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Random Thoughts About Resistance To Active Learning

Random Thoughts About Resistance To Active Learning

By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

“Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing . . . .”  Specifically, it “refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom.”  It includes but is not limited to “small group discussion, debate, posing questions to the class, think-pair-share activities, short written exercises,” and generally involves in-class problem solving, student formulation of their own questions, and in-class brainstorming.”[1]

If you aren’t doing things described above or like the things described above, then you aren’t doing active learning.  Period.   So, in this regard “interactive” classroom atmospheres are not substitutes for active learning classrooms.  Interactive learning simply means that a student interacts with a professor.  You ask a Socratic question and the student answers and boom you are engaged in interactive learning.  You have a lively humorous bent to your presentation and again this satisfies the definition of interactive.

Interactive classroom techniques still tend to be professor driven and are simply thinly disguised versions of the typical classroom hierarchy which is the opposite of active learning.  If you find yourself describing effective teaching around observations of your class room that include, “I was funny,” “they liked my slides,” “I was so energetic they had to pay attention,” or even “I gave them context for what they were learning,” you may be engaged in some other pedagogical process but not active learning.

As long as you continue to believe that effective learning depends on your mouth moving or you being the source of the knowledge or even the source of the understanding of the material then you cannot be engaging in active learning.  The hardest part about transitioning to active learning is realizing that given the right guidance or exercise structure, the students in your classrooms are all capable of gaining the knowledge you are seeking to bestow upon them with less direct involvement from you than you currently believe is necessary.

This is a humbling experience for most of us.  It may be high time to really think if ego and our need to be necessary prevents us from letting go and whole heartedly engaging in active learning.  The doctors can’t be wrong after all as there is a massive trend in medical schools to make active learning the primary pedagogical technique.  Of course, they are meeting resistance as well because their equivalent of Langdell is reaching out from the grave with a heavy inertial hand.  It is worth remembering that Langdell prescribed Socratic teaching for law students about ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation.  I hope that we do not feel unnecessarily bound to pedagogies and norms from that era.

[1] https://www.everettcc.edu/files/administration/institutional-effectiveness/institutional-research/outcomeassess-active-learning.pdf

 

Taking Advantage of What Students Know to Teach New Concepts

Taking Advantage of What Students Know to Teach New Concepts

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.

 

How do we help to encourage and sustain transcendent motivation in our students?

How do we help to encourage and sustain transcendent motivation in our students?

By Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law

This month’s idea comes from James Lang’s very popular 2016 book, Small Teaching. At this time in the semester, students who returned eagerly to begin a new year are starting to feel the weight of readings and assignments. It is easy for them to quickly lose all motivation other than the fear of poor grades. As we now better understand, higher forms of motivation are better fuel for learning. They may include longer-term motivation for self-betterment, such as getting a rewarding job. But the most effective form of motivation is what Lang terms “transcendent,” and focus on how learning will result in better social outcomes.

How do we help to encourage and sustain transcendent motivation in our students? Lang makes several suggestions for habits and activities that take no more than 10 minutes of class time, and often less:

1. Use the time before class begins to strike up friendly conversations with students; try to reach out to each member of class at least once.
2. Human beings are wired for stories; consider framing the material around a newsworthy story, perhaps even a cliffhanger to be revealed at the end of class. Law is particularly well suited to this – every case presents a new story, and those stories often go much deeper than what is presented in the text.
3. Share stories about professionals in the field who have used their training to make a difference.
4. Frequently connect smaller units back to the big picture during the class session; make sure the purpose for learning the material says clear.
5. Convey your natural enthusiasm for your subject; it is more contagious than you may realize.

For further background on the educational research behind motivation, as well as deeper insights into each of Lang’s five teaching tips above, please see James M. Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning 167-93 (Jossey-Bass 2016).

 

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.

 

 

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).

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