Review: Why Don’t They Get It?

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By Sandra Simpson from Gonzaga University School of Law

Deborah Zalesne and David Nadvorney, Why Don’t They Get It?: Academic Intelligence and the Under-Prepared Student as the “Other”, 61 Journal of Legal Education 264 (2011) [Read fulltext at SSRN (195 KB PDF)]

This article uses the paradigm of how law schools teach students from culturally diverse backgrounds to argue for teaching students who just “don’t get it” differently. Typically law schools approach teaching students of diverse cultural backgrounds by recognizing the inequality and taking steps to rectify the inequality. Students who just “don’t get it” are in a sense students who are treated as unreachable and discarded from many law schools. The authors argue that these students simply may be “academically underprepared” or unprepared for rigors of law school. The authors establish these academically under-prepared students as the “other” students who are conceptually misunderstood by their professors and treated unfairly. The authors continue by establishing the professor’s responsibility to bridge this gap between the preparedness of the students and the goals of the course. The article ends with a framework for addressing the cognitive component of academic intelligence.

To begin, the authors argue that there should be a ninth intelligence added to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple (“eight”) intelligences which suggested that the traditional notion of IQ equaling intelligence is too limited. This ninth intelligence is termed “academic intelligence,” which is “an amalgam of the cognitive, affective, and social skills we think contribute significantly to an entering student’s success in law school.” A student who has academic intelligence is academically prepared, meaning the student has strong reading and writing skills, competent note taking skills, excellent study habits, and ability to manage his or her time well. These students typically do well in law school. The authors suggest, however, those students who are academically unprepared or under prepared for law school are not successful no matter how hard the student works or how hard a professor works with him or her. Their failure to succeed is not always a matter of IQ. A host of other factors play into that student’s academic difficulty: namely academic unpreparedness. For example, if a student fails to understand that he or she is learning a small part which fits into the bigger part of the overall law, the student will have trouble organizing and outlining the doctrinal class.

Second, because sound pedagogy requires professors to teach students from different cultures differently, sound pedagogy also requires professors to “integrate teaching methodologies geared toward these [academically under-prepared] students” into the main curriculum. The professor must “identify where the student is and start her teaching there.” “As with the cultural diversity discourse, doctrinal faculty members themselves must understand and acknowledge difference (not cultural here, but academic), and learn and practice sensitivity in a way they haven’t necessarily thought to do before.”

Lastly, the authors provide some ideas for improvement. For instance, lawyering skills teachers should point out specifically that the skills learned in lawyering skills are and should be transferable to doctrinal classes. Doctrinal teachers could and should point out what skills they are attempting to teach while teaching via the Socratic Method. Professors should adopt more issue spotting exercises and teach more about the purpose of case briefing. This article makes clear that the “process of learning is too often left to intuition and happenstance.” Those who are not taught how to learn are being tagged as unreachable and those that have been taught how to learn are rising to the top.

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