Taking Advantage of What Students Know to Teach New Concepts

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By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

When teaching a new and complicated concept, it is always a good idea to help our students make connections to what they know.  When teaching the idea of using the facts of the precedent cases to compare to the “client” facts in order to come up with a prediction of the outcome of the case, I use simple props and a simple exercise designed to connect this new concept to concepts they have mastered already.  To achieve the desired result, which is learning how to compare facts of cases to facts of the “client” and utilizing reasoning, I use different sized paperclips and a binder clip.

The explanation of this technique takes a bit of history behind how students learn best.  For every new concept I introduce to my students, I ask the following questions of my students:

  1. What is the concept for today’s course?
  2. What will be important ideas in today’s concept?
  3. What do you already know about this concept?
  4. To what can you relate this?
  5. What will you do to remember the key ideas regarding this concept?
  6. Is there anything about this concept you don’t understand or are not clear about?

These questions help the students better understand the new concept by focusing them on what will be covered, what they found important about the readings, what they already know about the topic, how to relate it to something they already know, how to remember it, and on asking for clarification and help.  My paperclip exercise comes in with number 4 “to what can you relate this?”

I separate my students into groups of three and give them each a large metal paperclip, a small metal paperclip, a plastic paperclip, and a binder clip.  Then I ask the groups to look at the two metal paperclips and compare them, factually.  Students come up with similarities: shape, material, and color.  I ask them, “how are the different?”  The students know that size is the difference.  The next question for them is “does that difference change matter?”  Students instinctively know that it does not.  When asked why, they can articulate that the purpose of the paperclip is to hold paper, and, thus, unless it is a huge stack of papers, the size does not really matter.  At this point, it is easy to say, “yes, if you know the purpose of the paperclip is to hold paper, then you can decide what differences and similarities are important.”  Next, I typically pause and let that sink in for the students.  After the pause, I tell them, “if the paperclip is a ‘rule’ and you know the reasoning behind the rule, you can more easily decide if the factual difference will be important to the court.”  Once that point is made, it is easy then to bring in the binder clip.  The binder clip is much different factually from the paperclip; but could the “paperclip rule” cover the binder clip?  I have the students debate this for a couple of minutes and report back to me.

It is a fairly cheap and impactful exercise which engages the students, connects a difficult concept to something they already know and helps facilitate learning.

[1] Submitted by Sandra Simpson, Associate Professor of Legal Research and Writing at Gonzaga University School of Law and the Co-Director for the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning.


Institute for Law Teaching and Learning