to use learned material in new, concrete situations.
  4. Analysis–the ability to break down material into its components so that its organizational structure can be understood.
  5. Synthesis–the ability to put parts together to form a new whole.
  6. Evaluation–the ability to judge the value of material for a given purpose.2

Numbers four through six are usually described as critical thinking skills, whereas one through three are less demanding goals and not ones involving critical thinking.

When devising a program, or more fundamentally, deciding how to meet a need your lawyers have, you need to know what is to be at the other end. Is it knowledge, is it evaluation, is it something in between or some combination?

If your lawyers need to learn California civil procedure, after offering your sincere sympathies, what do you do? Start by finding out what the firm’s needs are–what, for instance, do the practice group heads want to see in their lawyers?

Likely they want their lawyers to be able to do something, or maybe they want the lawyers to know something. So, let’s say the response comes back, “We want them to be able to draft solid summary judgment motions and to handle discovery.” (I should note assessing and analyzing needs is rarely as simple as our example, but that’s the topic of a later article in our Adult Learning Series.) Your job then is to translate these expressed needs into a form of training to ensure the lawyers are able to draft motions that pass muster and to handle discovery efficiently and successfully.

How do you translate “draft” and “handle”? Fortunately, Bloom’s comes with a built-in thesaurus.


Non-Critical Thinking Skills

  • Knowledge Recall

    - to remember previously learned material.

    Action Verbs

    - to define
    - to distinguish
    - to identify
    - to inquire
    - to label
    - to list
    - to match
    - to memorize
    - to name
    - to recall
    - to recognize
    - to record
    - to relate
    - to repeat
    - to select

  • Comprehension

    - to grasp the meaning of the knowledge being learned and to be able to paraphrase or explain it.

    Action Verbs

    - to change
    - to comment
    - to demonstrate
    - to describe
    - to discuss
    - to explain
    - to express
    - to generalize
    - to give examples
    - to identify
    - to illustrate
    - to infer
    - to interpret
    - to locate
    - to rearrange
    - to recognize
    - to report
    - to restate
    - to review
    - to summarize
    - to tell
    - to transform
    - to translate

  • Application


    The ability to use learned information and materials

    Action Verbs

    - to apply
    - to calculate
    - to choose
    - to classify
    - to demonstrate
    - to dramatize
    - to employ
    - to generalize
    - to illustrate
    - to interpret
    - to operate
    - to organize
    - to practice
    - to reconstruct
    - to schedule
    - to sketch
    - to solve
    - to transfer
    - to use

Critical Thinking Skills

  • Analysis


    The ability to break material down into its elements or parts so that its organizational structure may be understood.

    Action Verbs

    - to analyze
    - to appraise
    - to calculate
    - to categorize
    - to classify
    - to compare
    - to contrast
    - to criticize
    - to debate
    - to deduce
    - to describe
    - to diagram
    - to differentiate
    - to discriminate
    - to distinguish
    - to examine
    - to experiment
    - to inspect
    - to inventory
    - to put into lists
    - to question
    - to relate
    - to subdivide
    - to test

  • Synthesis

    The ability to combine previous experience with new material to form a structure.

    Action Verbs
    - to arrange
    - to assemble
    - to collect
    - to compose
    - to construct
    - to create
    - to design
    - to formulate
    - to organize
    - to plan
    - to produce
    - to propose
    - to set up
    - to solve

  • Evaluation

    The ability to judge the value of material for a given purpose.

    Action Verbs
    - to appraise
    - to assess
    - to choose
    - to compare
    - to conclude
    - to consider
    - to criticize
    - to estimate
    - to evaluate
    - to exercise discretion
    - to judge
    - to measure
    - to rate
    - to revise
    - to score
    - to select
    - to value
    - to weigh

Moving from Bloom to Classroom

Great, you think. Now I have a bunch of words, but how do those connect with what the litigation group needs and wants?

Connecting the course to its goals and then to the individual objectives is an area of study all by itself. But without getting too deeply into it, let me suggest developing objectives involves at least these steps:

  1. Identifying training needs (not “wants”–they are different);
  2. Analyzing the need, by breaking it down into the smallest parts reasonably possible;
  3. Envisioning what lawyers can or will do when they have learned each of these parts;
  4. Writing an objective in terms of what the attendees will do after the class is over; and, of course,
  5. Repeated feedback and improvement of the objective statements.

So, using our scenario, your need is to produce competent practitioners under a whole new civil practice act. You could start by asking the question, what does a competent practitioner look like, and more specifically, what does a competent practitioner do?

Phrased that way, you’ll only get bewildered looks. Instead, break it down. What are the parts of the new act that will affect our firm’s practice? Let’s say, summary judgment motions have a new format. What does a competent summary judgment practitioner do? He or she drafts an MSJ in the correct format, the first time and without wasted effort.

That becomes your objective. Using Bloom’s terms, your new objective could be, “At the class’s completion, attendees will be able to:... (3) Draft MSJs in statutory format,” or “(3) Choose the correct form and draft a legally sufficient MSJ.”

You think, “That’s ok for something almost mechanical, such as drafting an MSJ, but what about the mental side of law? I want the lawyers to know and understand the practice act. And the only time Bloom’s uses ‘know,’ it’s a noncritical thinking skill, mostly recalling facts, not any deep understanding. What do I do?”

This is where your ingenuity and experience come into play. Practicing law is mostly employing mental processes, so-called “higher cognitive skills.” By their nature one cannot see them in action and one cannot see whether a person understands, much less whether that person integrates the understanding with all the other things a lawyer must know and be able to do.

So how do you draft an objective when no one can see it being achieved? This is what Robert Mager calls “covert performance.” Your challenge is to identify what someone who knows and understands the area of law can do, something that someone lacking the knowledge could not do.

Mager calls this an “indicator behavior.” Here is the challenge. Stating an objective in terms of “be able to solve” or “know,” no matter how important, does not describe a visible performance. Stating an objective in terms of an indicator behavior does describe visible action, “one that will tell us directly whether a covert performance is happening to our satisfaction.”3 What indicates knowledge or competence for something as complex as practicing law is not at all easy (ask anyone doing performance evaluations).

Consult an expert in the field, and find out what he or she considers the signs of the best lawyers in the field–what they do and not do. From this identify what might be a behavior you can translate into one of Bloom’s terms.

Thus a person who understands the California Discovery Act will know the pluses and minuses of each of the alternative discovery methods, weigh them against the needs of the case and the client, and choose the right method. So, an objective could be, “(4) Describe the advantages and disadvantages of each discovery method and accurately select the optimum method in four hypothetical situations.”

The Value of Learning Objectives

Isn’t this a lot of work? It is indeed. So why do it?

First, communication. When you say “cover a subject,” you know what you mean, your instructors know what they mean, the attendees know what they expect, and the practice chairs know what’s in their minds. Except those are four different things, and there’s no easy way of ensuring everyone is reading from the same page.

Second, results. How can you tell whether anyone has learned anything that’s been covered? Imagine telling a group of lawyers there’s an essay examination at the end of today’s session. Instead, measurement is designed into the course. The lawyers who take the course will know immediately whether they learned what they were supposed to. If they accurately identify the optimum discovery tools in all four hypotheticals, they know they hit the course’s target. And so do you. If they “covered” the procedural statute, however, you and they have no idea if they learned what the instructors deemed important.

Third, self-screening. Lawyers now can make an intelligent choice of whether this course will aid them in getting the skill set they need. “Covering California procedure” leaves one uncertain. “Being able to select optimum discovery methods” is explicit.

When the practice group chair calls and asks why her lawyer didn’t learn how to draft an MSJ, would you rather shrug and say, “Well, it was covered.” Or would you rather say, “Yes, he would have, had he not been called out of the course to work on the practice group chair’s emergency.”

Summing Up

Course goals can replace generality with specificity and subjective measurement with objective. It successfully moves the focus in our programs from the instructor to the learners. It is not easy, and it is not quick. But it is worth it. Ultimately, clear, precise statements of what attendees should be able to do at the course’s end benefit everyone.4


Many books and articles address instructional and learning objectives, but the two I use most often are:

  1. Robert Mager, Preparing Instructional Objectives, 3d Ed., Atlanta: Center for Effective Performance, 1997 (ISBN 1 879 618 036) and
  2. Walter Dick, Lou Carey and James Carey, The Systematic Design of Instruction, 5th Ed., New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2001 (ISBN 0 321 037 804).

1 - Renner, The Art of Teaching Adults. Vancouver: Training Associates, 1994, p. 40.
2 - Id., p. 41.
3 - Robert Mager, Preparing Instructional Objectives, 3d Ed., Atlanta: Center for Effective Performance, 1997, p. 77.
4 - I wish to thank Mel Turner, currently in private consulting practice in Sacramento, and Dr. Phil Sherwood, currently with the State of California, who taught me Adult Learning Theory and introduced me to instructional objectives and much more.



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