Idea of the Month
Student Advisory Team
We can get formative feedback about our classes by talking informally with our students about their reactions to our teaching methods. A more structured way to gather feedback from our students is through a student advisory team (SAT) - a group of students who meet every other week with the teacher. The students' role is to provide feedback to the teacher about their learning, comment on the effectiveness of particular instructional methods, and offer suggestions to improve the course. The teacher's role is to listen to students' feedback and to implement reasonable suggestions when appropriate.
When we initiate the SAT process in a course, we must decide how to respond to the students' feedback. Several types of responses are appropriate: (1) implement reasonable suggestions during the course; (2) explore with the team alternatives that we are more comfortable implementing; (3) explain why we will not act on a particular student recommendation; and (4) decide to make changes the next time we teach the course. It is common for some team members to be skeptical about the SAT process until we respond to their suggestions. The best way to motivate team members is for the teacher to immediately implement a team's suggestion.
Empirical research supports the value of SATs in legal education (Gerald F. Hess, Student Involvement in Improving Law Teaching and Learning, 67 UMKC Law Review 343 (1998)). Most team members report that their participation improved their attitude toward the course (98%), the teacher (94%), themselves as learners (82%), and law school in general (82%). In addition, most team members believe that the SAT process improved the course (94%), their learning (84%), and the teacher's effectiveness (92%).
Despite the data confirming the benefits of SATs in law school, SATs are not appropriate for every teacher. Success of the SAT process depends in part on the teacher's belief that students should share responsibility for course design and delivery with the teacher, that students can give accurate feedback on their learning and the effectiveness of teaching methods, and that they can provide useful suggestions for improvement. Even for teachers who hold these beliefs, SATs present significant challenges. The feedback is raw and honest - sometimes it is hard for the teacher to hear. The SAT is unlikely to succeed if the teacher is unwilling to implement reasonable student suggestions. The teacher must be willing to share control of the course with the students.
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O.K. Time for me to fess up. Although I have lots of experience using SATs in my courses, I have not used SATS in recent years. When I wrote about SATs 15 years ago, it was a pretty innovative idea. Now it seems like an old idea. But ideas should not be measured by words like "innovative" and "old." Instead, the measure should be whether the idea was effective in improving teaching and learning. By that measure, SATs were effective for my students and me. It is time for me to think about using a Student Advisory Team next semester - or to find another way to get feedback from students regularly throughout the course.
Videotaping Classes to Free Up Face to Face Time for Discussion
Necessity is the motherhood of invention. Recently a colleague, Heidi Holland, found herself in need of an inventive idea to help her make up a class she missed due to sickness. The class she needed to make up was teaching the students how to research in the Code of Federal Regulations. In the past, Heidi tried lecturing on it. Boring, she thought. She had also in the past tried taking the whole class (15 students) to the library and doing a hands-on activity. This proved to be too unwieldy with that many students. Her solution for the last couple of years had been to divide the class into small groups and take each small group through a hands-on lesson. This was working well until she had to miss class on Friday. Thus, she decided to videotape herself doing the research in the library with our IT person following her around the library with a camera.
Prior to watching the video, Heidi posted on TWEN 10 different Code of Federal Regulation fact patterns one of which the students must choose and research. Heidi picked one fact pattern to video and then she took the students through that fact pattern, showing them how they'd research it using the actual books. A separate answer sheet for the example fact pattern is also posted to TWEN, so if the students get lost, they can use those answers to find their way through the research. After they watched the video, then they can start researching one of the other fact patterns on the worksheet posted to TWEN. As an added bonus, students can watch the video as many times as is necessary.
Brilliant! I have always struggled with "lecturing" about research. It bores the students and has no practical implications for them until they see the actual books, which typically happens when they are alone in the library with no one to help them. This idea has broad implications, for doctrinal teachers, as well. For instance, if a civil procedure professor can walk her students through the lecture on joinder of parties via a video podcast, the professor could then save class time for an in-depth discussion of the cases. I can also see doctrinal professors using videotaping to go over a sample answer for a test. In this way, the professor can assign a sample question with which the students can practice writing an answer. Rather than spending class time to go over the sample answer, a professor could videotape himself walking through a sample answer. There seems to be endless uses for this technology.
Virtual Office Hours
Today was our first snow day at Washburn in a couple of years. It happened to fall only one week before my first-year students are due to turn in their midterm appellate briefs. Today I'd scheduled my last office hours before the last big "push" weekend, and I knew several students were counting on that time. So I did something I've never done before: I kept my normally scheduled office hours, but this time, in a TWEN chat room.
Yesterday, when I decided to announce these virtual office hours, I wondered whether they would attract a different group of students. I hoped to see some newcomers who had never (or rarely) come to office hours before. During the first several minutes of the session, I was glad to see some of my more regular students, armed with lists of excellent questions as always. And then a small victory: there were a few who had only ventured to my office once or twice before, and halfway through the session, two who had never come to office hours before.
Then I realized that there were surprising dynamics going on even with my "regulars." I encouraged the chat room members not to feel they had to fill the space. We could have silent time while they looked over notes and reflected on their recent writing struggles. It was very quiet at first, but then the questions really started to come. Students who are often very quiet in a group setting began to pipe up--something that normally could never occur in my small office consisting of three chairs and the hallway carpet for a waiting room. I also noticed that most students stayed in the chat room for almost the entire session, even though I can't be sure it was at full attention.
The contrast between virtual and regular office hours for both new and regular attendees made me realize that even when we do our best to keep the door open and to step out from behind our desks for student visitors, there is something about that small space filled with impatient email windows and buzzing cell phones that still sends the unintended message: I am busy and even though I am glad to help you, this meeting is interrupting my other work. With those factors removed, we instead had a dedicated space and time that really was carved out just for students.
Through this snow day experiment, I learned a great deal about the impact of space on the professor-student relationship. For that reason alone, I plan to repeat it, and I would enjoy hearing from you about your own adventures in virtual office space.
A few technical notes:
- Make sure you have the TWEN live discussion feature available on your TWEN site. (You may have turned it off when you originally created the course page.) You will also need to create a chat session. It only takes a moment.
- Do not turn on the moderator setting. Otherwise, student posts will be invisible unless you personally approve each and every one.
- I turned off the transcript feature in order to protect student privacy, but if your chat is more of a class review session and you'd like a transcript available to those not in attendance, consider informing students ahead of time that they are, for all intents and purposes, being recorded. You may also want to rethink a transcript if you have your TWEN page open to observers outside your law school (or rethink the public setting).
- Advise students to run the TWEN live discussion system test at least 10 minutes before the chat begins; I had to download a Java update before I could enter.
- If you've never chatted before, consider asking a friend to chat with you first in any ordinary chat room; I believe Facebook has one. You will get the hang of it in less than two minutes. TWEN's chat room looks pretty much like any other; you will see the list of students in attendance on the right, and a small window for composing your own posts is at the bottom. A running transcript appears on the top. In indicator above the composition window tells you who else is currently composing a message.
- As long as you type at a reasonable speed, you should not have trouble keeping up with questions. If you get a few simultaneously, you can ask students to hold their new questions for a moment while you catch up. You will be able to scroll up to see the questions if you get a little behind.
- Have all your materials with you so that you don't have to leave the computer. If you do have to leave quickly, you can use the abbreviation "brb," which your students will understand to mean "be right back." At one point I wrote "getting my Bluebook; brb."
- I allowed students to "lurk" and to enter and exit at will, but everyone ultimately asked questions.
- Have fun! Try to welcome students as they enter the "room." As with any online communication, be gentle with any humor as it can very easily be taken the wrong way. If a student jokes with you and you feel you need to respond lightly in kind, it might be better to lower yourself to emoticon (smiley) usage than to be misunderstood by others. Chances are, your students will be so focused on the assignment that the issue will not arise.
NIKE COMMERCIALS AND GOOD TEACHING: Just Do It!
My recent trip to the Republic Of Georgia with Michael Schwartz catalyzed the precipitation of formerly disjointed thoughts into this tangible comparison of an athletic shoe sales pitch to good teaching. While there, we presented on teaching methods and assessment to the most vibrant, devoted group of young legal academics I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Briefly, these law professors in the emerging former Soviet republic are driven to become excellent teachers preparing their students for the effective practice of law. This despite the fact most of them were paid the equivalent of approximately $300 U.S. dollars per semester for teaching at the law schools. Law school was therefore not their main source of income; they also had demanding and successful law practices in Georgia and internationally.
Yet, for the most part, they voluntarily attended these training sessions, actively participated in workshops, and took significant time away from their bread and butter careers because they were so driven to become better teachers. This is especially remarkable because it was the second time within one year that they sat through a four day, five hour per day presentation on teaching methods.
The reason for their devotion had to do with a strong emerging sense of nationalism, part of which included the idea that the younger generation would not be hindered by what they considered an inferior and insular Soviet education model.
The reviled Soviet model taught doctrine and considered legal education an academic transfer of knowledge which this generation considers ill-suited for the effective practice of law. As part of that effort to reform legal education, a USAID grant facilitated my trip to Georgia.
What I found ironic is the young professors' unanimous worry that those still employed Soviet-era pure academics would shrug off all the modern approaches to teaching which involve providing assessment, feedback, teaching with tangible outcomes in mind, and applying modern learning theory as a dumbing down of legal education. The familiar refrain from the old guard was that legal education in Georgia was all about teaching lawyers to "think like lawyers."
Surprisingly this is the same response that typically comes from established U.S. academics when efforts to reform legal education in the United States are considered, even when those efforts are based on studies such as Carnegie and Best Practices which incorporate modern learning theory. Erwin Chemerinsky, a much more respected scholar and academic than I could ever be, recently stated at a conference on law school construction that only law professors get away with the justification that our job is to teach people to think like lawyers rather than to be lawyers, which Carnegie and Best Practices advocate. Chemerinsky jokingly asked the rhetorical question: "How would you feel just as you were going under the anesthetic if your brain surgeon said, 'Don't worry they taught me how to think like a doctor in medical school?'"
My initial response to the young Georgians' concerns was that the old guard was looking for an excuse to not have to do things differently than they had for many years. Class prep for these Soviet era educators involved pulling out 15 year old notes, asking the same questions and discussing doctrine they could discuss in their sleep by now. Total teaching prep time was therefore little more than the actual class time, required very little effort and left time for many other attempts to improve professional status and respect among their peers.
I think the time has come to decide if legal educators are teachers. If we are teachers, then there are many studies and reports that describe what good teaching is. Part of our job as teachers is to make sure that we do not conveniently rely on pedagogical methods suggested in the late 1800s, but rather make the effort to consider modern pedagogical theory and incorporate it into our class room time.
All the modern education studies absolutely mention the need for reality based instruction, the need for feedback, and for multimodal presentation of materials. All of these things require inordinately more prep time and thought about classroom presentation than is currently considered normatively acceptable.
I asked Erwin Chemerinsky how he could realistically expect Professors to incorporate feedback, assessment, and other labor intensive teaching recommendations yet still have time for scholarship. His response, as everything Chemerinsky, was brilliant and brief, "That's what summers are for."
I do not have the answer but after Georgia we should at least honestly ask ourselves a question: is U.S. resistance to Carnegie, Best Practices and the ABA outcomes based education model really anything more than hesitance to "just do it," because just doing it involves a lot more time and effort than we currently devote to class time?
Teaching Students to Work Effectively with Others
How ready are law students for the kinds of collaboration they will face when they practice law? The MacCrate Report, the 2008 study by Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck (Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: A New Assessment for Use in Law School Admission Decisions (2008) 36 Law & Social Inquiry 620 (2011) and recent interviews with practicing lawyers note the importance of collaboration. Whether working in large or small firms, non-profit organizations, businesses, or governmental entities, all attorneys spoke about the need for lawyers to listen effectively, be willing to admit ignorance, and work well with a wide range of people.
We can help our students develop interpersonal skills and prepare for their future careers by infusing our courses with collaborative experiences. We can also help them by explaining the importance of these skills to their future careers and giving them feedback on their interactions. In addition, we can build on the experiences many of our students are getting in college, where teamwork and collaboration are frequently emphasized. For example, one college career office tells students that a hot current interview question is "Tell us about a time when you were working on a team and you ran into a conflict." The best response would discuss the situation, explain the conflict, and show how the job applicant helped resolve the conflict in a positive way. The answer should take no more than two minutes, with at least half the time devoted to discussing the resolution. The resolution should include concrete outcomes such as, "We went on to raise $6,000." The interviewer should come away with the impression that the job applicant was an effective problem-solver, leader, and team player.
We can give our students practice collaborating in a variety of ways. A simple approach is using a one-minute "think-write-pair-share" where students think about a response to a question, make a few notes, and then share their response with one or two neighbors. All students get the chance to talk about their response and listen to a colleague. It's not a great deal of interpersonal skill building, but it's an improvement over none at all. A more elaborate strategy is to use team-based learning for one or more course modules, where students work in teams to solve problems and complete tests and projects. (More on team-based learning in law can be found at http://lawteaching.org/teaching/teambasedlearning/). Between a one-minute pair exercise and team-based learning lie a number of collaborative exercises that, if well designed, can help our students develop effective interpersonal skills.
Every semester a number of students resist collaborative work, stating that they are in school to learn the law, "not some touchy-feely stuff," like interpersonal skills. We can respond that we have a bigger responsibility, teaching them to be lawyers, which includes working well with others. Explaining the reasons for collaborative work doesn't end all complaints, but it does let them know that we are trying to prepare them to succeed professionally.
Bad Days in the Classroom - Looking Back and Moving Forward
Most of us have bad days in the classroom. We get confused and pull our students into that confusion. Students are listless, disengaged, and less prepared than we expect. Our great idea for a new way to approach a topic falls flat. Now what?
Here's a process I've stumbled upon after three decades of teaching, including countless class periods that didn't go quite as I had hoped.
Phase 1. Feel bad. During the class, my inner critic tells me, "This is not going well." Immediately after class, my inner critic gives me unsolicited feedback, such as: "That really did not go well. Perhaps the students were to blame. No, wait, you were the problem. What were you thinking when you came up with that plan for class?" Etc.
Phase 2. Do something to silence the inner critic. I want my inner critic to shut up. He (she) is not helping me. I dive into some other project. Committee work suddenly looks appealing. Time to read email and respond to messages I've been ignoring. Grab my workout clothes and head to the gym.
Phase 3. Look back at the class and identify what went well and not so well. After muting my inner critic, or at least lowering the volume, I spend a few minutes finding good aspects of the class. I try to focus more on student learning than on my "performance." Student comments in class indicated that they understood _____. Student questions showed that they were struggling appropriately with a difficult issue. The diagram of _____ on the board or a slide seemed to help frame the topic. Then I spend a few minutes identifying exactly what parts of the class did not work as I had hoped. The problems were too easy or too hard for most students. We got sidetracked on a tangent that did nothing to add to student learning. A student made a comment that some would consider offensive and I did not deal with it well, or at all. The lecture, simulation, small group activity, etc. didn't add to students' knowledge, skills, or professionalism.
Phase 4. Generate an idea to improve the class. Sometimes as I'm engaged in phase 3 I immediately have ideas to address the weak aspects of the class. Often, however, the "fixes" come to me slowly, over time. Either way, I try to write down those ideas, usually in my class notes, so I remember these ideas the next time I teach the course.
Phase 5. Prepare to have a good day. Nothing helps me get past a bad day as much as a good day. And the best way for me to have a good day is to prepare well and walk in to class enthused about being with my students in that fascinating interpersonal, intellectual, professional environment we call the classroom.
Who Are You Inviting to Your Class This Semester?
A colleague invites at least one practicing lawyer to speak in every course. As associate dean, she asked her colleagues to do the same. Why? Because practicing lawyers bring a fresh perspective. Students learn first-hand about how the course material applies in the real world. And when the guest conveys her excitement about practicing law, students are inspired and reminded why they went to law school.
I often invite an alumnus, an enthusiastic and experienced litigator, to speak to my Torts class. One year he brought his colleague from another firm, also an alumnus. Together they had successfully tried a sexual discrimination case against a national employer. In class, they showed trial exhibits, told great stories about tracking down witnesses, and spoke compassionately about their client. Nothing I had said or done in class had the same impact about the importance of gathering facts and treating clients with respect.
But best of all, these two lawyers really enjoyed what they did. Trying the case required them to spend weeks away from their families, working around the clock in a small rented house. They hadn't known each other before working on the case, didn't always agree, and were under incredible pressure, yet they clearly had a good time together. In the classroom they joked around, interrupted each other's sentences, and got the whole class laughing.
Afterwards a number of students commented that they never thought that lawyers could have so much fun. They were surprised that the attorneys didn't take themselves too seriously and loved their infectious enthusiasm. The students learned about not just what lawyers do, but who they could be. Many of my students were struggling to gain confidence at the beginning of their new chosen profession; in that class they realized that they could be successful without having to change who they were. I would love students to learn that message every semester.
Finding guests to speak is relatively easy. I ask former students and get names from our Alumni Director and colleagues. Depending on schedules and my teaching goals, guests may come for all or part of a class. They may be on a panel or alone. To prepare the students, I post information about the guest and sometimes ask students to read documents involving the guest's practice. In class, students are asked to close their laptops and just listen. And every year, on students' final course evaluations, some write that guests were the best part of the course.
What I Learned This Summer (About Multiple-Choice Assessment)
This summer, I taught Professional Responsibility to about 60 students, a large number of whom were scheduled to take the August MPRE. While I was committed not to let the class turn into a bar prep course, I saw it as a great opportunity to help students improve their multiple-choice testing skills for the MPRE and Multi-State Bar Examination. This idea of the month concerns how to take the leap into multiple-choice question design with the understanding that it is a growth process.
I knew that I had a lot to learn, as I normally teach only paper courses. I'd written what seemed to be effective, straightforward multiple-choice questions for in-class assessment in a previous doctrinal course, so I thought it would not be too hard to improve my skills. I was wrong. I read some of the excellent guides below, but found that effectively putting that advice into practice still required a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, I did grow slowly but steadily in multiple-choice skills, and I believe the students did, too. I hope that they also learned from some of my errors and our discussions about them.
Despite reading some of the excellent literature below, I still fell into some newbie traps, particularly in the first half of the term.
» My answer selections often tried to test too many things at the same time: applying the correct rule, applying the rule to facts, distinguishing from related concepts, and so on, all in the same question.
» I had a hard time finding the appropriate line between what students should have to read into the question for basic legal context and common knowledge, versus what I needed to supply in order to avoid multiple correct answers.
» Overreliance on "all of the above" and similar answers when they didn't serve an additional purpose, such as to test whether students knew all three elements of a rule.
» Using fact patterns from in-class discussion in testing, but with nuanced alterations to the facts, which seemed to increase the risk of improper recall more than it tested for understanding.
» Omitting facts that would make the rule application clearer to students who understood the rules. I had a tendency to hold back a little on explaining the facts to make the questions harder. What I found from the students' challenges was that they understood the rules well but struggled to choose from among two best answers because the facts could be read multiple ways. The increased difficulty decreased, rather than increased, their confidence in knowing the rules.
Meanwhile, I managed to do a few things right (at least most of the time).
» Keep fact patterns as short as possible. Do not include extra "story-telling" facts that do not have a clear purpose in the problem, which is usually to eliminate a grey area in the rule application.
» Avoid silly names and outrageous scenarios. They overload the senses and distract from the purpose of the question, which is to test critical thinking and/or recall. Most of my actors were named "Lawyer," "Client," etc.
» When there are two actors, consider making them opposing genders so that the problem is easier to follow.
» When testing about an area with unsettled authority, it's best to center answer choices around which rule to apply, or the "best argument" one party can use.
» Remember that dozens of intelligent students more likely to find the troubling ambiguities or omissions in your questions than a single, intelligent professor. Consider implementing a multiple-choice challenge procedure on your course website. It should include firm deadlines and a requirement to cite and argue authority, where appropriate.
» Susan M. Case & Beth Donahue, "The One-Page Guide to Writing Multiple-Choice Questions" (developed for the National Conference of Bar Examiners).
» Susan M. Case & Beth Donahue, "Developing High-Quality Multiple-Choice Questions for Assessment in Legal Education," 58 Journal of Legal Education 372 (2008) [Read fulltext in HeinOnline; subscription required].
» Mike Dickinson, "Writing Multiple-Choice Questions for Higher-level Thinking," Learning Solutions Magazine (December 5, 2011).
» The eLearning Coach, "10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions."
» Janet Fisher, "Multiple-Choice: Choosing the Best Options for More Effective and Less Frustrating Law School Testing," 37 Capital University Law Review 119 (2008).
» Steven Friedland, "Test Builder, 7:1 The Law Teacher, 6-7 (Fall 1999).
Teaching Statutory/Rule Interpretation
One of the most challenging aspects for any law professor should be teaching a rule or statute based class; for example Civil Procedure. These classes are the exception rather than the norm in law school. As a result, most law students, by sheer force of repetition and exposure, whether it be in Torts Contracts, Con Law, Criminal Law or Criminal Procedure (you get the picture) leave law school at least fairly able to brief a case and analyze legal arguments.
Most law students however, may not be as comfortable with understanding basic concepts and techniques in statutory interpretation. The reason for this is that the importance of contextualization of statutory text is often overlooked. Here is an example of an exercise (26 KB PDF) that promotes student contextualization of statutory text to promote the understanding of the statute and to enable students to engage in metacognition of what they need to do to understand statutory text.
This in class exercise may be used to provide a basic understanding of the pleading rules (F.R.C.P 7-11) in Civil Procedure.
1. Assign the pleading rules to the students to read for the class in which the exercise will be administered;
2. When the students come into class distribute the attached complaint;
3. Certain sections of the complaint are enclosed in text boxes (see the attached complaint);
4. Break the students into small groups and have them read the complaint;
5. Ask students to work in groups, figure out and write down which of the pleading rules is/are relevant to each boxed in section of the complaint, and what text of the rules makes them relevant.
6. Debrief the answers as a class, asking the small groups what rules governed each of the textboxes.
If you try this exercise you might be surprised at how much they learn the following on their own:
1. The importance of careful rule reading;
2. The importance of contextualization of statutory text to glean statutory meaning;
3. How to contextualize;
4. How best they learn the rules.
(This is because the exercise caters to different learning preferences:
i. Visual learners are facilitated by the completed complaint;
ii. Experiential learners are facilitated by the activity of problem solving;
iii. Collaborative learners are facilitated by the collaboration necessitated by the small group work.)
One of the main things this exercise does for professors is to force them to think about their own student learning goals. Without thinking about and getting concrete ideas of what we want the students to get out of our classes it is impossible to develop plan an exercise that facilitates student learning of those goals.
Nothing I Say is All That Important
While conducting a teaching workshop recently, my co-presenter responded to my breathless suggestion that we needed to make a particular point after the break by saying, "Nothing we say is all that important." His point, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is much more complex, insightful, and empathic than it appears at first glance. (In the moment, what I most recall is feeling annoyed at my co-presenter, especially because he was right.)
The first lesson of this insight for me is that students (or those who attend a teaching workshop) are very unlikely to remember, much less implement, something we merely say during a class session. We know that only a small percentage of the population is likely even to remember anything they merely hear. Law professors often complain, as they read their students' exam answers, "But I told them _________." Telling is seldom teaching. If we want our students to remember something, we need to do something that will cause them to remember it. Cognitivists argue that students remember what they actively process; constructivists argue that students remember what they figure out for themselves based on authentic learning activities we create. I don't care which school of thought is right; I just need to know that telling is not teaching.
The second lesson for me is that no one piece of knowledge is all that significant. While I believe that knowledge is important, even critical, no one byte of knowledge matters all that much, and the most important learning outcomes are values and skills because those gifts last for life.
The final lesson is that, even if I do everything according to the teaching methods ideal, my students still may not learn everything that I wish them to learn. Dr. Benjamin Bloom's mastery learning model is premised on the idea that teaching succeeds if 80% of the learners learn 80% of what the teacher was trying to teach.
My hope is that, when my co-presenter reads this idea, he feels pretty good about his success with one learner. Me.
Lasting Deep Learning
Here's a scary thought. Imagine sending a survey to our former students three years after graduation from law school asking them to identify important things they learned in a course we taught. To make the survey a bit more precise, we could ask students to articulate critical knowledge, skills, and values they learned deeply enough to remember 3-5 years after taking our course.
Would we be pleased with the knowledge, skills, and values our former students recall? Would they be able to identify anything important that they learned?
Of course, not everything we teach is designed to create lasting, deep learning. Some of our course goals are more modest. We may intend portions of our course to prepare students for other law school courses or to succeed on the bar exam. But surely parts of our courses are designed to foster longer-term learning.
A valuable exercise for most of us would be to articulate the few aspects of knowledge, skills, and values for each course we teach that we hope our students will carry with them after graduation. Here are examples from three courses I teach.
» In Civil Procedure, the concept of "due process" provides an organizational theme underlying much of the doctrine we study.
» In Environmental Law, a critical skill is to use seven elements of statutory analysis to understand complex statutes and regulations and to effectively advocate for a client.
» In Litigation Skills and Professionalism, fundamental professional values include the three Rs - respect, responsibility, and reputation.
Did my students learn those items deeply? Would they identify them as important things they recall several years after graduation?
I don't know. But the next time I teach my courses, I am going to identify for myself and my students the critical knowledge, skills, and values that I hope will stay with them into practice. And then I'm going to teach the course in ways expressly designed to lead to deep learning of those items. How? That will have to wait for another Idea of the Month....
Bringing Reality Back Into the Classroom
Bringing real life cases to our classrooms for students to work on breathes life into any class. Every spring, I teach Legal Research and Writing IV, a two credit course dedicated solely to contract drafting, and every spring, I struggle to come up with good problem sets to use which are not too involved or too in-depth, research-wise. I also struggle to find a problem set which interests the students and won't bore me when grading time rolls around. This year the answer came to me through some community service work I do. A local non-profit was looking to start holding fundraising raffles at some of their events, but needed to make some changes to their by-laws and needed to have a written policy on conducting these raffles. After consulting with our law school's clinic and the director of the legal writing department, I contacted the client and set up an initial meeting between my students and the client. Using my law license and the clinic's malpractice insurance, my class contracted with the local non-profit to do the work at no charge.
The difference I am viewing in my students' attitudes, their work ethic, their enthusiasm, and their work product is astounding. My students always work hard, but now that they are working for a real client, the earnestness is clear. Daily, my students are prepared, motivated, curious, and serious. When they work in groups, every group is focused. When they turn in drafts, the drafts look like final papers. And when they meet with the clients, they are very poised, professional, and prepared. No matter how hard I have tried to sell my fake "client" situations in the past, it has never motivated the students like this real client situation. Not only has it pushed my students, but it has pushed me to be a better and more prepared professor. The message has been received by the students; it is never OK to be unprepared. The results of this experiment are still in process, but the early results are favorable. I am just finishing up their client letters which lay out the legal options for the client. These letters are outstanding, very professional and complete.
The experiment, however, has come with its drawbacks. First, we have had to change the project several times to please the client, which is normal in practice but not normal for students, who still thrive on predictability. Second, I have had to turn around documents really quickly to stay on schedule for the client. Lastly, as there is a real client, I could not limit the research or problem. My students had to look at every statute, every regulation, and every case to make sure the advice was sound. This created more work for them and for me than I would normally assign in a two credit class.
The positives of this experiment, however, outweigh the negatives. The students are excited every day and for every class. The students have not complained about the changes in schedule or the amount of work, as they see it as what the client needs rather than what I am "forcing" them to do. The students have learned how to draft a client letter, starting an attorney-client relationship, limit their responsibilities with a client, change by-laws, draft a policy, and think of long term ramifications of their actions.
I have so enjoyed this experience, I am currently trying to incorporate real life into the rest of my classes. For instance, I am in the process of contacting area attorneys to see if there is an area that needs to be researched so that I can pose that problem to my first year objective writing students. The lesson here is the more real life we can bring to the classroom, the more learning that is taking place between students and professors.
Starting in the Middle of Things
February has graced us and we've broken the seal on the new semester. Although the time has passed for planning just what that very first introductory day of the semester, I think now is a fairly good point in the semester to assess how that day went and to change things for the next time if needed. Some might think that when it comes to the first introductory day of the semester, it's a toss-off day filled with busy "housekeeping" work for the class. But the first introductory day of a course is a particularly important day for instruction because this is that first "Hello, there" between instructor and students. This day grounds the rest of the class days of the course. This day sets the tone of the course. It is really the make-or-break day.
Interestingly, I have found that I prefer starting the course in medias res (i.e., in the middle of things)–or at least seemingly so with my students. I want to capture the students' attention in the course and set up the subject matter in a way that allows them immediate engagement, allows them to get into the course as soon as possible. I'm not concerned with introducing myself. Instead, I borrow a technique from storytelling and set up a factual situation involving the entire body of law that we're about to embark upon for the remainder of the semester-a pretty encompassing hypothetical or a problem that walks my students through the major tenets of whatever law I'm teaching them.
For instance, I've given a mock exam on the first day of my Products Liability course. Without even introducing myself, I walked into the lecture hall that first day and started passing out a 1-page product defect hypo that involved all the major doctrinal issues of the course. I cajoled the students to complete the exam by claiming that the exam was possibly worth up to 5% of their grade and that they had nearly the entire hour to complete the exam. And although they had no law to accurately answer the question, I had instructed only to use the law that they had remembered between first-year Torts and Contracts. After time's up, I went over the fact pattern and walked students through a discussion of all the major tenets of Products Liability that was demonstrated by the issues embedded in the fact pattern. For those students bearing the deer-in-the-headlights look about an early exam affecting their grade, I revealed that the exam was worth only participation points.
There are several pedagogical reasons for this choice:
(1) students immediately saw the kinds of facts that trigger product defect litigation, which was at the crux of the course;
(2) with only limited knowledge on the law (from their recollections), students had to negotiate between Torts and Contracts to resolve the fact pattern, which is mimetic of the fundamental struggle courts face between the two bodies of law in Products Liability;
(3) students walk away with a comprehensive fact pattern involving most of the major issues of the course, a fact pattern they can revisit throughout the semester to double-check and see how much they had progressed in terms understanding the course;
(4) students can begin forming a roadmap of the doctrinal topics of the course;
(5) by collecting the students' answers, I have a file of diagnostic exams that allows me to quickly address exam writing issues with certain students; and
(6) last but not always least, giving an exam on the first allows me, the instructor, to set the tone or authority in the course.
I've done this with several variations. For my Remedies class, this semester, I gave a problem on Powerpoint visuals that told a story about a construction remodeling job that went bad and set up hypotheticals that demonstrated to students that roadmap of the class (Damages, Equity, and Restitution). When I was teaching strictly academic support courses, I gave out a Torts hypo and started the course by dividing the class into two sides of a litigation and paired students up to do oral arguments. From their arguments, however novice, I was able to point out what resembled legal reasoning, what kinds of facts were important, what kinds of rhetoric was available in persuasive reasoning, and anything else skills-wise that would be helpful.
And then of course we talk about the syllabus, the course policies, and all that other good stuff.
Washburn University School of Law
Using Formative Assessment to Speed Up Doctrinal Coverage
Many professors, especially those teaching bar courses such as torts and contracts, struggle with what appears to be two conflicting goals: coverage and analytical skills training. However, it is possible to increase your doctrinal coverage while also helping students develop their analytical skills and exam preparation by using the assessment process to develop and review the substantive material. This synergistic combination of assessment and coverage can be effectively achieved through active learning exercises carefully designed with specific goals in mind.
The primary goal of such exercises is to encourage students to understand, independently and on their own terms, the concept of legal analysis. It encourages students to apply the substantive material they have just covered by figuring out how the material might be used on a final essay examination. Ultimately, these exercises encourage students to come up with their own schema and contexts for what legal analysis is and to review the substantive law they have just learned I have provided links to one such exercise (31 KB PDF) and the teacher's guide to the exercise (30 KB PDF) but will also briefly describe the exercise. As with any good active learning methodology, you will get a better sense of the idea if you to try the exercise yourself. Consequently, my description of it is deliberately general.
The gist of the exercise is that students are provided a fact pattern based on a topic they have just covered. Additionally, they are provided with an incomplete IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion) essay answer to the problem. The answer is incomplete because only the issues, rules, conclusions and very small fragments of the analysis are supplied.
Students are asked to fill in the blanks in the analysis section of the essay. In this way, they are asked to do legal analysis in a safe setting where the distractions and stresses of the other skills they are also learning in law school, such as issue spotting and rule memorization, are not present. They work in groups on this task and the process allows them to understand the following:
1. The substantive topic;
2. The appropriate use of facts in legal analysis;
3. The idea that facts can be used more than once in legal analysis;
4. The reality that a fact may support different conclusions;
5. The art of counter arguing;
6. The difference between facts and inferences.
The exercise takes only one class period. Don't take my word for it— try it in class. The learning outcomes are greater than the sum of the parts of the exercise. Your students will not only learn the doctrine but will also understand how to apply it. More generally, this exercise also demonstrates that students learn more when their teachers get out of the way.
Moving Lectures Outside of the Classroom
In higher education, it is almost axiomatic that students read and study problems in preparation for lecture, even if lecture is only one part of an otherwise active classroom experience. But what if smaller lectures could be used as preparation, freeing up that classroom time for discussion and practical application? This month, Inside Higher Ed featured a Central Michigan University professor in Marketing who is doing just that. Professor Mike Garver lectures not to his live classroom, but to his webcam.
To provide his students more opportunities to apply knowledge and develop skills, Dr. Garver assigns students to view a small number of short video podcasts on the lecture topics before class, presumably along with some readings. In class, he reinforces and assesses the students' learning with clicker questions, and then uses the rest of class time for small group work. Over time, he has learned to favor a few shorter clips over longer, traditional-length recorded lectures, which have the same (if not worse) problems as long in-person lectures. He sometimes combines the clips with PowerPoint slides, much like a "webinar." For further details, see an additional feature on Dr. Garver's approach from TurningTechnologies.com.
Finally, for advice and instructions on how to create your own video podcasts, see also the following presentation materials from the Institute's 2011 summer conference: John F. Murphy, YouTube Pedagogy: A Practical Guide.
Capturing Thoughts About the Semester
As the end of the semester comes into view, it's easy to focus on end of the semester exams, papers, grading, wrapping up fall projects, and looking ahead to spring. Before the semester ends, though, consider taking a few minutes to capture your thoughts about this fall. What has gone well? What, in retrospect, would you change? These notes can provide valuable insights for the next time you teach those courses.
I have learned this lesson the hard way - many times. At the end of each semester, I feel as if I am at the end of a long run, panting heavily as I seek to cross the finish line without stumbling. And in the fall, it feels even more of a challenge. In the spring, even though there are similar demands, there is a bit of time to recuperate after graduation, and summer vacation to look forward to. The end of the fall semester, however, presents holidays, AALS, and spring courses immediately following. It always feels like a rush to finish grading and then spin around to be ready to help a new group of students learn.
Toward the end of a course, I always feel that I should have done more for students. I should have given them more chances to engage in active learning, improved the active learning assignments I used, provided them with more opportunities for practice and feedback, and more effectively connected them to what lawyers do. I feel that I should have helped the students learn more skills, values and doctrine, and I wish I had taken more time to get to know my students better as individuals. "I'll do things differently next time," I tell myself. But as the spring semester approaches, I rarely take the time to capture my thoughts about what, exactly, I want to do differently, and how I will make that happen. And I forget that as I engage in spring teaching and projects, the present will crowd out my memory of the fall.
As I turn to preparing fall courses over the summer, I remember that I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do differently, but I can't recall most of the specifics. Sometimes I am lucky to find cryptic notes in my syllabus, course materials, class notes or teaching journals about what I wanted to change and how I was going to do it. Usually, however, the notes are insufficient to help me truly revise to help students learn. I come across notes to myself that say things like, "have students spend more time on proximate cause," which provides some guidance, but doesn't tell me what didn't go well and offers suggestions on ways that I might try to improve student learning.
This fall I plan to take my own advice and take some time to capture my thoughts about what went well and what I want to change. I know that my memory will again be flawed, and if I try to keep all my ideas in my head, I will be sure to overlook many of them. If I succeed in capturing these thoughts, I suspect I will have a new challenge: finding the file. My hope is that even if I can't locate the fall semester file, by writing down my thoughts and ideas, more of them will stick.
The Good Faith Explanation
"There is a good faith explanation for other people's behavior." That principle can help keep us healthy as teachers, lawyers, and humans. As teachers, we should assume good faith on the part of our students and colleagues. As lawyers, we should begin with the premise that clients and opposing lawyers are acting in good faith. As people, we can enhance our relationships with friends and family by assuming the best in other people.
In my life as a teacher, I try to operate under the assumption that there is a good faith explanation for my students' actions. But sometimes I drift away from this assumption. Nearly every time that I lose sight of my good faith assumption, students act in ways that remind me why I should not have strayed from the principle.
A recent example of my misplaced assumptions came out of a midterm exam that my 1L students completed. My midterm was the first graded feedback most 1Ls received in their law school careers. Students got their scores and began to review their exams on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, we had our first class together after students had received their scores. I saved the last five minutes of class to talk about the midterm and to invite students to meet with me to review their performance.
When the last five minutes of class arrived, I began my comments about the midterms. Two minutes into my comments, with three minutes of class to go, students began packing up. A couple students stood up, ready to leave. As I continued to speak, I was getting mystified and irritated. Thoughts raced through my head - "My students are being disrespectful; they have never before acted this way at the end of class; they must be really upset about the midterm; I deserve better treatment than this..."
After concluding my comments, I returned to my office and began meeting with students about their midterm performance. After reviewing an exam with a student who performed very poorly on the exam, he said, "Do you know why we packed up early today?" I thought, "Oh boy, this is going to be ugly..." He then said, "We all felt really bad about packing up early, but a tutor scheduled a review session to prepare us for another midterm in a room that holds only 25 people and told us that only the first 25 students to arrive would be able to participate."
Yep, that would be a good faith explanation for my students' behavior. I began my next class by writing on the board "good faith explanation" and recounted for my students how I forgot that principle at the end of our last class and how their behavior reminded me, one more time, why my life as a teacher, lawyer, and person is better when I assume that there is a good faith explanation for other people's behavior. We all had a good laugh and proceeded as though I had not fallen of the good faith wagon.
Let the Students Make Mistakes
Whereas this idea might seem obvious to some or too scary to others, I finally feel comfortable letting the students as a class go down the wrong road completely because I can use that mistake to help them learn. Professors often feel that they need to guide students toward the right answer. But what happens when we allow them to guide themselves to the wrong answer? I strongly believed that learning would be more meaningful and deeper.
To prove this theory, I provided my first year legal research and writing students with three edited cases for their first closed research writing assignment. The students read the cases, and we began learning how to spot issues and synthesize the cases. In class, we put a synthesis chart on the board and started to fill in the details for each issue. I knew the students would be fooled into thinking there were four issues and not three because one case mentions an extra issue in passing. When teaching this in the past, I did not even put that "false" issue on the chart but merely explained why the students were mistaken. I always felt that they did not "buy" my opinion, but simply accepted it because I am the professor and they have only been in law school a week.
This time, however, I added the "false" issue to the chart. The students tried to fill in the details regarding the rule, facts, reasoning, etc., regarding that "false" issue. They really struggled. That struggle allowed me to have an in-depth and engaged discussion with the class. We discussed what a "true" issue is, how the reasoning shapes that decision, etc. In the end, the students did not have to simply "accept" what I said, but they really understood why the false issue did not belong on the chart.
As another semester begins, now is the perfect time to plan your first day of class. While it is always helpful for a professor to give out her own course objectives to students at the very beginning of the course, here's a technique to invite students to develop their own objectives, whether personal or professional, for the course. This exercise—using makeshift "time capsules"—will assist students and will help your students see your course as personally meaningful. This exercise works best if you do it very shortly after you have introduced your course objectives.
Here is the suggestion:
(1) Use blank sheets of loose-leaf paper for individual time capsules and pass out one sheet to each student.
(2) Invite students to take a few moments to reflect upon the introduction of the course—especially now that you have presented what the class experience might be like and have announced the logistics of the course (e.g., reading materials, assignments, examinations, policies, etc.).
(3) Ask students to write down what they would like to get out of the course that they might not have thought of when they enrolled in the class. Purposely ask "what you would like to get out of the course" (or something similar) so that this task is broad enough to allow students to design all sorts of different objectives ranging from skills-related goals (e.g., "I'm hoping to use the case readings in this course to deepen my abilities to read critically") to professional goals (e.g., "I am taking this course on Agency because I'm interested in practicing employment law and would like to sharpen my understanding of employer-employee relationships."). Invite students to write down as many goals as the time allows.
(4) Now ask students to take their written objectives and brainstorm how they will achieve those objectives (e.g., "I'm hoping to use the case readings in this course to deepen my abilities to read critically by always taking an assigned case and asking how a judge who might have disagreed with the opinion would analyze the facts of the case differently."). Give examples so your students get a sense of your expectations.
(5) After students have finished writing both their objectives and plans for achieving those objectives, ask students to fold their sheet of paper in half and write their names on the folded paper. Then pass around a hand-held stapler and have students staple together the open ends of the paper in order to seal what they've written. They have now created their "time capsules."
(6) Finally, collect the time capsules from students, making sure that the students have written their names on their capsules. Tell them that you will not read their objectives but that you will return their time capsules at some point in the semester.
(7) Midway through the semester, have the time capsules placed in your students' school mailboxes. Do not make announcements about passing back the time capsules until after they have been returned to the students. Students seem to enjoying getting the time capsules back as a surprise. When they have received the time capsules and re-visited their own written objectives for themselves in this course, ask students to evaluate how they are doing in terms of reaching their objectives—whether they are meeting their goals and/or need to develop new ways of achieving them or whether they now have new objectives for themselves and need to come up with plans for accomplishing the new objectives. You could also tie the exercise back to the course and ask whether there is anything you can change in how you are teaching the class to help them further their own course objectives. At that point you may even choose to do another round of time capsules. All in all, the time capsule exercise serves as a very low-tech, understated way to do some meaningful personal goal-setting at the start of the semester and then some quick subsequent evaluation so that you, the instructor, can foster another relationship dimension between the course and the students. Hopefully it's another technique to make classes more student-centered and meaningful.
* Variations on this exercise could involve course and/or personal student expectations instead of personal objectives. Or an instructor could ask students to list several questions about the subject matter of the course in their time capsules (e.g., "What happens to the gifts in a will if the person who is supposed to receive the gifts dies before the testator?"). Then, when the capsules are passed back, the capsule can serve as a reminder to pay attention because the course will soon be addressing their questions. Although the make-shift time capsules are quite simple, stagnant pieces of paper, the possibilities for their use are far reaching.
Washburn University School of Law
Two Simple Ideas for the Start of Classes in August
As we slide into that inevitable summer moment when we realize that we are not even close to accomplishing all we had dreamed of accomplishing over the summer, it is worthwhile considering a couple of easy-to-implement ideas that can make a significant difference in your student's learning and well-being.
The research is overwhelming that students learn more and feel better about it when they feel their teachers care about them as individuals. Consequently, as I suggested in the September 2009 "Idea of the Month", it is a great idea to take the time to know the names of all your students. Likewise, as Gerry Hess proposed in the August 2010 "Idea of the Month", it is especially wonderful to greet students by name as they walk in the room on the first day of class.
The two suggestions in this month's "Idea of the Month" take these ideas one step further. First, ask each student to complete an index card on the first day of class on which they report their names, why they are in law school, one concern about your class or something they are excited about in connection with your class, and one other, interesting fact they want you to know about them. You can use these cards in two ways. Most simply, you can shuffle the cards each day and call on students based on whose names rose to the top of the pile that day; this approach is an easy way to send the message that being prepared every day matters.
More importantly, you can use the cards to connect with students on a deeper level. Send them each an e-mail commenting on what they wrote on their cards. If the student is in law school to work for the ACLU and you worked with the ACLU, share your connection and your experience. If the student wants you to know he is nervous about your class because he was a music major in college, suggest some connections between mastering a musical instrument and mastering lawyering skills. And if a student is a huge fan of the local baseball team and you also are, communicate your shared fanaticism. These connections create a relationship between you and your students, humanize you, and demonstrate your interest in your students as individuals.
Second, if a student is absent from class one day, send him/her an e-mail inquiring after her/his health and tell the student what s/he missed. Your students will get the message that you care about their well-being and success in your class. You are sending the message that the student's absence was significant to you; you noticed.
Try out these relatively small interventions; you will be surprised by your new level of connection with your students. And they will be more eager to learn and, according to the research, will better learn what you have to teach.
Making Time to Reflect on Your Teaching
Once you have submitted final grades, you may have a few moments to breathe. You may want to jump into tackling all the important work-related projects that have been waiting-scholarship, conference presentations, course preparation, office cleaning-in addition to planning a vacation, filing delayed tax returns, grilling, and gardening.
As you wrap up the semester, we also invite you to make time to reflect. In transitioning from the structure of a teaching schedule to more flexible days some of us immediately want to fill the time with a host of activities. Making the time to reflect-yes, actually scheduling time during the days ahead-can lead to a fuller and richer life as a teacher. Four concrete ways to engage in reflection over the next few months are below.
1. Write about teaching. Spend as little as ten minutes a week capturing your thoughts about teaching. What new approaches do you want to try next year? What did you learn from grading students' final assessments this semester? (See Gerry Hess's May 2010 idea of the month below, on Course Reflection.) You might even want to get a special journal for this purpose. (I love pretty journals, but I have to type because my handwriting is so terrible.)
2. Read or reread material about teaching. Books, journals, websites, and blogs enrich your thinking about teaching and learning. Several books I've recently learned a lot from: Therese Huston, Teaching What You Don't Know (2009), Barbara E. Walvoord, Assessment Clear and Simple: A Practical Guide for Institutions, Departments, and General Education (2010), and John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (1996). In your teaching journal, jot down the ideas and reactions you might want to try.
3. Talk to others about teaching. If attending a teaching conference isn't in the cards this summer, find colleagues at your own or other institutions, and chat with them about teaching. Almost everyone responds favorably to: "I just read your article/book/blog/ course description and was wondering if I might chat with you for a few minutes about it." Consider what you learn from them about their teaching. What do they want their students to learn? How do they assess them? What is the biggest struggle they have in teaching? Their greatest joy? How do their answers affect your thinking? The first time I taught Torts, others said that the hardest part of the course for students was proximate cause. It was good to know that ahead of time.
4. Watch others teach. Whether you are enrolled in a course or watching your kids' soccer lessons, you can learn a lot from observing others teach. What do they do that seems effective? What's ineffective? Whether you are watching TED conference videos on YouTube (TED conferences showcase new ideas and have an incredible range, e.g. Sugata Mitra's new experiments in self-teaching), attending a faculty retreat, or listening to directions to the beach, you can learn a lot by paying attention to how engaged you are and reflecting on what makes that happen. Teaching is all around us. Paying attention to it and learning from it are invaluable ways to enrich your own development as a teacher.
Setting Expectations for Exam Essay Structure and Strategy
Examination season is now upon us. It is time for students to demonstrate their mastery over material painstakingly taught, practiced, and studied for months. To put it into educational lingo, students must "transfer learning" from one educational domain (readings, classroom discussions, and previous assignments and exams, if any) to another (the final exam). Because learning is encoded or stored according to its original domain, learners usually struggle to identify, recall, and apply previously acquired knowledge and skills in the new context.
While successful transfer of learning requires both professor and student to use a number of educational strategies, one of the first and simplest is to set transparent expectations for the assignment. When preparing for essay exams, even students who have reviewed model answers typically will struggle with how much to write, how to structure the answer, how much to cite authority, and so on. And now, with the welcome increase in professionalized legal writing programs and faculty, students also must decide whether and how to apply their deep training in both objective and persuasive structure and style. Professors can help to ease anxiety and encourage a better product by answering some of these often unspoken questions in advance.
For example, students typically are taught in their 1L legal writing courses to start their analysis of any legal issue with a rather firm conclusion, e.g. "Mr. Santos is unlikely to prevail in his claim to invalidate the noncompetition clause. His new business used a sensitive marketing plan that he could have only obtained during his previous employment." They are also trained to engage in lengthy "rule explanation" or "rule proof" with case illustrations as examples, and often with a discussion of the public policy implications for resolving disputed rules. Some professors would rather see more open-ended issues and more definitive, black-letter rule statements in their essay answers, e.g. "The employer here may be able to show that the marketing plan was a protectable interest if it was sufficiently confidential and could not be readily ascertained by market observers." Those professors may want students to apply the key authorities, but not necessarily to engage in lengthy discussions of the facts, holdings, and reasoning in a wide variety of decisions.
Finally, professors might like to see many short appellations of issue-rule-application in a row as students work through the problem using IRAC as the organization paradigm. Yet in legal writing, they are taught as future lawyer-practitioners to identify all of the relevant rules, subrules, and exceptions for a particular factor or element within a cause of action before performing any application whatsoever.
In order to encourage grading-friendly and thorough exam answers, professors should consider addressing these and other potential points of confusion for new "transfer learners." A collaborative meeting with faculty who teach legal writing and academic support can bring these issues into sharp focus.
Questioning Like a Lawyer: From Issue Spotting to Case Development
When I was a junior attorney working on a particularly contentious and emotionally charged case, the attorney representing the opposing party remarked that "a case is never as good as when it walks in the door." In other words, the "story" the client first presents is as good as it gets. Because the initial presentation of facts is one-sided and incomplete, it is only though probing and discovery that the entire story emerges, warts and all.
When we first teach our students to "think like lawyers," that often means teaching them to analogize facts and apply precedent. With our hypotheticals, we ask them to "spot the issues" and determine the likely legal outcome based on their understanding of the law. We might also teach them to take a developed set of facts and argue for an outcome favorable to their client. In such cases, the facts are substantially developed; they have not had to find the "warts." Such hypotheticals also suggest that facts remain static.
What we do not often teach students is how to find the facts based on their reading of cases and the presentation of an undeveloped set of facts. They do not necessarily learn that, while the initial presentation of facts may lead to an initial assessment of what law applies, the law often necessitates a reevaluation of the facts. The relationship between law and facts is dynamic, continuous, and cyclical and it is not until after researching the law that an attorney begins to understand what facts she needs to know.
Instead of asking students to simply spot issues, consider using hypotheticals to train them to ask questions designed to develop the case. This can be particularly useful when the subject matter is dense or when overlapping and potentially conflicting law may apply. For example, in employment law, any one set of facts can raise potential claims under state and federal constitutions and statutes, and state common law. To test their comprehension of the complex intersection of state and federal law, like most law professors, I often start my classes with a hypothetical. Rather than ask my students to identify which law applies, however, I ask them to identify the questions they have for the employer and the employee, and to state the reasons for their answers. I also ask them to articulate the advice they would give to each of the parties and to state the bases for their advice.
The benefits of this type of exercise are two-fold. First, it enables me to assess my students' comprehension of the material, and, second, it requires students to engage in an analytical process that they have limited experience in. Students' failure to ask all of the relevant questions can reveal a deficiency in their understanding of the law and their lack of facility in using the law as a lawyer does - to discover material facts. Asking relevant questions requires students to accurately recognize potential claims and defenses while simultaneously training students to develop the facts; they must know the law to recognize gaps in the facts.
These types of questions can also reveal whether students possess a fundamental understanding of how the law operates and affects behavior in "real life." When students provide advice that conflicts with the law, the ensuing discussion can be far more instructive than simply asking how one set of facts compares with another set of facts. Training students to ask questions is necessary if they are ever to get beyond the story that first walks in the door.
Washburn University School of Law
Bringing Real-Life into the Classroom
Bringing real-life experiences into the classroom is a powerful technique to enhance student learning, involvement, and retention of knowledge. These real life experiences, which we share with our students, allow the students to think about the abstract concepts they are learning in deeper more meaningful ways. There are many ways to bring real-life into the classroom including: photos, field trips, guest speakers, videos (my students love YouTube), news events, and personal legal experiences.
Occasionally, real-life presents itself when we least expect it; having the flexibility as a teacher to seize those opportunities and incorporate those opportunities into teachable moments or projects is key to helping our students develop into thoughtful lawyers. Recently, I was faced with just such an opportunity when I was asked to help a person with her end-of-life documents. Concurrent to this request, I was teaching a two credit course on contract drafting. So as my students were focusing on and experiencing frustrations with drafting for their client's objectives, drafting for clarity, drafting for simplicity, etc., I was also drafting a document and facing similar hardships and frustrations. We began each class period with a "shake-out" five minutes where I described what was happening with my drafting and the difficulties I was facing, and the students shared their frustrations which were very similar to mine. While I was careful not to breach my client's confidentiality, I was able to share enough generic details about contract drafting in general to bring real-life and meaning to my students and their work. After they and I finished our drafting assignments, one student said, "I never realized until this semester that our drafted words actually had people behind them." Another student thanked me for "making it real for them." Not surprisingly, my students performed exceptionally well on their contracts.
After thinking about this experience, one thing is clear, we can take five minutes to begin each class with something "real" to fully engage our students. This small step will go a long way in enhancing their learning, engaging them in their work, and helping them retain the knowledge they are learning.
Teaching Consultant Colleagues
One mark of a healthy teaching culture is frequent, informal consultation and discussion about teaching and learning among faculty colleagues. We can help one another with the challenge of being more effective teachers through brainstorming, listening, disclosure, perspective, and sharing success.
Brainstorming. Thoughtful teachers encounter pedagogical challenges, big and small, such as teaching a controversial topic, dealing with a problematic student, using active learning, effectively employing technology in the classroom, and finding ways to provide formative feedback in large classes. A five minute brainstorming session with a colleague can help us generate new approaches to instructional challenges.
Listening. Sometimes, we need to talk about our teaching struggles. The process of talking with another person about our difficulties can help us move forward. In those situations, our colleagues can help us simply by being sympathetic listeners. Not offering advice, not troubleshooting, not deconstructing - just giving us their full attention.
Disclosure. At times, we need to know that we are not alone in facing hard issues in our teaching. After encountering difficulties in the classroom, it is helpful to hear from colleagues who have faced similar challenges. Even if colleagues do not have solutions to offer, their disclosure of their "bad days" can help us feel less isolated.
Perspective. Colleagues can help us see our teaching from a different perspective. For example, our fellow teachers can offer alternative explanations for students' behavior or the nature of the environment in our classrooms. Colleagues are especially helpful in providing a different perspective on our student evaluations.
Sharing Success. Many of us rarely talk with colleagues about our good days in the classroom. This is a shame. Teaching and learning success should be celebrated. We should revel in one anotherís pedagogical victories and create a positive buzz about teaching in the law school.
The Institute for Law Teaching (ILTL) had long advocated the importance of law teachers making dramatic changes to their teaching and assessment practices. However, as I have personally learned recently, it also is important to find ways to balance our inclinations to serve and be role models to our students, be impactful scholars, care for and enjoy our families, take care of ourselves, and otherwise contribute to our communities. Moreover, it is better to make small teaching changes and assess their impact then to change many things and not know what worked and what failed. Thus, this short essay focuses on three, low labor things we can do to improve our students' learning experience.
1. Peer Practice and Feedback. While students learn a lot from feedback from us, they may learn even more from giving and getting feedback from a peer. The work for you is all up front. Create a good assessment instrument, develop a detailed guiding rubric students can use in giving each other feedback (I prefer to include both specific questions about their peers' efforts and global questions about their experience of their peers' papers), and plan time (in or out of class) for students to do and to peer assess the task.
2. Ask for Student Feedback. At the end of one class session, ask students to write (anonymously) for two minutes about what is working in the class and what is not. Encourage students to write about the teaching methods, their peers' contributions, the assignments you have given, etc. Reading even 70 responses takes about a half hour. If you close the loop and report and explain how you will address the results, your students will get the message that you care about their learning and their opinions, and they will learn better (according to the recent studies).
3. Each Class Session, Have a Different Student Do a Two-Minute Review of the Key Points from Your Previous Class Session. Students in all fields learn by making mental connections between what they have learned and what they are learning. Moreover, every law student focus group I have conducted has agreed that they appreciate teachers who structure some form of linking between new material and prior material. Finally, lawyers' work includes lots of teaching-- teaching clients, colleagues, subordinates, juries, and even judges. Assigning the task takes a moment. I let the reviewing student know s/he will be doing the next review at the beginning of the class session s/he will be reviewing, and I offer to review her/his teaching notes or PowerPoint slides.
These ideas just happen to be three of my favorites. No matter what you do, however, make sure you adopt new practices that are not so burdensome that you cannot stick with them. In the long run, the more you try an innovation and make it your own, the more successful it will be.
Make Semester's End Meaningful
The arrival of December can be a portentous month for students, particularly as they start to count down the days to the semester's very last classes, which inevitably means that they will be left with nothing else but preparation for their final exams – a task that can seem utterly daunting and often devoid of critical guidance. For law teachers, the shift towards the final section of a course can mean more lectures that wrap-up or summarize the semester-long subject matter of the course. However, in addition to doctrinal summary, the final trajectory of the course could afford law teachers the opportunity to help students reflect upon how they have learned throughout the semester and how they might want to approach their finals preparations. While students are becoming increasingly aware that their final exams are inching across the horizon and, as a result, keeping their ears attuned to any small "nuggets" of insight that they hope their professors might drop or reveal about exams, instructional care can be taken in ending the semester in a way that allows students to better strategize for the period of self-regulated finals studying. Here is a three-part suggestion to make the end of a semester more meaningful for students:
(1) For review, have students periodically present in-class summaries of smaller key issues or doctrinal topics that were covered earlier in the course: Instead of the instructor doing the summarizing, this exercise asks a particular student or group of students to prepare and present a certain topic covered during the semester and to retrace some key points by summarizing what they have learned or read – the doctrine, the cases, the policies, etc. – that will be crucial to master for exams. Students can walk through a brief concept – whether it's seasonal use in adverse possession in Property or parol evidence rule in Contracts or battery in Torts – and show how they have outlined topic or their own understanding and mastery. After the presentation, the instructor then can facilitate a quick discussion and critique, adding finer points if needed or answering student questions that could help reinforce learning of the material and help students think about organizing an analytical response on an exam.
(2) Knowing the law is merely one part of an adequate attempt to prepare for finals. Law school examinations not only test knowledge of the law but more often also test the ability to juxtapose or graft the law against specific factual circumstances to reach a legal result. A law teacher can enhance this reflective exercise about the level of student knowledge on a legal topic with the use of short exam-type hypotheticals covering the topic just presented to demonstrate how effective organization and mastery of a concept must then be put to use in application and analysis. Asking the class to then apply only what the students have presented on the law to fact patterns that resemble questions on an instructor's particular exam can be a great on-the-spot opportunity to show students how to use their mastery of material to issue spot or practice analytical reasoning or some other legal analysis skill needed for success in the course. In addition, this kind of an exercise can show possible deficiencies in preparation and help students refine their approach to exam preparation – for instance, by creating specific goals in their exam preparation to shore up deficiencies or to show them effective organizational strategies to help analyze fact patterns more thoroughly.
(3) But wait, there's more: An alternative to using an instructor's own hypotheticals might be to ask students to not only present their knowledge on a legal topic but to also draft their own fact hypotheticals for testing, not only themselves, but also the rest of the class. Asking students to present a summary on a topic and then provide a hypothetical of their own based on the same topic is another way to critique the ability of students to recognize the law against specific factual circumstances to effectively resolve legal conflicts. This variation might ask them to be more fact-sensitive as they realize by creating their own hypos that a resolution or analysis might easily turn on a choice or a withholding of a specific fact. Furthermore, a humorous way to personalize this exercise is to allow a contest between different presenting student groups to see which one group can best craft a hypothetical that most resembles those written by the class instructor.
All humor aside, however, having students participate more actively during the final wrapping-up stages of a semester-long course can offer them a direct and targeted opportunity for thinking ahead about their study strategies before they finish the course, and are then left on their own to master the materials and skills to excel on their exams. This multi-part exercise might offer a few helpful options for some students who otherwise might have been at a loss for knowing strategically how to better prepare for their law school finals.
Washburn University School of Law
Prepare Students for their Final Assessments
"Well, if that is what you wanted, that's what I would have tried to do!" expressed a student with great frustration. It was my first semester teaching and I had just returned a graded mid-semester assignment. Because I hadn't been clear about what I wanted on the assignments or what criteria I would use to evaluate them, the student had spent hours working hard to meet what he thought were my expectations. His frustration was understandable. We had both wasted time – he preparing, me commenting upon and grading ineffective work. I vowed to be clearer about my expectations.
The research on teaching and learning shows that students learn more effectively when they understand the criteria by which we evaluate them. While we may think that we have clearly explained what we expect from students on their final assessments, students may well not fully appreciate what we mean. As the end of the semester approaches, consider ensuring that your students understand how you will evaluate their performance on their final exams, papers, or presentations. This will help your students work hard to fulfill your expectations rather than some misconception about what you want. Below are some suggestions for how make your expectations visible.
Put the criteria in writing. Having written criteria is more effective than relying on students' verbal understanding and note-taking skills. Particularly with high-stakes assessments, such as final exams and papers that have the most weight in determining a student's grade for the course, it is only fair to give students accurate written material they can refer to as they are preparing. As they react to the stress of final exams, they may doubt their notes and lose sight of what you expect. In addition, having written criteria ensures that students with learning disabilities and non-native English speakers are not disadvantaged. The written criteria can be basic, such as stating that a final written assessment will require students to accurately identify the law (20%); apply the law to the facts (60%); identify and apply policy (10%); and present their analysis in coherent, organized prose (10%). Even basic written criteria are better than none.
Give students a chance to practice. Within the last few weeks of the semester, give students a sample assessment and have them take 15 minutes to outline their analysis. To engage them actively in the process, have students compare their outlines with a classmate or two. This helps them see how others approach the problem and usually reassures them that they are not alone in missing pieces of the analysis. Then debrief, explaining what law, facts, organization, and policy you would expect to see in that outline. Show students how the written criteria match up with the content. If you can, give students exercises like this a few times before the end of the semester. Students benefit from repeated practice.
Provide effective examples of final assessments. Even if your written criteria states, "60% of the grade depends on accurately applying the law to the facts," students may not know what this means. Showing students examples of presentations or exams that accurately apply law to facts, and explaining how these examples fit the criteria gives them a model from which they can learn.
Final note. Helping students understand your criteria is not "spoon-feeding." Contrary to what some colleagues suggest, giving students explicit criteria does not mean all students earn "A's". It does mean, however, that students are striving to achieve appropriate learning goals.
Bringing Real Attorney Work Product into the Classroom
As legal educators working to prepare our students for practice, one of the biggest hurdles we face is that until students are immersed in a real practice environment, they usually lack the context to deeply understand practical applications for their learning. They also struggle to understand the procedural nuances of their assigned case readings. One easy way to provide some context is to incorporate real court filings from Westlaw and Lexis into our coursework as examples, supplemental readings, and even discussion problems. Doing so not only motivates students by giving them a taste of the "real world," but also gradually exposes them to more kinds of legal writing, as well as illustrating a range of procedural stages in litigation.
As we speak, my first-semester legal analysis students are still working to digest the concept that parties typically sue each other under several causes of action based on the same set of facts. Of course, the concept becomes crucial when reading unedited judicial opinions that analyze a number of claims, sometimes without clear delineations. For example, my class is presently writing an office memorandum based on an action to enforce a covenant not to compete. At least one of their assigned cases addresses not only that claim, but also a separate action under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Students feel frustrated that they cannot use tests and terms from one claim to analyze the other, and they continue to incorporate them into successive rough drafts.
At last, I realized that an abstract, academic discussion of this concept just was not an effective way to make the point. With just one terms and connectors search in a litigation filings database, I quickly found a beautifully-constructed complaint from federal district court containing seven claims, including the two that are confusing my class. I added some margin notes and posted the complaint to TWEN as a supplemental reading. We looked at it for just a few minutes during the next class. I am curious to see how this affects the drafts I collect in class next week, but I have already had a handful of students tell me that seeing the claims vividly separated and enumerated in the complaint, each with a different set of elements and different prayed-for relief, led to an "a-ha" moment.
Finally, I also suspect that our students are probably much more motivated to learn by seeing their course material applied in an authentic practice setting than by working strictly with a simulated case file or discussion problem. It seems difficult for students to put themselves in the shoes of the writer when that writer is a professor or appellate judge, but much easier when the writer is a "regular" lawyer, working out there in the trenches. Fortunately, now that we have authentic work product from all phases of litigation and transactional practice at our fingertips, we have yet another arrow in our quivers when it comes to bringing practice to the classroom.
Incorporating Small Research Assignments into Upper-Level Doctrinal Courses
Much ink has already been spilled decrying the writing skills of law students and lawyers and calling for increased opportunities for writing across the curriculum. Rightfully so. But the observations underlying the movement for writing across the curriculum come primarily from faculty and other third parties, not the students. What students often do complain about is the lack of research instruction after their first year. Not only do they recognize that they might not be as efficient in electronic and library research as they should be, but they are also aware that they lack fluency in subject matter research generally. By following these four or five steps, upper level faculty can help law students refine their critical research skills without inviting an insurmountable grading burden.
1. Integrate Research Days into Your Course Plan: Devote half of two classes during the semester to researching in the subject matter. One of those days can focus on print resources and the other on electronic resources. Faculty members with recent practice experience will be covering familiar territory. Others might wish to collaborate with their librarians, many of whom would be more than happy to guest lecture.
2. Tour Relevant Agency Web Sites: Take students on a tour of agency sites applicable to your course. Students often leave law school unaware of the abundance of information contained on federal and state regulatory agency web sites. Discovering these resources can help students and recent graduates overcome the anxiety inherent in researching unfamiliar territory.
3. Assign Research Problems: Assign short research problems. Researching issues relating to your course will help solidify the information presented in class. This can be done in large as well as small classes. For courses with many students, the class can be divided into small groups, with each group responsible for different research tasks. If assignments are spread throughout the semester, grading the results need not be burdensome. The assignments can lead students to the state counterparts of federal laws, applicable regulations, opinion letters, pending legislation, and other issues that are related to the course but which you cannot fully cover during the semester.
4. Share the Results in Writing: Post written research results on your course TWEN or Blackboard site. To provide students with the benefit of their peers' research, post their one-page research results and the detailed steps - including missteps - they took while conducting their research.
5. Share the Results in Class: Provide students with the opportunity to present their research results. If the class is small enough, have the students present their research problem, their solution, and the steps they took to arrive at the solution. This will provide students with a valuable opportunity to orally communicate legal findings before they must do so in practice.
Washburn University School of Law
Day 1 Decisions
As a new semester approaches and we begin planning our courses, we should spend some time thinking about the first day of class in each course. The first class is important - it sets a tone for the remainder of the semester and students form first impressions of the course, their peers, and their teacher. Among the aspects of first classes that merit our attention are the few minutes before class begins, the opening of the class, the syllabus, the content, and the teaching/learning methods.
Before class. What will you do just before class? Options include:
» Greet students at the door as they enter the classroom
» Introduce yourself to each student individually as you distribute a handout
» Project an intriguing image on the screen in front of the classroom
» Enter the classroom just as class is about to begin.
Opening. What will you do in the first few minutes of class? Knowing that students will form first impressions of the course and their teachers very quickly, you could:
» Introduce yourself, exhibiting your passion for the course
» Have students introduce themselves, including something that will help make their name memorable for you and the other students
» Introduce the course with a problem, hypothetical, or news story that engages students.
Syllabus. You want students to know the information in the course syllabus but may not want to spend too much class time on the syllabus. You could:
» Ask students to read the syllabus outside of class
» Highlight the most important aspects of the syllabus in class
» Encourage students to ask questions about the syllabus on the course web page or in class
» Give students an open-syllabus quiz - a treasure hunt with little prizes for correct responses.
Content. The first class should include some important course content. You could:
» Give a short lecture introducing major themes for the course
» Pose a problem or hypothetical that raises key issues for the course
» Make a connection between course content and real life through a news story, video, or student experiences.
Teaching/Learning Methods. The first class not only introduces students to the course, their teacher, and their fellow students, it can signal to students what they will be expected to do each day in the course. To send an accurate signal, the first class should contain some of the methods you will use throughout the course. Options include:
» Lecture - students take notes
» Questioning - call on students or solicit volunteers
» Discussion - in a large or small group
» Writing - short, written responses to questions, problems, hypotheticals
» Variety - several different methods in the first class.
By thinking about these issues as we approach the first day of our courses, we make our teaching more intentional. Of course, when the first class actually arrives, we need to be flexible, ready to adjust, open to seizing a teachable moment. The combination of thoughtful planning and flexibility can lead to success in the first class ... and in every class that follows.
Start Small and Assess Always
Maybe you attended a presentation on teaching that inspired you to want to change how you teach, or maybe you read a law review article or an article in The Law Teacher that caused you to re-think one or more aspects of your teaching. Maybe, you went hog wild and read the 2007 Carnegie Report and/or the 2007 Best Practices Study. You feel inspired, and you have made the choice to change how you teach and to use some portion of your summer to do so. Now what?
Start small. Many great ambitions have been killed by aiming too high. No law professor could change everything about his or her teaching even if he or she devoted an entire summer to the task, and trying too much increases the likelihood that you will just give up.
Instead, find one thing you can change that your research suggests can make a difference in students lives. For example, you might simply commit to writing one, two or three learning goals on your classroom whiteboard before every class session starts next semester. (If you do so, force yourself to include at least one skill every class session and at least one value every other week.) You will be stunned how this one change will influence your ability to focus on what really matters and on your students' ability to stay on task.
Or you might decide to find three ways to outwardly manifest your interest in and caring for your students, such as memorizing their names before the first day of class, eating lunch in the student lunch area once or twice per week, and remembering to wish your students good luck before a big paper is due or before an exam. You will be shocked how much students value things you may find to be relatively easy or minor changes.
Assess always. Make sure you build some form of assessment into your plans so you can know whether what you have done worked for the students. Assessment allows you to make the decision whether the effort is worth the time and to make decisions about making similar changes to other courses.
For both the learning goals idea and manifested caring idea, a short student survey (1-3 questions) would give you some useful information. For example, half way through the fall semester, you could ask your students to complete a one-question survey monkey or twen survey:
This semester, I have tried a new idea in an effort to help you learn – writing the goals for each class session on the board before the start of class. Please rate the usefulness or lack thereof of those goals to your learning according to the following scale:
a. Knowing the learning goals for each class session was very useful to my learning
b. Knowing the goals was useful to my learning
c. Knowing the learning goals for each class session was neutral to me – it neither was useful nor got in the way of my learning
d. Knowing the learning goals for each class session got in the way of my learning
e. Knowing the learning goals for each class session very much got in the way of my learning
You could even ask a follow-up, open-ended question without overburdening your students: Please explain why you feel that knowing the goals had any effect, positive or negative, on your learning or why you feel that knowing the goals had no effect.
Course Reflection -- Do It Now!
Are your courses over for this term? Are your exams drafted? Graded? If so, congrats! But while your course is still fresh in your mind, take a little time to reflect and redesign.
Course Goals. What goals did your students achieve? Did they learn the doctrine, theory, skills, and values you hoped? Next time you teach the course, should you add or subtract major course goals?
Materials. What materials were particularly helpful to you and your students? What print and electronic materials are appropriate to maximize student learning the next time you teach the course?
Teaching and Learning Methods. What methods were most effective this term? Least effective? What assignment s and exercises most engaged students? Could you make more effective use of out-of-class learning experiences for students (student preparation for class, CALI exercises, experiential learning, etc.)?
Feedback. How did you give students feedback on their performance during the course? Did you get feedback from students about your teaching and their learning during the course? How might you give and receive feedback next time around?
Evaluation and Grading. Did your evaluation scheme (exams, papers, participation) reflect your major goals for the course? How well did your student's perform? Did your grading rubric work effectively? What changes to the course might help students improve their performance?
Or ask yourself other questions relevant to the courses you just taught. Your reflections on your questions or the questions above can lead to a better course for you and your students.
Listen and Answer
Sometimes, the simplest things can make a huge difference in your students experience of your classes. Two such things are listening to your students and answering their questions.
Listening. It is a sign of respect and engagement when teachers make a genuine effort to listen to their students. Students learn more and feel better about the experience if they feel their teacher takes them seriously and listens to them. Try this experiment: For one day, imagine that it is your job to find and positively reinforce the insight in every student's comment in class. I recently tried this experiment myself and found that, even comments that seem to be off topic or to reflect confusion are grounded in insight. The student who asserts an incorrect proposition often is struggling to reconcile her/his experience of the world with this new concept. The student who makes a poor argument may simply be unable to find the words to make her/his argument better. The student who wants to talk about why s/he hates a doctrine may have already moved to policy analysis.
Answering questions. Many law professors always answer questions with questions, treating the experience as one endless Socratic loop. Others act annoyed, as if the flow of the learning process or of their research plans, has been irrevocably damaged. The untested myth seems to be that, in law practice, no one will be around to answer their questions. (Of course, those of us who have practiced know that it is much better to ask questions than to make mistakes.) For students, of course, getting their questions answered is why they asked the questions. Moreover, after a few times of having their questions be answered with questions, students learn to just stop asking. In other words, by never answering questions, we actually are training our students to risk malpractice rather than appear to others as if they do not understand. In contrast, the law teachers most valued by the students always treat the questions with respect and always answer their students' questions (although, on occasion, the answers are deferred to after class). Such teachers understand that questions allow teachers to unearth misunderstandings, add nuance, and, in some cases, reflect an insight the professor had never considered.
While instructional design experts, generational differences gurus, and learning styles authorities may disagree to varying degrees on some matters relating to education, they all agree that students learn better when they get a sense of the real-world, practical implications of the skills and knowledge they are learning. In fact, recent studies show that, when students read cases with such problems in mind, they understand the cases better.
It doesn't take much work to find current events that have implications for the courses you teach; usually, a quick web search can yield several relevant disputes. For example, the recent arrest of Michael Jackson's doctor can generate great discussions of both criminal and tort law. Conan O'Brien's dispute with NBC implicated contract law issues of gap-filling, trade usages, and even, at least possibly, the parol evidence rule. Even older, well-known matters can add authenticity to what you teach. Many civil procedure professors have found that asking students to read A Civil Action helps students appreciate the high stakes of civil procedure issues and engage with the material more deeply. Some legal writing professors have their advocacy students attend an oral argument at the local court and critique the lawyers' arguments.
Even if you prefer to create your own problems, imagine how much better your students would understand the concepts you teach if they had to use those concepts in a way that a practicing attorney would use them. For example, students asked to draft a liquidated damages clause that both achieves a hypothetical client's objectives and which would unquestionably hold up in court, must develop a deep understanding of liquidated damages doctrine. In fact, if you build in a conflict between the client's full compensation objective and the client's hold up in court objective, you can also introduce professionalism issues into the discussion!
If you are inclined to take things even one step further, consider making things very real. You can require your tax law students to serve in your law school's V.I.T.A. program. Educational experts would call such work "service learning." You could require your legislation students to comment to your state legislature on a pending state bill, consider having your property law students do a title search for the property where they currently live, or have your remedies students draft an injunction requested in a pending lawsuit.
Students love these experiences. And the excitement helps them remember what they have learned longer and better.
Using student evaluations – in a good way...
End-of-the-course student evaluations can provide us with formative feedback and helpful suggestions regarding many aspects of our teaching. But some law teachers are reluctant to use student evaluation comments for teaching development purposes because they lack of confidence in the value of student evaluations and the pain that comes from reviewing negative comments.
The following ideas may help maximize the usefulness of student evaluations and minimize the discomfort from negative comments.
» Read quickly though the comments to get an overall sense of the students' reaction to the course. The first time though the evaluations, many teachers focus on the negative comments.
» Review the comments a second time to identify themes. Articulate in writing several categories of positive comments. Identify in writing one or two areas in which the students made negative comments or suggested improvement. Compare the positive and negative themes to comments in previous student evaluations.
» Choose an area or two to address the next time you teach the course. Make incremental, not wholesale, changes.
» Try to ignore isolated mean comments, such as "I leaned nothing in this course" or "Professor X should be fired." These types of comments are a reflection on the commentator's problems, not our teaching.
» Have a colleague or consultant review your student evaluations. Another set of eyes can help us see the positive aspects of the evaluations and can assist us in identifying trends, themes, and appropriate adjustments to make in the future.
Repainting the Grading Blues
It's that time of year. The bells are jingling, the wonderland is wintering, and, of course, a giant stack of exams or papers with your name on it is coming your way (or already has come your way). How can you maximize your grading efforts for both you and your students? What can you do to make the experience less dreary, the grading more accurate, and your commenting more useful to your students? Here are a few simple suggestions.
Suggestions for making the grading more accurate. Try three things.
» First, test using a variety of tasks, not just the typical, lengthy hypo. Try short essays and short answer questions, and even consider adding some multiple choice questions. The variety will expand the range of topics and skills you assess so your assessment better reflects your course.
» Second, use some sort of grading sheet or guide, or, ideally, create a grading rubric. (For more information on grading rubrics, please see Sophie Sparrow's article, "Describing the Ball: Improve Teaching by Using Rubrics - Explicit Grading Criteria," 2004 Michigan State Law Review 1.)
» Third, grade all the students' answers to each question before you go on to grade any student's answer to a subsequent question. These latter two ideas will enhance the consistency of your grading.
Suggestions for making your commenting more valuable to your students. Draft your comments with your readers in mind. Your comments should allow students to understand what they have done well (make sure you include as many positive comments as possible even if you have to reach with a weaker exam answer), and to be able to imagine themselves rewriting their exams into excellent answers. Instead of "No!!!" or "Too conclusory" or "Huh?!" or crossing out paragraphs (all of which are, let's be honest, mean and unclear), try comments that are hints and suggestions, such as "If you had used _________ fact to bolster your argument, it would have been more convincing" or "You did a good job finding the key facts but you need to do more to explain the significance of the facts you regard as significant by, for example, analogizing to the _____________ case." Always assume your students have done their best. Comments that question your students' diligence or even intelligence are not productive in any way.
Suggestions for making the grading process less dreary. Just as we tell students to set achievable study goals, we suggest you set achievable grading goals and reward yourself for achieving your goals. Pick a number of exams to grade per week that you can accomplish or even exceed. Also, to make the process less inexorable, consider grading in the same room as a colleague or doing your grading at a coffee house.
Most of all, try to complete the task of grading as quickly as possible. Both you and your students suffer needlessly if you procrastinate the grading. Oh, and have a great holiday season!
Many law teachers struggle with the issue of "coverage" in their courses. An important underlying question is, "Coverage of what?" All law school courses "cover" something. Effective course design requires teachers to articulate fundamental coverage choices.
Does "coverage" mean exposure to content? If so, students can read material and teachers can explain the analytical framework, raise interesting issues, and expound upon doctrine and theory.
Does "coverage" mean development of analytical thinking skills? If so, teachers can help students learn to recognize issues, develop an analytical framework, and apply doctrine and theory to realistic problems.
Does "coverage" mean deep learning of professional skills and values? If so, teachers can facilitate students' experiential learning – observing professionals in practice, engaging in simulated and actual representation of clients, receiving feedback on performance, and reflecting on their experiences.
What coverage choices do you make in your courses?
Fast Formative Feedback
It is mid-semester. We hope our courses are going well, that our students are learning, and that our teaching methods are effective. How about getting some quick feedback from our students?
Try asking three simple questions:
» What methods were most effective for your learning so far in the course?
» What methods were least effective for your learning so far in the course?
» What suggestions do you have to enhance your learning for the second half of the course?
Put these questions on a handout with lots of response space after each question. Give your students 3-5 minutes to respond anonymously in writing. After class, review their responses. Report back to the students with the themes that emerged from their responses. Implement one of the suggestions. Most students will welcome the chance to provide you with formative feedback and will appreciate your effort to make ongoing improvements in the course.
What's in a name?
Small things matter much more to your students than you might imagine. By and large, students learn best when they feel respected and treated as individuals. What can you do in a class of 70 or 80 or 90 students to manifest your interest in your students?
Get to know their names. Most law schools can provide you with pictures and names of all your students. Convert the pictures and names to flashcards and keep testing yourself over and over until you know all your students' names by heart. I usually set a goal of memorizing all their names by the end of the first week and bet my classes donuts or cookies that I can recite their names from memory.
The two- or three-minute act of going around the room and letting all your students see that you know everyone's name outwardly manifests your commitment to know them as individuals. Students have told me many times how much they appreciate the effort.
Make sure you also acknowledge your students outside the classroom. If you see them in the hall or the cafeteria, say hi to them by name.
Your effort even has a side benefit-- it helps your students know their peers' names.
Practice and Feedback
You have read Educating Lawyers and Best Practices, and you now are convinced your students would benefit from practice and feedback. And, then, you recall the sea of 75 or 80 or even 110 students in your class, and a silent scream seeps out, "I will die trying." You can survive and even thrive providing formative assessment. There are a wide range of techniques you can use to provide practice and feedback and live to tell about it...
Consider the following possibilities:
» Administer a short assignment (one or two page answers) as a take-home practice exam and limit yourself to one positive comment and one suggestion for improvement
» Hand out a past exam question and give those students who show you a completed answer your model answer, rubric or, at least, issue outline
» Require students to answer a past exam question and go over the answer in class the next day (even using Socratic-style questioning if you are so inclined)
» Require students to answer a past exam question and then exchange their papers with a peer and provide peer feedback using a model answer, rubric or issue analysis
» Require students to answer a past exam question and go over (anonymously) an example student answer (or two)
» Create a short multiple-choice practice test and have students take the test on TWEN or Blackboard
» Integrate one or two multiple-choice questions into your PowerPoint slides and use one of the Classroom Response Systems out there (the clickers or CALI's) to provide immediate, on-the-spot feedback
Handing Out Welcomes
Even the most mundane events in the classroom are opportunities for us to create an engaging, positive learning environment. Do you use handouts in class? How do you distribute them?
Some students prefer hard copies of handouts and others would rather work with an electronic version. It is easy for us to accommodate both preferences. But more importantly, our distribution of the hard copies is a golden opportunity to connect with our students. Walk around the room, give each student a handout, and greet each student. For a couple seconds, you and the student have a personal interaction. This simple method lets students know that they are not anonymous and that we are partners in the classroom. Not bad for something that can be done in two or three minutes before class begins even in a class of 50.
Before class, you carefully crafted your question, thinking through all of the possible responses so that you can maximize student learning. Now, you're in class. You unleash the question, and . . . silence. You can hear the crickets chirping. No one raises her hand to take the wonderful bait you crafted. Now what?! Should you verbally rewrite your question? Should you step in and answer the question yourself?
Wait. If you modify your question, your students might now feel they have two questions to answer and may be even more confused. Trust your students. The longer you wait, the more they will be able to think through the analysis. And, after all, few lawyers regularly tackle challenging problems in ten or fifteen seconds. If you just wait, a student will step in and fill the silence.
But, what if there's still no response and now it has been a minute? Let your students discuss the question with their peers for a minute or two and then try your question again. Listen to their discussions; you may learn that your question was confusing in some way you didn't anticipate. We suspect you will, instead, hear lots of students engaging in analysis.
Good teachers know they do not need to be talking for their students to be learning. Your students' extra thinking and discussing time will produce more widespread learning than either a verbal re-write or a professor answer.