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The Easiest Technology for Doing the Hard Work

The Easiest Technology for Doing the Hard Work

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

As an absolute technological dinosaur and in an effort to avoid technology, I usually use low-tech “clickers” in the classroom, which are nothing more than two pieces of colored paper. That avoidance has started to change as I see others using cool and really easy technology in the classroom. In fact, to help others like me, the ILTL summer conference for 2018 will be centered on technology in the classroom. Technology can and should be used to engage students and forward the classroom and teaching goals, not just for the sake of using technology. My excuse for why I typically do not use technology is that my teaching and learning goals are reached without it. But where they? Are students as engaged as they could be? These questions have led me on a quest to adopt some new, easy technology aimed at engaging students while still forwarding my classroom teaching and learning goals.

This past summer, I attended ILTL’s annual summer conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, and learned about some simple technology. During one of the presentations, I was introduced to Mentimeter. I have no connection to this company, and I am sure there are other apps that work just as easily, but this is the one I used. At www.menti.com, you can create an account and then create questions to ask the students. The students log in and watch the results on the screen as they vote.

Thinking the use of it was so engaging and fun, I decided to use it in my LRW classes to introduce Blooms Taxonomy of Learning while introducing the important parts of the syllabus. After explaining Blooms Taxonomy, I had the students log into www.menti.com and enter an access code. I then asked a series of questions based on the syllabus. The first question was purely a recall question; the second question was an application question; the third question was an evaluation question; and the last question was a creation question. Between each question, we revisited Bloom’s Taxonomy and discussed learning and assessment of the same.

The energy and engagement in the room was beyond what I expected, as was the opportunity for learning. Students loved watching the results come in. Students were also ready to discuss why they voted one way or another. Further, the evaluation question asked the students to come up with one word which described the syllabus. I used the “word-cloud” function to show the results. Some of the words were positive; some of the words described levels of anxiety; some of the words were negative. This allowed us to talk about positive and negative feedback and the value of both. As to the last issue, had I asked the students verbally to share their opinions about my syllabus and the class requirements, I am willing to bet no one would have said the negative things. Yet, it is very important to me that my students can express positive and negative opinions and feelings. I hope this exercise opens that door.

 

 

Teaching Lawyerly Grit

Teaching Lawyerly Grit

By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Each fall in my Contracts course, when all of my other colleagues are giving midterms and thus committing themselves to early assessment of student performance, I deviate slightly from the norm. It’s not that I don’t do assessments or believe in early assessments—I actually start on that on the very first day and build many moments during the semester for such purposes. And it’s not that I don’t believe in midterms either—in fact, the exercise I will show you here does involve a midterm—but I use my midterm in Contracts very differently. I use it as a lesson on lawyerly resiliency and resourcefulness.

The midterm I always give in the fall is non-graded, but content-wise it tests all the doctrine that we’ve studied up and until the day of the exam. The test is supposed to take up 45 minutes of a single one-hour-and-fifteen-minute class period. The issues up for grabs include all of mutual assent (offer and acceptance), consideration, promissory estoppel, and contract modification—in both common-law and UCC Article 2 variants (and yes, that means Battle of the Forms, for those commercial law nerds out there). The midterm has both a standard racehorse essay and a set of factual multiple-choice questions. It is a closed-book, closed-notes, and closed-everything exam. It’s difficult; it’s awful; it’s indicative of my final exams, which means even I wouldn’t want to take it myself unless my life depended on it.

I administer the exam as usual. Even though it’s non-graded, my students usually take it seriously enough and have studied for it. And truthfully, I appreciate that. In the minutes before the test starts, I will hear some of them reciting rules and asking each other doctrinal questions. A day or two before, I might have seen a copy of my practice midterm packet strewn somewhere in the law library. On test day, they take their seats, put away their outlines and notes, and crack open their laptops.

What they don’t realize is that I have purposely drafted an exam that is so difficult and intense that it is—in all honesty—nearly impossible to finish within the time allotted. I have done my due diligence to set them up for failure.

But the difficulty of the exam content is only half of this exercise. Somewhere during those 45 minutes, as my students are typing away their answers, I surprise them by stopping the exam with a simulated disaster—usually a fake laptop crash or a power outage. I tell the students who have been typing fastidiously away that their laptops have crashed, while I immediately start passing out a pile of fresh bluebooks that have been hiding under the lecture hall podium. “Take a few. You’ll need to finish the exam by handwriting the rest of your answers.” At this point, the students who had opted to handwrite the midterm are trying hard not to smirk.

When I started law teaching, I did this exercise repeatedly with the goal of developing student examsmanship on law finals and bar exams. The inspiration for the simulated laptop crash came from personal experience because it happened to me during my first day of the California bar exam. Luckily, we had practiced for it. So although it wasn’t ideal, I knew what to do to persevere through that dilemma and pass a high stakes exam. When I began teaching academic support, I started simulating laptop crashes (and a parade of other horribles) that could potentially happen to derail an exam session. Even now, going into my sixth year of teaching first-year Contracts, I find this exercise to really have an impact in helping students develop exam-taking strategies and realizing that technology does not displace good old-fashioned legal reasoning. But in recent years, this midterm exercise has taken on more resonance as I use it as a springboard for talking about resourcefulness in the legal profession.

After the midterm exercise is truly done, I usually don’t debrief the context of the exam. I leave that to another day. The tension in the classroom is too thick. The collective anxiety on the faces of those who have just experienced a small disaster during a fake session of high-stakes testing needs to be dissipated. “Just think if this happened on an exam that counted—like a final or a bar exam,” I say. “Aren’t you glad this counted for nothing?” The first line doesn’t usually fetch a laugh, but the second one always does.

What I do in the remaining class period is discuss what it was like for them to take the exam and to debrief strategies on what to do when bad things happen in high-stakes exam scenarios. I tell them my joke that the first year of law school seems like the facts from the Palsgraf case—where seemingly things that can only in one’s imagination go wrong often do. Of course, I’ll get responses that are seeking my answer to the type of questions like, “If my laptop breaks during an exam, do I need to start over?” or “Who will fix my laptop after the exam?” But after I address those questions, I bring the lesson to a larger, more resonant take-away: that in law practice, where things can be more hectic than a round of first-year midterms, where feelings and passions can run high, and the stakes are larger than failing a bar exam, one must develop an emotional intelligence toward resiliency and resourcefulness. Sometimes professional expectations continue despite mishaps and setbacks. You might think you’re ready to take down an exam, but it could be the exam that will try to take you down. So what will you do about it? What will you do when it’s not an exam taking you down, but some emergency, some major shift in a case, or some set-back in negotiations that will try to impede your ability to represent your client? Where is your true grit?

Occasionally, I’ll get an e-mail from a former student recounting laptop malfunction during a final or bar exam. It’s always a thank-you e-mail. But it’s not the thank-you part of that message that I am looking for. Instead, it’s the part describing that, despite whatever that happened, the perseverance and a cooler head prevailed, and all was fine because of it.

 

Summer Plans to Plan for Fall

Summer Plans to Plan for Fall

By Prof. Emily Grant, Washburn University School of Law

As we now gaze out at the great expanse of the summer, it’s easy to get lost in the endless possibilities. This is the time we’ve set aside for major writing projects, for incorporating new exercises and assessments into our syllabi, and for getting up-to-date on the latest classroom materials.  We also need to recharge our batteries.

As I’ve come to learn over a dozen years of teaching (and thus a dozen summers teeming with endless possibilities), very few of these goals will be met without a specific and realistic plan of execution. I’ve had too many summers where I hung up my graduation robe, took a quick nap, and all of a sudden found that it was August 20.  So the following sets out a few suggestions for laying the groundwork for a productive summer.

First, finish grading. Attack your stack of exams and papers.  Students need closure for the semester, and so do you. Do whatever works for you to make it through the exams or appellate briefs or student papers. Make a schedule of when you’re grading what. Find a quiet comfortable place to set up shop. Take breaks when you need to. Reward yourself for progress.

While you’re at it, though, keep in mind that the grading periods are also some of the most convenient times to make notes for the next semester. This review does not have to be an intimidatingly formal process. I’ve found that simply keeping open a Word document, “Notes from Exam Spring 2017,” on my desktop while I’m grading can generate some very helpful insights for the next round. Most of the comments are similar to the following:

  • confusion on Trustee/Settlor distinctions
  • clarify uniform rule vs. state rule on prudent investment standard
  • Essay #2 (charitable trusts) didn’t work – refine call of question

Once you’re done grading, spend some time thinking ahead to the fall before jumping into the rest of your summer. If you took notes about your teaching throughout the semester (what worked, what didn’t, which classes ended too soon, which exercise was a dud), go back and review those now. Sort through the notes you made while you were grading. And make the changes now—revamp the worksheet, rewrite the assignment instructions, identify places in your notes you can cut if necessary in the future. At the very least, make a specific list of changes to be made before you teach this class again. But do that part now while it’s still fresh in your mind. Take a day or two at the office to focus solely on teaching, which is more difficult than it sounds with other major projects (and vacations!) looming over us.

Next, if your summer calendar looks like mine, you’ve got a few conferences scheduled over the coming three months. (Including hopefully the ILTL conference in Little Rock on July 7-8?!) Conference travel is great, but it can wear you out.  If you’re going to the trouble and expense of attending conferences, make the most of them. Go to sessions, engage in conversations, network with colleagues, meet new friends. I firmly believe that much of the value of conferences comes in the interpersonal interactions between sessions and over a shared meal. When you get back home, follow-up with emails to people that you connected with and presenters you really enjoyed. Nurture those contacts.

Do you also have a list of “work-related things to do” over the summer? An article to start? A fact-pattern to develop as a foundation for classroom discussion? A new edition of your textbook to work through? If so, plan accordingly. For me, those are the easiest projects to ignore (after all, I’ve got until late-August!), but in some ways, they’re the most important.  Schedule in time to work on these projects. Find an accountability partner with whom you can check in weekly to share your progress (or better yet, to share the work and combine ideas!).

I was going to add a paragraph about personal vacation travel and using that time to read law review articles you’ve been meaning to get through. That is a fine idea, I think, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it authoritatively because that’s not at all how I use my personal travel time during the summer! I’ve got an issue of US Weekly and the latest book club selection from Target in my carry-on. And that’s perfectly ok too! Allow yourself time to not be engaged in research, writing, or teaching prep.

But when you do return to the scholarly pursuits, it helps to break them down into smaller chunks, even over the “vast expanse” of the summer. I’ve found renewed energy in setting aside time to read one law review article a night by someone I’ve come to know personally (e.g., at a conference) or whose work is important in my field, even if it is not directly related to my current projects.

Regardless of your summer plans, plan ahead for the fall.  Give yourself the rest and relaxation you need so you’re ready to go in August, but also keep on task every now and then so you won’t be caught off-guard.

End-of-Year Reflections: How Does a Teacher Say Goodbye?

End-of-Year Reflections: How Does a Teacher Say Goodbye?

By Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law

End-of-Year Reflections: How Does a Teacher Say Goodbye?

Today I found myself with a rare, small block of unstructured time in between 1L oral arguments.  Rarely at the end of the academic year do I take the opportunity to reflect as I should, before the year’s momentum and energy are dissipated.  I always promise myself that the next year will be different, and this time, in Year 11, I am finally cashing in on that promise to myself. In addition to actually, for once, editing my syllabus and assignment calendar while I still remember what did and didn’t work, I’d like to see what I can do to engage my students in reflection, as well.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to attend one of the Institute’s summer conferences in Spokane and to opt in to a teacher’s reflection retreat with none other than Jean Koh Peters. Drawing upon the seed planted in that workshop, I turned to her A Teacher’s Reflection Book: Exercises, Stories, Invitations, co-authored with Mark Weisberg. The book contains a chapter on how we say our goodbyes to students, particularly at the end of a course.  The chapter asks us to reflect upon what messages our styles of goodbye send to students, and provides some ideas for end-of-course activities. For example, the group may form a circle and offer each other closing thoughts. The instructor can also help bring the course full circle by revising students’ goal statements from the beginning of the course. Prof. Koh Peters has offered students coupons they can cash in when they need her advice even far into the future. Prof. Weisberg shares a series of unsent “postcards” about teaching and learning from Jane Tomkins’s A Life in School, and then encourages students to write their own. They are posted around the room and students circulate to read them in “silent witness.”

In the past, I have often allowed my semesters to end in a rush of paper deadlines and final presentations. This year, I have saved one last class at the very end of the term to work primarily to discuss with students how they can transfer their newly acquired skills to internships. But important as that task is, I plan to also reserve some time to give them back their “getting to know you” index cards from the beginning of the semester, on which they assessed their strengths and weakness in writing, and expressed their hopes and fears for the 1L writing and argument experience. My hope is that if we take some moments in class to reflect alone and together, we will reinforce a strong theme of the course: writing and advocacy are a life-long growth process, and that with effort, profound growth is possible even over a short time.

To see a video in which Profs. Weisberg and Koh Peters discuss the book, including the topic of goodbyes, see https://vimeo.com/41567151.

 

 

Review: The Master’s Tools: Deconstructing the Socratic…

Review: The Master’s Tools: Deconstructing the Socratic…

By Rory Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

The Master’s Tools: Deconstructing the Socratic Method and its Disparate Impact on Women Through the Prism Of The Equal Protection Doctrine by Tanisha Makeba Bailey
3 MARGINS: MD L.J, RACE, RELIGION, GENDER & CLASS 125 (2003)

This article traces the history of women as law students and empirically documents the tangible disparate impacts of Socratic Pedagogy on female law students. The second half of the article, which is not discussed in this review, is a fascinating discussion about how these disparate impacts may be significant enough to warrant an Equal Protection challenge.

The article initially describes the history of women in legal education and summarizes the exclusionary attitude law schools had toward women by quoting Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley as follows:

[T]he civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life . . . . The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother

Next the article does something important and rare; it defines the Socratic Method. It’s modern incarnation is described as, “a masochistic interplay of domineering, and at times evasive, professors attempting to inform humiliated, and silenced students.” The author describes this method as both humiliating and debilitating, concluding that the gravity of the effect on female law students is simply ignored. She concludes, “the Socratic Method impairs the ability of women law students to perform and excel academically, leading to a crippling of their long-term performance in terms of grade-based opportunities.”

She uses interviews, testimony, and data to quantify the effects of Socratic teaching on female law students. She groups the effects into two broad categories: silencing and grade disparity. Components of the silencing category are actual silencing of law students who are not comfortable interacting in a Socratic class, the oppressive atmosphere of the Socratic classroom and the resulting psychological debilitation it causes.

Grade disparity is documented by comparing prelaw school academic success and rank of entering male and female students with the ranks after the first year of law school. The data clearly indicates that something favors the increased class rank of the male students after the first year of law school. Her conclusion is summarized as follows; “The fact that women consistently academically outrank men prior to law school admission, and then during law school their grades become grossly disproportionate, reflects the egregious effects of the Socratic Method.”

While the documentation of these effects is something we all need to take seriously if we are to provide the same opportunities for success for all our law students regardless of gender, another crucial fact is the conclusion the author reaches when she describes the recommended pedagogy for minimizing the disparate impact on female law students. The author suggests in part, a pedagogy based on the “ethic of care, which includes “using alternative methods of teaching, giving more exercises, practice examinations, and other feedback . . . .”

Even if you are a Socratic diehard, the assumption is that student learning is something every law professor cares deeply about. If that assumption holds true, then we cannot dismiss the almost normative identity of this author’s recommendations and those of the Carnegie and Best Practices Reports on legal education.

 

Review: The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction…

Review: The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction…

By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Lawrence S. Krieger, The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction: Perspectives on Values, Integrity, and Happiness, 11 Clinical L. Rev. 425 (2005).

Through his writings and teachings, Professor Lawrence Krieger has devoted a notable—dare I say, even honorable—body of work on the humanistic side of lawyering.  Thus, even though his article, The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction: Perspectives on Values, Integrity, and Happiness, was published more than a decade ago, it still reads with relevance today, especially in light of the many worries that law teachers have expressed regarding the professionalism issues with current law students.  His article here first discusses reasons why law schools have been teaching a limited sense of professionalism—restricted to only “telling law students and lawyers that they should act in certain ways” for either vaguely described “noble reasons” or singly to avoid bar discipline.  Then it illustrates how to redirect that teaching to a more noble and personally fulfilling sense of professionalism.  Such training should be more specific, relevant, and profound, according to Krieger’s article.  It ought to be tied to professional satisfaction, happiness, and a deep set of inherently principled values.  Through humanistic and empirical science, he shows why this connection is true and how to instill a deeper, more personally satisfying sense of professionalism in our students.

To connect professionalism to career and life satisfaction, Krieger begins from a place of dissatisfaction, describing the empirical evidence amongst lawyers that reveal their low career satisfaction and high concerns for mental health issues.  “Those values and motivations that promote or attend professionalism have been empirically shown to correlate with well-being and life satisfaction, while those that undermine or discourage professionalism empirically correlate with distress and dissatisfaction,” Krieger writes.  He also relies on the Maslow hierarchy of human needs that explains people’s drives for growth and satisfaction:  people pursuing higher needs, such as self-actualization and esteem, tend to experience growth motivation and psychological maturity; those pursuing lower needs, such as survival, security, competence, belonging, and respect from others, experience more deficiency motivation accompanied by minimal life satisfaction.  All of these correlations are also supported by modern psychological research, which Krieger examines.  Between intrinsic values of purpose and personal happiness and external motivators such as money or status, modern psychological research builds on Maslow to show that “when intrinsic values and motivation dominate a person’s choices she tends to experience satisfaction and well-being, whereas when extrinsic values and motivation are most important to her she will experience angst and distress.”  Those values that promote happiness are likely to lead to professional behavior; while the vice versa seems to be true.  Furthermore, Krieger finds that the intrinsic value of integrity is tied to professionalism and satisfaction.

Because law school and the legal profession places heavy emphasis of external rewards, law students can be led astray from professionalism and career happiness by their drive to seek out such extrinsic motivators.  In this way, Krieger offers a teaching exercise to instill in students an awareness of the correlation between intrinsic values and professionalism.  He makes his students actively seek out intrinsic values by having them write out hypothetical eulogies of themselves followed by lessons on an idealized professionalism that seeks out noble behavior, by introducing research on the dismal mental and emotional well-being of attorneys, as well as studies on the typical goals and behaviors of happy and healthy individuals.  After such lessons, Krieger asks his students to revisit that eulogy to identify intrinsic values that students have written about in regards to themselves.  Then students must match up those identified values with values that promote professionalism.

As Krieger notes, “[t]he results of this exercise are illuminating, because they show students and lawyers the kinds of things that matter most deeply to them.”  In running this exercise, Krieger has observed that his students tend to express intrinsic values and virtues in their eulogies rather than external ones.  Ultimately, this exercise helps his students differentiate the intrinsic values that lead to personal fulfillment and professionalism from values that would distort their sense of professionalism and career identity and possibly hinder personal fulfillment.  It’s an intriguing exercise, odd in the sense of what’s required is writing one’s own eulogy, but goal-oriented in nature and form, where the law teacher shapes students’ conception of professionalism by getting them to actively acknowledge on their own the types of intrinsic values that professionalism embodies and what values they ought to seek.
 

 

Utilizing Various Learning Styles and Repetition to Enhance Understanding

Utilizing Various Learning Styles and Repetition to Enhance Understanding

By Heidi Holland, Gonzaga University School of Law

Most of us are familiar with the concept of learning styles and the VARK model initially developed in 1987 by Neil Fleming.  VARK is an acronym for Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic sensory modalities that are used for learning information.

Visual learners prefer graphic depictions of information.  Auditory learners prefer information presented in lectures, group discussions, etc.  Read/write learners prefer to have information presented as words. Finally, kinesthetic learners prefer “demonstrations, simulations, [and] videos . . . .” Most people are, however, multimodal.[1]

How then does one incorporate those different styles in a way that encourages our students to learn more effectively?  Here is one example of what I have done in teaching legal research.

Recently, I was teaching my students how to do statutory research.  Each of my sections is approximately fifteen students, and I break each section into two smaller groups for this exercise.  I have a short fact pattern that I present to the students and then show them how I would use the annotated code to find the statute, notes of decision, and cases.  Then, I break up the students into smaller groups and have them do a very short research problem following the same steps.  They are each given a handout with the problem and detailed instructions.  I rotate among the groups to answer questions and redirect them as necessary.  Once they have all found “the answer” to the problem, we regroup and discuss.  At that point, I give the students homework involving a slightly more complicated fact pattern.  The detailed homework instructions include a research flowchart and require them to follow the same steps we did together during our class time.

During the next class period, we walk through step-by-step the research they should have done for homework. The homework review includes a PowerPoint presentation with screenshots of what they would have seen in the books or online.

By the time we’re done, students will have watched me do research while I explained it, done it with a classmate under my supervision, done it on their own, and then reviewed the process again in class.  Visual learners will have seen graphic depictions of the research process in the homework instructions and the homework review’s PowerPoint presentation. Auditory learners will have heard the information in lecture, peer discussion, and class discussion.  Read/write learners will have class handouts with instructions, homework instructions, and PowerPoint review (which I also post on TWEN). Finally, kinesthetic learners will have the benefit of demonstration and then personal application in class and for homework.  Ultimately, the goal is to facilitate learning.  By utilizing various learning styles and repetition, our students’ understanding can be enhanced.

[1] www.vark-learn.com

Conceptual Ideas Held By Students About Learning

Conceptual Ideas Held By Students About Learning

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

Last week, I had my students in Legal Research and Writing II complete a survey to help me figure out whether they had “healthy” concepts about learning. Studies show that students who are intrinsically motivated to learn show more positive conceptual learning traits and tend to be more successful in school.  Students who are extrinsically motivated to learn show more negative conceptual learning traits and tend to be less successful in school.  Examples of positive conceptual learning traits are having inherent curiosity, desiring to master the material, feeling capable of doing well, and willing to ask questions if unsure.  Examples of negative conceptual learning traits are wanting to score high on tests to be ranked above their peers, believing test-taking abilities are something with which one is born, believing they are not capable of success, and unwillingness to ask for clarification if he or she does not understand something.

Wanting to see where my students were on this scale, I gave them 7 questions to answer for which they could chose 5 if they strongly agreed, 3 if they agreed, and 1 if they strongly disagreed.  They could also chose 4 or 2 if they were in between.

1.    I want high scores on assessments so I know I mastered the material.
2.    I want high scores on assessments so I am ranked above my peers.
3.    I believe capability to achieve a high score on assessments is largely something a person is born with.
4.    I believe capability to achieve a high score on assessments is something that can be learned.
5.    When I do not understand something academically, I generally will ask for clarification from the instructor or other sources.
6.    When I do not understand something academically, I generally will not ask for clarification from the instructor or other sources.
7.    I believe I am capable of achieving high scores on assessments in law school.

The data showed me that my class, as a whole, has very positive conceptual learning traits, which is likely why they have been so easy to teach.  I was surprised that most of the students (90%) answered a 4 or 5 to question #4, meaning they believe test taking can be learned.  Obviously, as you might expect 90% of the class put a 1 or 2 for question #3, which says that scoring high on an assessment is something a person is born with.  100% of my students put a 3, 4, or 5 on question number 5 saying they would generally ask for help if needed.  Most students (80%) answered a 4 or 5 to both questions #1 and #2, meaning they had two goals to scoring high on assessments.

So what does this all mean?  Getting to a student’s or a group of students’ motivations in school is difficult.  This data has helped me shape my teaching.  I know they want to master the material so I point out everything I am doing to help them master the material. I also give them suggestions on how they can help themselves master the material.  Lastly, knowing they are willing to ask questions encourages me to give them plenty of time to ask questions in class.  Knowing I have a classroom full of students with largely positive conceptual learning traits has allowed me to push them harder as well.

 

Using a “Ladder of Abstraction” in Learning the Law

Using a “Ladder of Abstraction” in Learning the Law

By Barbara Lentz, Wake Forest University and WFU School of Law

Law students say learning in law school is confusing, hard, and non-intuitive. In the traditional law school Socratic learning model, a teacher asks a series of oral questions about a reported decision eliciting verbal answers from a classroom of students in order to form a broader legal rule and explain an abstract concept. This oral questioning (often without the teacher providing feedback on how or why answers were incorrect) usually does not align with students’ prior learning experiences, and students report being mystified by the process.

Students benefit from learning a systematic approach to make thinking visible. By explicitly documenting the process, students are better able to state rules from one or more decisions and gain deeper understanding of the abstract concepts. In my law courses, I explain and employ a written “Ladder of Abstraction” to explicitly record each step in the thinking process and to provide a model students can apply to better understand and communicate abstract concepts by developing the ability to move up and down levels of abstraction.

The Ladder of Abstraction was described by S.I. Hayakawa almost eighty years ago.1 The ladder is both a concrete visual image and a concept used to illustrate how language and meaning evolves from bottom rung concrete terms (casting a vote in the mayoral election) to top rung abstract concepts (democracy). The number of “rungs” corresponds to the number of terms used to move from the concrete to the abstract. Thus, each step of reasoning from concrete to abstract is explicitly recorded, making the internal thinking process visual to students.

For example, in an orientation class with international lawyers beginning their LLM program, I use the ladder of abstraction to demonstrate how a rule from a common law dog bite decision could be stated as an abstract legal principle and applied to determine liability for any injury or event, such as environmental contamination by a corporation’s manufacturing processes. As with any Ladder of Abstraction, the starting point is writing the concrete terms at the bottom of each ladder. In this example, the court finds that the owner of a golden retriever that bites a person without provocation is not liable. I write the bottom-rung concrete terms used in the specific rule at the bottom of the classroom whiteboard in a series of individual ladders. By working through a number of hypotheticals, the very concrete term and image of a particular dog owner becomes animal owner, owner, and eventually the much more abstract potentially responsible party. At each point in our discussion, each term is explicitly identified and written on the corresponding ascending rung of the ladder to illustrate the incremental development of an abstract rule from our concrete starting point.

During our class exercise, I also explain why the ladder is helpful in recording each step of rule development, and how students can apply the process working on their own.
After the shared class exercise, students can individually complete a simple, short ladder to practice applying the model. To encourage transfer of learning, the individual assignment can ask students to list one or more situations where they think the ladder of abstraction will be helpful. The professor might suggest that students include in their answers not only legal education scenarios but also any situation where students need to be able to communicate abstract ideas to a reader or audience.

Once students learn the systematic Ladder of Abstraction approach they are better able not only to form abstract rules, but also to self-assess and to share their thinking process. In the classroom, there is a common visual and shared terminology to check one another’s rule development and to encourage students to think explicitly about levels of abstraction. In my other courses, from second semester Contracts to upper level electives like Nonprofit Organization Law, I employ the Ladder of Abstraction model to help students find meaning by moving up and down the ladder to select the appropriate level of abstraction. In preparing oral presentations or writing documents, I remind students to ground their abstract ideas in concrete examples, and to share their movement between abstract and concrete with the listener or reader to improve communication.

1 See S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (5th ed. 1991).

Review: Grit

Review: Grit

Reviewed By Prof. Emily Grant, Washburn University School of Law

Angela Duckworth, Grit (2016)

Dr. Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her book Grit came out last year, and it is spectacular.

The concept of grit includes a combination of passion and perseverance.  Gritty people have both determination and direction. The notion of grit is correlated with ideas of industriousness, creativity, hope, and conscientiousness.  And that character trait, Dr. Duckworth argues, is responsible for high levels of achievement, even more so than sheer talent, ability, or intellect.  To be clear, Dr. Duckworth doesn’t ignore the existence and importance of talent, but she asserts that “a focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort.”

In the first part of the book, Dr. Duckworth makes the case that grit matters.  She discusses various research and psychological studies, and she shares interviews with people from all walks of life including West Point cadets and professional athletes and school teachers and business moguls.  She also includes a ten-question self-assessment to measure how gritty you are (see her website: https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/) to measure how gritty you are.  Dr. Duckworth then discusses how to grow your own grit, i.e., how to develop and nurture passion and perseverance in yourself.

But it’s the last part of the book that was most intriguing to me as an educator (and frankly, as a parent)—how to help cultivate grit in other people.  She talks about parenting for grit and about how to create a culture of grit.  It is this portion of the book that I will be rereading before the start of every semester to contemplate how I can encourage passion and perseverance in my students.

In addition to being substantively fascinating, the book was wonderful to read.  It was a powerful book for me as a person, as a parent, and as a professor in charge of encouraging high levels of achievement in my students.  This is the kind of book I will give as a gift for every graduation to which I am invited.  I will likely make my own son read it when he finishes high school and starts out on whatever path is next.  I would like every incoming law student to read it.  You most definitely should as well.

If you’d like a taste of Dr. Duckworth’s research and theory, you can listen to her six-minute TED talk on the topic:

https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance

Or a 45-minute Freakonomics podcast: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/grit/