Teaching Ideas

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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.

Using All of Our Resources

Using All of Our Resources

September 2015 Idea

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

As the semester gets into full swing, it is important to remember to take advantage of all our teachable moments during the day and semester. Sometimes that requires thinking outside the box. This past year I had an issue with a student. The student repeatedly believed it was me making him/her do poorly. I pulled out all my usual tools, sitting down with the student and going over the work and my feedback, meeting with the student weekly, giving the student alternative avenues to be successful, etc. None of the methods worked, and the problem continued.

I was tempted to brush the problem under the rug and turn my back on the student. I was busy, and the student was doing OK in the class. Instead, I enlisted the help of an attorney from our community, who is an expert in the area. The student and I met first. I was honest with the student that I was out of ideas to help the student, but I wanted the student to meet with this expert in the field. I told the student that while he/she was doing OK in the class, I felt the student could really excel. The student agreed to let the attorney review the student’s work and give the student feedback. This was tricky. I made sure the student knew that he/she was not under any obligation to do this and whatever decision the student made, it would have no effect on his/her grade (unless the work improved, of course.) The student met with the attorney, received feedback from the attorney, and improved his/her work product significantly. This took some work on my part to find an attorney willing to put in the time, but it really helped the student.

Making Explicit the Link between Briefing and Exam Writing

Making Explicit the Link between Briefing and Exam Writing

May 2015 Idea

By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

It is probably safe to say that most schools have some form of skills training or introductory training session for new law students during which students are taught how to brief cases. As the National Academic Consultant for CLEO and in my own classroom I have seen so much emphasis being placed on briefing that students sometimes mistake the completion or mastering of a brief as an end onto itself.

The truth is that while case briefing forms an integral part of lawyering and law school success, students often mistakenly believe that good briefs translate into good grades on an essay exam. However this belief is erroneous because it ignores outlining, which is the link between briefing and success on law school exams.

Most briefs consist of the following components: Facts / Issue / Rule / Analysis / Conclusion (FIRAC). Most law school exams contain: Issue / Rule / Analysis / Conclusion (IRAC). The structural similarity of the briefs and exam answers make it clear that the processes are related. The IRAC structure and organization of a final can only be automatic and natural if the structure is repeatedly practiced via the briefing process during the semester.

Additionally, if students are taught to brief in such a way that they compose the analysis section of the brief before composing the fact section, the meaning of a “legally relevant fact” becomes self-apparent. Only those facts used in the analysis section of a case brief are legally relevant. And only legally relevant facts need be in the fact section of a case brief. Similarly students should understand that a good analysis on an essay exam should contain enough facts for the reader of the analysis to recreate the essential facts of the question asked.

The difference between briefing and exam answer structure however is essentially issue spotting. The brief is based on a casebook section with a topic heading which gives a clear indication of what the issue of the case should be. On a final examination the challenge is to figure out what issues or rules of law are invoked by a set of facts with no topic heading attached.

This recognition of rules invoked by new facts is called issue spotting or more precisely rule spotting. It is mastered only by creating an almost reflexive association between certain types of facts and certain rules of law. Creating this association is the function of outlining.

Students should be taught that briefs allow them to practice an analytical structure or format. Outlining involves scouring those briefs for the essential facts which invoked the rule of law developed or taught in that case. It is this extracted fact nugget that should be put in an outline next to the rule of law related to it. This process of mining the briefs and juxtaposing essential facts with a rule of law results in a document called an outline.

Review of the outline and the associated repeated exposure to this juxtaposition of rule and fact results in similar facts on an essay exam invoking the relevant rule or issue. We call this issue spotting.

While briefing (and the associated paraphrasing or explaining of the court’s opinion in the analysis section) is an important aspect of teaching the structure of legal analysis and of long term memorization, students also need to be made aware that outlining or fact/rule association is a separate step in the process without which they will not be able to issue spot on the final examination.

Letting Students Run the Review

April 2015 Idea

By Aida M. Alaka, Washburn University School of Law

As the semester comes racing to a close, many faculty members are facing review sessions and the inevitable question of how best to conduct them. Trying to cover the entire course in a single session may be unrealistic and may inadvertently create a false impression that you only consider a limited subset of the course “important” in preparing for the final exam. Most of us don’t assign material we don’t consider important, and yet, students tend to put much stock in the content of reviews (and material omitted from reviews – even though omissions may be inadvertent). On the other hand, covering the course too generally may serve not much more of a purpose than reminding students of what they could easily discover if they simply reviewed the syllabus or course plan. Finally, just asking students to come prepared with questions might result in you facing a group of mute students who are all waiting for other students to ask questions. The ideally efficient, yet comprehensive, course review can be elusive, and I sometimes find myself issuing disclaimers at the review – “the omission of a particular nuance does not mean it is unimportant” – or unhelpful assurances – “everything we read and discussed is subject to testing.”

One way to avoid these potential pitfalls is (to borrow from Sophie Sparrow’s excellent February Idea) to let the students run the review. There are many ways of doing this but the key consideration is designing the review so that students actively engage in the process.

For example, at the end of the semester, or after each topical section during the course, assign one or two questions to each student individually or in groups and require them to answer their questions in writing and submit their answers to you in time for you to prepare the review session. I prefer to do this as group assignments because students learn from their engagement with other students in the problem-solving process. Old exam questions can be a useful source of review questions.

Alternatively, you can require all of your students to post questions to your course TWEN page if you have one or to otherwise provide them to you. To ensure adequate course coverage, you may assign students to particular topics. Group questions by topic and choose the best from each topic. As with the questions you draft, assign the students’ questions to other students to answer.

While students are researching their problems, prepare a power-point presentation with the questions you have chosen. Once the students have submitted their responses, you can finalize the power-point by:

  1. Putting the answer on a slide and asking the class whether the answer is true or false. This is particularly helpful when answers the students provide aren’t completely accurate or when several class members get the answer wrong. This method gives you (or another student) a chance to explain the answer with reference to the applicable law. To optimize student participation during the review session, call on other students to articulate and explain the correct answer.
  2. Putting the answer on a slide but not showing it until someone in the class has provided an answer. When the answer matches the one provided, you can quickly move on, unless students have questions about the answer. When, however, it does not, you (or another student) can explain the right answer with reference to the applicable law.

If you wish to enhance the game aspect of the review or increase the level of competitiveness among students, consider creating a competition among small groups for the most correct answers, perhaps providing small goodies to the winning team. (Of course, teams would not be allowed to answer their own questions.)

To give students the opportunity to review all of the questions before the review session, you might consider providing all of the questions to your class ahead of time. This might allow students more time to identify the concepts that truly confuse them as opposed to those they have simply forgotten. Having the students run the review by drafting and answering questions allows you to better address any remaining confusion.