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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.

Summer Teaching: a Time to Relax and Listen to the Students

Summer Teaching: a Time to Relax and Listen to the Students

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

I volunteered to teach Legal Writing III this summer to take some load off of the fall enrollment and to get back into the swing of teaching legal writing. I will be returning to legal writing part-time in the fall while still maintaining my position as the associate dean of academic affairs. It felt good to get back into the legal writing classroom: a feeling of coming home if you will. My students have just finished drafting and receiving feedback on their client demand letters and are knee deep in understanding summary judgment motions. They had drafted outlines of their arguments and research for me to review. After reviewing them, it was clear to me that, as I expected, they were struggling with melding the elements of the tort with the standard on summary judgment.

Over the weekend, I plowed through mountains of examples and exercises I have used over the years to help the students put together the pieces of summary judgment and elements of the underlying law. The methods I have used in the past just did not seem to be what I needed. Frustrated and tired on Sunday night (I teach on Monday mornings), I threw in the towel. I had no idea how to bring together their struggles. I had a lesson plan: two hours of exercises designed to reach all types of learners; exercises designed to engage the learner. As I lay in bed with ideas swirling around in my head, the thought came to me. What about letting the students dictate how the class will run by expressing their needs. I was on to something.

The next morning on my morning run, I put the pieces together in my head. I began class with a simple question: what did we do last week and what do you still need in order draft your summary judgment documents for next week. What flowed from that was magic in my teaching book. Their needs and questions ranged from the substantive to the very technical court rule questions to the simple regarding where to find the forms. My mind quickly organized a plan of attack. We started with substantive and moved toward the technical and the simple. My strategy was to tackle the hard stuff first. It was the first class of the summer which I felt really out of control of the substance and the structure of the class. It was also the first time there was high energy in the room and a sense of community. The lesson learned from this class is to step back every few weeks and listen to the students and give them what they think they need not what you think they need.

Let’s Talk About I-R-A-C

Let’s Talk About I-R-A-C

By Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law

Love it or not, IRAC forms the backbone of any legal analysis. How we talk about it with students-and when-can greatly influence their ability to perform legal analysis skillfully across multiple courses. Many of you are now grading essay exams and perhaps seeing surprising shortcomings in the analysis. How could the class have spent the past 14 weeks painstakingly testing the logical limits of various rules, dissecting their premises, and so on, only to receive an answer that leaps immediately from a conclusory statement to a brief discussion of nothing but facts? In addition to more common tools such as practice or sample essay tests, you may wish to try a few ideas aimed at the transfer of learning.

  1. Harmonize mixed messages. If you talk about IRAC to your students, poll colleagues to see how they discuss the same concepts with students. Our law school did so about two years ago and discovered that while we thought we were sending consistent messages to our students about how to perform IRAC for essays, we often used conflicting terminology, taught varied acronyms (IRAC, CRAC, CREAC, CREXAC, FIRAC, etc.), and expected different stylistic preferences (often unstated). For example, students are taught in most legal writing classes that IRAC can be broken down as CREAC so that lawyers remember to analyze both the rule and the facts (rule Explanation and rule Application). Other classrooms usually put the whole of analysis under the “A” in IRAC. Because “A” means to legal writing students “apply law to facts,” they may assume that under IRAC, the A is just application to facts and does not include “explain and analyze the law.” See also Mark Wojcik, “Add an E to your IRAC,” Student Lawyer, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2006).
  2. Disclose unstated expectations. If you do not talk to your students about IR[E]AC, you may wish to do so to improve the chances that exam answers will better resemble expectations. Do not assume that just because students have received IRAC instruction in other courses that they will successfully anticipate how to apply those skills in your course. That process of transferring IR[E]AC skills from one course to the next is trickier than one might expect; these are higher-order analytical skills and not rote tasks. For those who feel strongly that there is not enough time to review those skills in class, one option is to consider attaching an annotated sample to your syllabus or posting one to your course webpage. See also ILTL Idea of the Month for May 2011: “Setting Expectations for Exam Essay Structure and Strategy.”
  3. Portray IR[E]AC as a flexible, adaptable framework. I sometimes hear professors, judges, practitioners, and others tell impressionable law students that IRAC doesn’t always work in the real world. While it may be true that a poorly executed IRAC analysis doesn’t work, IREAC just identifies the inherent logical sequence of any analysis of the law or how it applies to facts. It’s an empty framework that needs to be filled with a number of sub-sequences. Part of the problem is that the standard IRAC acronym, sans “E,” hides the need for rule analysis, including statutory interpretation. It also doesn’t include a “P” for policy or letters for other nuances in analysis. That “P” is a subpart of both rule explanation and rule application-it still happens inside an IREAC. That is why instructors should expressly state those expectations in assignment instructions and essay exemplars. See Hollee S. Temple, “Using Formulas to Help Students Master the “R” and “A” of IRAC,” Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research and Writing, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Spring 2006) (347 KB PDF).
Practitioners and Real Work Product

Practitioners and Real Work Product

By Emily Grant, Washburn University School of Law

Law schools are increasingly attuned to the need to produce practice-prepared graduates, while at the same time facing limited resources for hiring new faculty and developing new courses. Some faculty members are finding effective methods to reach beyond the walls of the law school to provide additional exposure for students without adding significant costs.

One approach employed by Amy Westbrook, a colleague of mine here at Washburn, is to reach out to practitioners to talk about what they know best – the documents used regularly in their practice. In a series of meetings, various transactional attorneys share with a small group of students their drafting tips and insights by talking through the provisions of a document frequently used in their practice. Typically, these talks are held outside of class time, over the noon hour, with students encouraged to bring a brown bag lunch (it’s cheap!).

Amy intentionally limits the size of the group to eight students. That restriction helps create demand for the sessions (limited signup in advance), and the students value their spot and read the document in advance as required. It also helps with recruiting practitioners to do it, Amy tells me, because a lunch with eight students to walk through a document feels easy and do-able, unlike perhaps preparation for a large group lecture.

The practitioner provides a copy of the document (lease agreement, stock purchase agreement, will, trust, power of attorney, etc.) beforehand so the students can review it and prepare questions in advance of the presentation. During the discussion, the practitioner reviews the various provisions in the document and addresses the overall structure of the document, the key negotiating points, alterative formulations, and other drafting considerations that arise in constructing the final product.

At the end of a semester, then, students end up with a portfolio of sample documents for their “grown-up lawyer” file, as well as an increased understanding of the content and drafting considerations for each. Further, the series serves to connect students with the bar, to give them invaluable exposure to experienced practitioners, and to bridge the divide between the practice and law school.

Teaching Students to Think While Moving their Feet

Teaching Students to Think While Moving their Feet

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

With the weather warming up and the sun making its return to the Pacific Northwest, students are wanting to be outside and wanting the semester to end. It is at this point in the spring semester when I am searching for something to keep my students learning and engaged. A teaching method I have employed with much success is called “four corners.” This method works best in doctrinal classes when you are planning to discuss a preeminent case. This is how it works.

Preparation: Read and understand the arguments put forth to the court by both sides of the case, including amicus briefs. Decide which four “arguments” or “points” you will use for your “four corners.”

Class: I hang signs with the four “points” or “arguments” on them in the four corners of the room before the students come in. Once the students are in the room, I have them go to the corner of the room with the “point” or “argument” with which they most closely align. Once the students move, I have a list of questions for the group to discuss. The professor can choose any question for discussion. I typically ask the groups these types of questions: Why do you align with this point? What support from the case (or article or brief) can you use to bolster your opinion? What are the policy concerns/benefits of this point? Would any change in law or fact cause you to change your opinion? If so, what? I then have the groups report their answers.

Debrief: After the students return to their seats, I lead a discussion about the many sides that exist in most cases. We discuss ways to see the other sides and why it might be important for a lawyer to see all of the policy concerns and the factual concerns.

This method can be used for many different purposes such as ethical issues, legal writing problem deconstruction, and seminar topics. It is a way to get the students out of a seated position, get them to talk to each other, and get them to look deeper into cases and issues.

Pop Quizzes

Pop Quizzes

February 2016 Idea

By Barbara Lentz, Wake Forest University School of Law

By Valentine’s Day, we are about one-third of the way through the semester, so it is time to test students on early material they may have forgotten and interweave the practice of a skill or a more recent topic. I administer a short quiz at the beginning of class (aka pop quiz or “an opportunity to assess one’s learning without pre-testing anxiety”). In my classes, there is minimal grousing when the pop quiz appears because my students know that they will have an opportunity to retake the quiz, as part of a group, at the end of class and have their grade determined by an average of the two scores.

Studies show the benefits of frequent, low-stakes testing. The best learning happens when testing is regularly spaced into classes over the term.(1) Regular tests promote learning and improve long-term retention.(2) Testing improves learning independent of additional study time.(3) Appropriate testing promotes learning by forcing students to recall and apply knowledge acquired from lectures, reading, discussion and simulations; practicing retrieval over the term (not just cramming for a final exam) makes learning stronger and makes studying for the final more effective and efficient because much less is forgotten along the way.(4)

Now, it is possible that your students may not see testing as the beneficial bridge to durable learning that it is. However, with the opportunity to retake the quiz after class, you likely will enjoy a thoroughly engaged class of attentive students seeking knowledge needed to pass the re-take. At the end of class, I require students to retake the same or substantially similar quiz in a group. High performers do not fear freeloading, as they have locked in a good (but not perfect) grade by performing well on the initial, individual quiz. Group work and discussion develops collaborative skills and leads to more precise, accurate, exact and (if you limit the time and space) concise answers. Group retakes also generate far fewer quizzes to grade while providing immediate formative feedback (and answers) to students who may assess their own learning and study skills months before the final.

Nearly every retake scores 100%, meaning the students have retrieved and demonstrated understanding of the knowledge deemed most crucial by the professor, and also meaning that no class time is needed to further review answers. Yet if you must grade on a curve, averaging the initial and retake grades can create a range of scores while still resulting in all students mastering the material. I have also seen a spillover effect in regular, close reading by more students and student-initiated study groups forming to discuss and distill answers to questions posed in class (which questions are likely candidates for future pop quizzes).

(1) Roediger, H.L., How Tests Make Us Smarter, in New York Times, p. SR12, July 20, 2014.
(2) McDermott, K.B., Kang, S. & Roediger, H.L., Test Format and Its Modulation of the Testing Effect, European J. of Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 19, 528-558 (2007).
(3) Cull, W.L. Untangling the Benefits of Multiple Study Opportunities and Repeated Testing for Cued Recall, Aplied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 14, 215-35 (2000).
(4) See Roediger, How Tests Make Us Smarter, supra.

Mentoring 1L Work Habits: Weekly Goals

Mentoring 1L Work Habits: Weekly Goals

January 2016 Idea

By Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law

Today’s law students have more information about study habits than ever before. They have access to a great array of books on law student success, and most law schools provide some exam and study training through academic support. Yet even for diligent students, transferring that general advice into each new course remains a challenge. Legal educators can help to train students in good work habits by incorporating weekly goals in the syllabus, and by occasionally discussing them in class. Weekly goals work well not only in skills classes with large assignments, but also in traditional, exam-only courses.

First, in courses with projects or papers, students are hungry for information about how best to get started, how to identify material from class that is relevant to the project, and even how past training, such as previous legal writing instruction, can be adapted to the assignment. For example, in my legal writing course, we’ve just started work on a new appellate brief problem, but the case file is voluminous and will take weeks to digest. Some students had already assumed that they should not try to begin researching or writing until they fully understood the entire file. In the assignment calendar and in class, we spent a few moments discussing strategies for immediately researching and writing about the general rules for the claim involved. Most days, we don’t have time to discuss these goals in class, but they are there in writing from the very beginning of the semester. For example, this week’s goals were written in the syllabus as follows:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the legal rules for Issue I by reading secondary sources. While you are reading, open a document folder and start lightly drafting a rule synthesis. Include rough citations with pinpoints.
  2. Buy a binder and use it to begin your litigation folder (research, notes, and pertinent parts of the case file).

Second, for those courses that do not involve papers or projects, students can benefit from weekly advice in the syllabus on outlining and other exam preparation. For example, students often do not understand how classroom hypotheticals relate to exam preparation. A tip on the weekly course schedule can encourage students to incorporate classroom hypos into their outlines and to use them to write mock exam questions. In another example, students often do not immediately notice that the cases in the book are selected to present a spectrum of viewpoints on each topic. A weekly hint and could suggest that students draw a spectrum and place all the cases along a spectrum of legal outcomes or approaches.

Greater transparency about course design and study skills can help students to avoid the trial-and-error method of learning how to become better students. One simple way to do so is to create weekly goals or provide weekly study tips on a document students must read every week: the course’s calendar of readings and assignments. This type of coaching is not “spoon-feeding”; instead, it cues opportunities to make connections and engage more deeply with the material.

Getting Over the Habit of Last Minute Paper Writing

Getting Over the Habit of Last Minute Paper Writing

December 2015

By Heidi Holland from Gonzaga University School of Law

For anyone who teaches a paper course or legal writing, you know the frustration of having to wade through poorly organized analysis and grammatical wastelands. As I have talked to students, I have found that they often do not know the difference between proofreading and editing, rely too heavily on Spellcheck and do not allow themselves enough time to effectively finalize their assignments. While I have yet to find the perfect solution, I have implemented several strategies to help students learn these skills.

First, our students may come to us with the bad habit of doing college papers the night before they were due. To encourage students to develop better habits, I have staggered deadlines for my final legal writing assignment. For example, this semester, I required students to have a research assignment done for our final assignment a week after I handed out the final topic – a month before the final memo was due. After the students’ initial panic wore off, I explained that I wanted them to start their research early so that I could steer them back the right direction if they were having trouble, and if they got in there and started reading cases sooner, rather than later, we’d have better in-class discussions.

The students’ outlines were then due ten days later. I explained that I wanted bullet point style outlines following IRAC for each issue. We talked about how this would help them, among other things, discover where the “holes” were in their analysis, e.g. having several cases to support their discussion of one issue, but only one case on another issue. In class, we talked through organization of the law and analysis and the students asked good questions – the kind that showed they had been appropriately struggling with concepts. My final deadline was to have a full rough draft about a week before the final paper was due.

Students were required to bring a hard copy of their rough drafts with them to class – along with highlighters. First, I explain the difference between proof-reading and editing; then, I take the students through a guided self-edit. I intentionally don’t go in a “logical” order because I have found that students won’t skim over issues that way. (It reminds me of not asking questions in a logical order when doing cross-examination of a witness.) Second, I have students quickly scan their papers for all citations and highlight them orange. (We have a color-coded key we use for editing.) Next, without reading content, I have students do a quick check for paragraph length. If they see a problem, they don’t fix it then; they just make a margin note. We go on to check for numerous content issues, effective use of quotations, proper use of short cites, etc. Once we finish, I advise students to fix the problems they found that day, but then put the paper down for at least one day before they pick it up for the final read.

This system helps the students get in the habit of starting projects earlier and understanding that law writing is an interactive process.

Black-out Periods

Black-out Periods

November 2015

By Emily Grant – Washburn University School of Law

With exams quickly approaching, I’ve been pondering the utility of black-out periods – times when students may NOT ask you questions about an exam or other assignment. I conducted a survey (totally scientific, I’m sure) of my friends and colleagues to gather perspectives other than my own, and I offer these thoughts for you to ponder as well.

I was primarily interested in when professors imposed black-out periods and why. Do black-out periods advance student learning? Are they primarily for our convenience? Some other reason?

I impose a 24-hour black-out period AFTER I return any major writing assignment – I guess more of a “cooling off” period than a traditional black-out period. When I announce that restriction, I explain why: I want you to take time to process my comments and think about my suggestions or questions before marching (deliberately aggressive word choice) to my office with complaints. In other words, think before you speak.

Do they actually do that? No, not always; I’ve seen people three days after I returned an assignment who are just then opening the Sealed Envelope of Graded Memo for the first time. But this last time I returned a memo, I had a student email me within an hour. I was able to respond and say “that’s actually a really good question and precisely the reason I impose a 24-hour black-out period. I want you to wrestle with that question for a bit, dig back into your research and see if my comments help you better understand the case law and analysis.” So maybe?

But black-out periods BEFORE a particular exam or assignment can also be useful in sending a message to students: you need to have figured this out by 24 hours before the exam, because if you haven’t gotten it by then, you likely aren’t going to. Or, perhaps more compassionately, if you’re still asking major substantive questions twelve hours before a writing assignment is due, I will be very, very worried. In that way, we can perhaps signal our expectations for our students’ preparation.

A black-out period is also a matter of professionalism and courtesy. Please don’t expect me to be reading your email at 10:00 p.m. the night before the exam. You’ve had all semester to raise questions, and you shouldn’t feel entitled to any kind of response that late in the game. Some professors address this concern by allowing questions on a TWEN forum, but not guaranteeing any response after a particular day / time.

Additionally, late questions can have the potential to benefit one student at the expense of others who didn’t have or take advantage of the same opportunity. To that end, some professors prefer to send email answers to the entire class, in which case a one- or two-day black-out period may allow the professor time to carefully craft a thoughtful response to student questions.

On the other hand, as one of my colleagues put it, “Why would I want to stop student learning?” If they have questions up until the time of the exam, then some professors are more than willing to field those questions. Particularly given the compact exam schedules at law schools, a black-out period prior to exams would necessarily impact some students more than others.

What’s your policy? And what’s your motivation? Do you find black-out (or cooling off) periods effective? I’d love to hear from you!

Who Wants to Be a Professor?

Who Wants to Be a Professor?

October 2015

By Sandra Simpson – Gonzaga University School of Law

While teaching Professional Responsibility this semester, I realized that Model Rule 1.15 regarding trust accounts and lawyer billing is dry and boring, yet vitally important to the typical lawyer. To make things interesting, we played a game called “Who Wants to Be a Professor?” I teach this class out of a book by Professors Brooks Holland and Leah Christensen, titled “Professional Responsibility: From the Classroom to the Practice of Law.” The book has a plethora of exercises and hypotheticals. Without regard, this subject is boring. Enter the game. The students have law firms already established but you could just have them form groups. I gave each group a section of the rule (but you could use case holdings) and gave them 60 minutes to design a multiple choice question, five possible answers, and all of the explanations. I told them that after they were all done, we were going to have the students take each firms’ quiz question. The law firm would then have to defend their question, their answer, and the proper explanations. Each group would have 10 minutes to present and defend. I also told them that after everyone has presented, the law firms would submit their vote for the best question (and the students could not vote for their own question). The winning law firm would get some extra credit.

I knew the students would like it, but the results were more than I could have hoped for. I was literally running from group to group answering questions, reading possible answers, and listening to each group’s conversations. There was so much positive energy in the room, and the learning was obvious. When the presentations started, I started to get goose bumps due to the excitement, competitiveness, and the learning that was happening in the room. The students appropriately picked apart weak questions, confusing answers, and incorrect information; they also recognized good questions for their depth and difficulty. At the end, I realized how much I gained as well. I got a rare peak into their minds as they analyze multiple choice questions.