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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.


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.