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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).

Turning Socratic Lecture Notes Into A Handout

Turning Socratic Lecture Notes Into A Handout

By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

This semester I was desperate to increase the engagement in my civil procedure class.  These were upper division students who were taking the “other” civil procedure class.  My institution, in response to civil procedure being included on the MBE examination, revamped the civil procedure curriculum.  The class is divided into a 4-credit class called civil procedure I which deals with the rules, pleading, motion practice and subject matter jurisdiction. For the most part students find this class engaging and directly related to what most of them will be doing in their clerkships.

Then in their third semester of law school students are required to take the 2-credit, civil procedure II class.  This aforementioned other class, deals with the Erie doctrine, personal jurisdiction, res judicata, collateral estoppel, appeals and other topics students, at least in my experience, find less exciting.

In the latter half of the semester, I was scheduled to teach the right to a jury trial including the dreaded Beacon Theaters and Dairy Queen.  I was keenly aware that the Socratic method had outlived its usefulness in this class where students found the material really difficult.  Detecting a lack of engagement by the students who were not on the Socratic spot, I decided to try something different.

I plan classes around questions and my lecture notes include the questions and the answers to the questions I eventually hope to guide the students to via a Socratic discussion.  For this particular class I simply went through my lecture notes and deleted the answers.

I distributed this “questions only” document to the class at the start of what was originally planned as a Socratic lecture on the topic.  Next I broke the class into groups of about 4 and we spent the class time having them come up with the answers to the questions in groups.

The level of engagement was incredible.  The class was transformed into a beehive of activity and I would call on one group and ask them to discuss what they thought the answer was.  If the answer was not completely teased out then I would call on another group.

In addition to increasing engagement, the peer based method allowed faster and more confident responses to the questions.  In the groups students were anonymous to me anyway for brief periods that I allocated to them working as a group.  They were more relaxed and were able to come up with more complete answers to the questions than if I had one student targeted in the usual Socratic manner with all the associated stress of being “the one.”

I used the introductory material of the lecture in this way and then we went on to a more traditional Socratic class for the more complex aspects of the right to jury trial.  However having employed this collaborative and engaged pedagogy for the first segment of the class, the engagement in the remainder of the more traditionally conducted class was much higher than was the norm previously.  I employed it a few more times in the semester.

This is a very simple way to increase class engagement that lead to no extra labor on the part of a Socratic teacher, other than a quick edit of preexisting lecture notes.  As I type this it also dawns on me that this method could be used as the basis of a flipped classroom where students can be given the questions before class so that their reading is more focused and the actual class time can be spent discussing the doctrine in great depth because the students would likely have gleaned more from the reading.

Finally, I used an assessment trick I learned from Michael Schwartz which allowed me to gage the efficacy of this technique.  I handed out 3X5 flash cards to each student later on in the semester and basically asked, what topic was foggiest and what topic was clearest for them in the class.  Many students wrote the equivalent of, “The clearest things for me were whatever we went over with the handouts.”

Attached is the document I described above which I used for the introductory right to jury trial class.

 

Steering Students Back to the Rule

Steering Students Back to the Rule

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

It’s undeniable to me that each incoming class of 1Ls that I’ve ever taught has always exhibited a collective personality of its own from the prior one.  Despite this, I’m also amused by a commonality that each first-year Contracts class has shared with me—at least in the first semester of law school.  Whether it is because I teach in Massachusetts (where the politics can sometimes be loud, colorful, and brash) or whether it is just that law students—and lawyers, by extension—are intrinsically a breed of vocally assertive people, my first-year students always enter my class with a fervor to argue that they are legally “right” about a contract dispute, even though they are untrained and usually have little background in the subject area.  They like to reach for their gut instincts based on the facts they read in cases or hypos I give them.  They don’t always tend to realize that they’re to learn the law.

On the one hand, it’s great that they have this built-in passion for opinion and advocacy.  It shows me that they have energy and appetite for lawyering.  But if not soon reinforced by a method of legal reasoning (perhaps even à la “thinking like a lawyer”), this passion can also lead to bad habits and imprecise, undisciplined lawyering.

My lesson here is about how to train and direct students early on to remember that when they are faced with a legal dispute or hypothetical, their first strategy is to not go to their gut instincts and raw passion, but to go strategically to the law.  Thus, when they are given a fact pattern, they are not arguing why one side should prevail based on their own reading of facts or their own sense of justice or fairness, but that they first examine what rule of law might be pertinent for grafting onto this particular set of facts in order to come to a lawyerly conclusion.   This is a basic skill of legal reasoning that can be obscured by the excitement of starting law school, the mysterious (and sometimes confusing) nature of Socratic lectures, and the intensity of the first-year curriculum.  But by the end of the first year, if students don’t realize in a disciplined way that they always should go back to the rules, then their law courses have done them a disservice.

One way in which I have addressed and developed this habit of “going back to the rules” is by often introducing a new doctrinal unit with a “master” fact pattern hypothetical I can use to demonstrate a classic scenario that involves that new doctrine.  The reason I call this hypo a “master” fact pattern is because I will give it to students to try solve the problem when they don’t have the doctrinal rules yet, then use the same fact pattern to introduce and teach them the doctrine, and lastly re-visit the fact pattern as we get into the cases and pose variations on the hypo that illustrates the nuances in the doctrine.  My hope is multi-faceted:  First, without knowing the particular rules of law, my students first see the factual hypothetical and anticipate a resolution based on their gut reactions.  Then as they are taught doctrine in tandem with the hypothetical, they now have an active moment of discovery where the particular legal rules and doctrine reveal how the hypothetical might be resolved in a lawyerly way.  It’s also a good moment to emphasize the utility of the law and to redirect their instincts to reach for the law first, instead of resorting to arguing facts or fairness.  It can also be a good place to critique the law and bring in policy or demonstrate lawyerly analysis.  Lastly, now that they know the rules in tandem with a factual scenario, the variations on the fact pattern continue to reinforce their sense that they should always be thinking, “What’s the rule or doctrine?” at every step of the way.

One example of this is when I teach the unit on U.C.C. 2-207 Battle of the Forms to my students.   The unit is sequenced after we’ve gone through the mirror image rule for contractual acceptances.   Before unleashing the U.C.C. provision on the students, I start with an in-class hypo that involves a sale of goods between a wholesaler supplier and a product manufacturer.  Despite firm and identical agreement of the type of goods, price, and quantity, the problem involves differences in the boilerplate fine print on the back of the parties’ respective documents.  Students will know that under the classic mirror image rule there’s no contract technically.  But if I tell them that issues like this occur in business transactions countless times every day, involving tens of millions of dollars, they are usually perturbed and left trying to figure out what do we do when these parties incur liabilities, such as a product defect.  What do we do?

I like to stir up controversy because it usually makes them pay attention.  That’s when I tell them that as lawyers we have to go back to the law, and I then introduce 2-207 under the U.C.C., whose purpose, among others, is to resolve issues such as discrepant fine terms.  Then, we work through the fact pattern.  What I’ve essentially done is to first give my students a problem without the law, then incite their outrage or passion or inquisitiveness, and at last systematically direct them to reach for a legal solution by going to the rules rather than analyzing the facts first.  Use your brain, folks, particularly your left brain.

This works well as an assessment tool as well.  In most courses I teach, I usually begin with the first day with a fact pattern that runs through from A-to-Z all of the major issues of the subject area.  I make my students answer the question even though they don’t know the law yet.  I want them to feel inadequate without the rules of law that would otherwise help them investigate and problem-solve like lawyers.  Then gradually as we move through the semester, I will often find appropriate moments later, perhaps after we’ve learned a few units, to pull out that same fact pattern and ask them again to examine the problem and see how much better they can resolve the hypo now that they have had some law.  At the end of the semester, we usually look through the same problem one final time and hopefully students will have a good assessment tool for gauging how much doctrine they know now to analyze the question as well as a fundamental understanding that a basic strategy in legal reasoning is to reach for the law first.

 

Comment Bubbles and Redline Documents

Comment Bubbles and Redline Documents

By Prof. Emily Grant, Washburn University School of Law

I live-grade one of my students’ early memo assignments.  It’s a short 900-word IRAC that I grade (in fact, read for the first time) in front of each student during an individual conference in my office.  One benefit of that process is that there is a chance for the students to explain choices that they made in the writing process.  “Why did you opt not to use this case?”  “What was your thought when you put together this paragraph?”

Another possible way to achieve a similar benefit without the time-consuming week of individual conferences is to have students use Word’s comment bubbles and redline function.  For any kind of document you have students create and turn in, comment bubbles could be a useful way for students to explain strategic choices they made.  You could ask them, for example, to identify specific places they deliberately tried to make a passage persuasive and how they went about that.  You could ask them to flag any time they intentionally used the passive voice and to explain why (which will give you a good indication of how well they know what passive voice is in the first place).  You could even ask them to label the parts of an IRAC in their analysis.  The comment feature serves as a self-assessment tool and permits more targeted feedback during grading and conferencing with the student.

Combining the comment feature with a redline document could also be illuminating.  You could have students “grade” or “correct” a sample exam answer, submit to you a redline version showing the changes they made, and include comment bubbles to explain why they altered the original answer.  Not only does this permit students to approach material from a different perspective – how would you assess someone else’s work for meeting certain criteria rather than how would you answer the question – it brings them closer to practice.  As any summer associate knows, practitioners read, edit, and teach through redlines.  Associates are to learn from the changes made to the draft by a more senior counsel and implement what they have learned on the next assignment.

A colleague of mine does something similar in his transactional drafting course: students are given contract provisions drafted by the other side in the transaction and are asked to edit the document on behalf of their client.  Part of their score on the assignment comes from how they have explained why a particular clause is problematic and how the language they proposed would solve the issue.

When I take the time to ask and listen, my students’ thought-processes as they were creating a particular written work provide insight into their learning.  That insight, in turn, can help me relate better to them and their struggles and will allow me to be a more effective teacher.  A job well-done also turns students into more effective, self-motivated, and independent learners.  Asking students to use comment bubbles and redlining is yet another tool in your arsenal to achieve those goals.

 

“Luddite” and Loving It

“Luddite” and Loving It

By Prof. Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law

All right, I confess: I’m not a true Luddite. I do appreciate gadgets as much as the next person, and I do use classroom technology when I need to do something really specific, such as show a video clip or (frequently) display something on the document camera.  But increasingly, I find myself enjoying going back to basics in the classroom.  There are no smelly, purple-inked mimeo sheets (ah, memories of Sister Angela’s iron rule…). But handouts are now standard fare again.

I used to rely heavily on PowerPoint presentations to structure my classes, believing that having a visual reference would help the students (and me) to keep on track.  But often I noticed that even in a no-laptops classroom, the screen at the front of the room tended to capture students’ attention more than the discussion, thus reducing eye contact and dropping some of the energy out of the room.

For me, a low-tech approach has dovetailed nicely with an increasingly “flipped” approach to classroom modules, where half or more of the time is spent on exercises, and the rest on lecture, review, and discussion. I reduce the exercise and perhaps some diagrams to a handout or two, and we work from that for the class. Laptops and phones are stowed away. At least in my small-to-midsize classes, I find that the having no distractions either at the desk or at the front of the room is encouraging more participation and engagement. Students are usually looking up unless they are working on an exercise alone or in groups. They don’t spend an inordinate amount of time taking notes (i.e., writing down everything on the slide), and can’t be dependent on slides to organize the material for them. Instead, the handout provides some organization and students must fill in the rest.

What works for each educator will depend on personality, comfort levels with the material, affinity for technology, and the subject matter itself. But if, like me, you tend to find using technology for most of the class session a bit distracting to the students and instructor, there are a number of upsides to going low-tech. More selective use of technology can reinvigorate the classroom—in small doses, it regains its power to awaken, especially when used just up to that 10-minute attention-span limit.  The course website or TWEN site can help to “flip” tech outside the classroom. Finally, students and professors can get a break from the constant presence of electronic information. For that last reason alone, a classroom low on tech and high on human contact many actually be the next big thing.

 

Icebreakers in Law School: Juvenile or Helpful?

Icebreakers in Law School: Juvenile or Helpful?

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law[1]

While having a discussion the other day with a colleague regarding the value of icebreakers in large, law school classrooms, I started thinking about icebreakers and what message they send to the students.  Does it make law school appear juvenile or does it help create a sense of community.  Or does it depend on how it is done.  Well, I have done some research (very preliminary) and I have asked a handful of students (who randomly stopped by my office or I saw in the hallways—not scientific).  The answer?  It depends on the type of icebreaker and how committed the professor is to forming a community and connecting classroom activities to the overall course.  This latter concern being the most important to the student with whom I spoke.

According to the Center for Teaching Excellence at Lansing Community College, the many benefits of icebreakers are: they reduce anxiety for both the teacher and the students, they foster interactions between teacher and student, they create the expectation that students learn through participation, they actively engage students and teachers, they foster a caring environment, and they foster the formation of a relationship early in the semester.  Of all the articles available on icebreakers and education, one thing is clear—icebreakers help establish a positive environment and help the students get to know each other and the professor.  What is not so clear, however, is the question: are they helpful in a professional school, such as law school?  The answer seems to be when properly executed, icebreakers can be a valuable part of the law school, classroom experience. Further, when properly executed, icebreakers can be used throughout the semester to foster community and trust among the students.  They can also be used to assess student understanding of the material. [2]

Through my discussion with students, it became clear to me that if the class was a required course, they preferred the icebreaker activity to be related to the lesson for the day or to the overall class.  Students with whom I spoke had very little patience for tangentially related “get-to-know-you” type activities in required courses but seem to have slightly more patience for this type of activity in upper-division, elective courses. The “Teaching with Technology” wiki site seems to support this premise with its statement: “If the group is voluntarily present then an ice breaker not necessarily related to the topic at hand has a better chance at success. However, if your group’s presence is a requirement an ice breaker directly related to your topic at hand will have a much better chance at success. In this case, your ice breaker should server as a segue into your presentation.”

It also seems that students recognize the need and usefulness of using icebreakers in a business setting for team building and trust building.  Several students said they enjoy icebreakers in a professional setting as long as they are done professionally and don’t take up too much business time.  Sophia, a popular on-line business training website, confirms what students already know; “in order for an ice breaker to be effective, it must employ content appropriate to the group as well as be appropriately timed.  It should not be too long otherwise it might sabotage the more serious work of the meeting. It should occur at the beginning of the meeting or speech, and then at appropriate times during the program.”

Thus, if icebreakers have the benefits described and students buy into them and see their value if employed correctly, which ones should we use?  The following ideas, I have either personally used successfully or I believe they would work.

  1. Brainstorm: break into groups and give each group a general subject from the reading. Have each student take 2 minutes to write down as many things as he/she can remember from the reading on that subject.  Have the groups make a master list for each group. Then have each group present their list.  Total time: 15 minutes.
  2. Fact or Fiction: prepare 10-15 fact or fiction statements drawn from the readings. Divide students into groups.  Give each group 1 minute to decide whether the statement is fact or fiction and why. I do this closed book when I am teaching holdings, issues, dicta, and the difference. Have the students then report their answers.  Total time 10-15 minutes.
  3. Expectations: Have students jot down what they expect to learn in the class. Collect them and read several of them.  Or have the students read their own out loud to the class.  Or have the students get in groups and discuss among themselves and report out to you.
  4. Just a few words: Ask the students to come up with three to five words which they associate with the topic you are introducing.  Have them write them down and/or share them with the class.  This is a great way to also assess your students and where they are regarding the subject and your class.  With just a few students reporting in, you will get enough information to assess their thought process.
  5. Burning questions: Ask the students to take a moment and think of a question the current case in which you are reviewing did not answer for the student. If you have time, you can also ask the students to jot down why the answer to this question is important to them.  This is also an excellent why to assess the students ability to think deeply about the cases they are reading.  Are they questioning what they read?

 

[1] Sandra Simpson is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Gonzaga University School of Law, and Associate Professor of Legal Research and Writing, and the Co-Director of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning

[2] As stated in ABA standard 314: “A law school shall utilize both formative and summative assessments methods in its curriculum to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students.” Interpretation 314-1 states “Formative assessment methods are measurements at different points during a particular course or at different points over the span of a student’s education that provide meaningful feedback to improve student learning. “ Interpretation 314-2 states that schools are not required to use any specific formative assessment method. Thus, it seems clear a professor can use some of these “icebreakers” for the dual purpose of forming a community AND assessing student learning.  Feedback as to student understanding can be given to the students in class.