Idea of the Month
Student "Law Firms"
One of the gaps in traditional law school education is the dearth of opportunities for students to practice working in groups. Unlike business school and medical school, where group work forms a large part of graduate-level education, law school professors and students alike have long resisted significant and graded small group activities. But group work is invaluable and builds skills that will be critical to success in the workplace. According to Barbara Gross Davis, "[r]esearchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats." (Barbara Gross Davis, 147 Tools for Teaching (1993)) The challenge, then, is to come up with an effective and fair design for group work in the law school context.
During the first week of school, I group my students into small "law firms," and throughout the semester, these same firms are given time in (and sometimes outside of) class to work together and solve problems as would lawyer teams in practice. Some of the many challenges involved in creating effective student law firm work include (a) appropriately defining the group, (b) crafting multiple types of opportunities for group collaboration, (c) adequately assessing individuals' performance in their small groups, and (d) providing helpful feedback to groups and individuals.
Defining the Group. In order to be effective tools for developing collaborative skills, student firms need to be the right size and need to function as a team. Ideally, the student law firms are more than a mere pair of students, but are still small enough so that every member must engage with the material and actively participate, minimizing the freeriding problem. I find that student firms work best when they consist of between 3 and 5 students. Sizing a group is only one important aspect of defining it. Students in law school often lack background or instruction in how to collaborate. The professor needs to provide direction with respect to collaboration techniques, as well as demystify the purpose of collaboration. Assessment and feedback processes should also be transparent so that students will focus on the exercise rather than obsess on how group work will impact their grade. Student law firms function better if their members have come together as a team, and this can start with something as simple as coming up with a firm name. The firm can also be assigned a task to do outside of class, perhaps over lunch or coffee. Later, building something humorous and fun into a group assignment can help the members identify themselves as collaborators rather than competitors.
Crafting Group-Work Opportunities. Student firms can and should engage in a wide variety of types of group work. For example, the firm could be given the task of drafting parts of a contract, with instructions to divide up the job among the members, and then work together to put the pieces into a coherent whole. A group could be asked to research several issues, once again allowing individual contributions to a collaborative work product. Having individual responsibilities within a group project helps build cohesiveness of the group and sets a model of individual participation rather than freeriding. Groups could also work together to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem or work together to spot multiple issues to a hypothetical fact scenario. Groups can work together to create arguments both for and against a given policy position. This sort of collaboration is good for perspective building and hones expressive skills in a way that is especially valuable for students who still struggle with public speaking fear when called on in class. Much of the reality of group work in practice involves being able to discuss ideas - learning both to speak and to listen well - in a small group. Groups can work as a team to negotiate an issue (with another group on the other side), and can similarly work as a team to present a legal argument for judicial determination. Groups can also function as a panel of judges in deciding how a question of law should be decided, justified, and articulated. Some group work can result in a written product, and some can culminate in oral presentations or role-plays. Each different sort of activity builds different but important lawyering skills. Research suggests that the benefits of group work are best achieved in working on more significant, longer tasks rather than merely on brief in-class tasks. Accordingly, a few student law firm activities throughout the semester should take an hour or more to complete.
Making Individual Assessments. It is important to student engagement that superlative group-work be rewarded, and it is vital for individuals to receive tailored coaching with respect to collaboration skills. Although group work product can be graded and marked up to provide valuable feedback and assessment, it is more challenging to individually assess how well a student performs in a group. These sorts of assessments necessarily rely to some extent on self-evaluation and peer evaluations, as well as spot observations by the professor. For example, students can give a student feedback with respect to their observations of the effectiveness of firm activities. In addition to self-critiques, my provided feedback solicitation form asks if anyone in their group or in another group with whom they interacted exhibited behavior that was especially helpful and impressive or, alternately, problematic. After exercises in which one group negotiates with another group, I solicit input with respect to how well the other group seemed to work together, who lead the discussion for that group, and whether anyone seemed unengaged. To encourage frank responses, I make it clear to all students that self and peer assessments will not directly impact their grade. I explain that student-provided feedback helps me know what challenges students are facing in the context of group work, and this will assist me in coaching them. In addition, during group work, I circulate as a "fly on the wall," taking notes with respect to individual and group behavior, tactics, and effectiveness. This allows me to give immediate feedback at the end of the exercise. In addition to spot observations, I attempt to observe an entire session of group work at least once in the semester.
Providing Meaningful Feedback. Feedback for group work is tricky and needs to be provided at several levels. General observations and issues that appear repeatedly should be addressed to the class as a whole, and I try to provide this sort of general feedback orally at the end of each group-work session. Group-by-group feedback can be provided through comments on written work product and by professor emails to a student firm, highlighting for the group things that worked well and things that did not. It is more difficult, but perhaps most vital, to provide individual feedback as well. I often do this in private conversations or emails, wherein I try to strategize with students regarding improving their collaborative skills. These private conversations also alert me to student discomfort or struggles. Once alerted, I can try to address these issues.
Students become involved and engaged with group work in a completely different way than they do with traditional lecture or Socratic questioning. Group work allows students the opportunity to practice joint problem solving, to be collaborators, to become more adept at dividing up a task, and to function effectively within a group. It uses peer pressure to motivate students, and provides needed context for applications of legal doctrine to realistic scenarios. Student law firms can help develop distinct and important professional skills, skills that are often neglected in the law school experience, but are critical to law practice success.
Questions to Think About
in Crafting Student Law Firm Group Work
- Does this particular assignment support and enhance class goals and course curriculum?
- Have I made the goals for this exercise adequately clear? Are they achievable with the time and resources allocated?
- Have I adequately defined and motivated the group to achieve the goals?
- Have I provided opportunities for individual contribution to the collaborative effort? Do I need to be more involved to ensure this happens? How can I be certain it does?
- What kind of leadership or coaching can I provide to enhance the effectiveness of the exercise?
- How will this exercise be evaluated? How and when can the students receive feedback with respect to their efforts and work product?
Inspired and adapted from Jane Westberg and Hilliard Jason, Fostering Learning in Small Groups: A Practical Guide (1996).
Washburn University School of Law
Let Your Students Run the Class
One of my colleagues was recently hit with a bad cold that left her without a voice. For a variety of reasons, cancelling class was not an option, but neither was speaking. Instead, she turned the class over to the students. She set the class agenda, assigned students to groups, and had the groups present and discuss that day's material to their classmates. A week later, one of her students volunteered that the student-run class had been one of the best in a course taught by an excellent and passionate teacher. This is not surprising; research shows that the more students are actively engaged during a class, the better their learning.
We don't have to lose our voices to turn our classes over to our students. Below are three ways that we can engage our students in actively helping us achieve the class learning goals.
1. Going Over Assigned Reading
It's tempting for us to spend a significant portion of class distilling the reading and identifying key points, especially when we know that students typically struggle with gleaming the material's important principles. Instead, ask students to do this.
Method: Give students a few minutes to review their notes and the materials and ask them to identify important points. To provide more guidance, ask students to look for important tests, factors, policies, theories, or factual illustrations. To help them learn from each other, invite them to work in small groups. Call on students, go around the room, or get volunteer groups of students to provide their answers, getting input from a range of students. You or another student could capture this material on the board as students provide content. After the students provide the content, you can emphasize key points, add nuances, and ask follow up questions.
2. Applying the Reading Using Hypotheticals
Instead of generating all the hypotheticals for class discussion, invite students to design them. This works best if assigned in advance, but can be done during class as well.
Method: Give students-individually or in small groups-a few minutes to construct a hypothetical. For variety, assign different hypotheticals to individual or small groups of students. One group could design a straightforward hypothetical where an important principle/rule/theory clearly applies, another could craft a problem where the concept definitely would not apply, and a third could create a hypothetical where a rule's application is ambiguous. Other groups could design hypotheticals that incorporate material from earlier classes or construct a sequence of steps that show their classmates how to analyze problems in this area. Once students have completed their assignment, a few groups could pose them to the rest of the class to work through the analysis, followed by a class discussion. Other hypotheticals could be posted to the course website or emailed to provide practice problems.
3. Facilitating the Discussion
Sharing the role of discussion leader may be one of the hardest methods; we may feel like we are doing nothing. In fact, we are empowering students by showing them that we see them as colleagues and future leaders. Having students facilitate the discussion works best when assigned in advance, but can be initiated in class.
Method: At the beginning of the class, let students know that one or more of them are going to lead class discussion. Call on students or take volunteers, inviting them to work individually or collaboratively in guiding the class flow. For example, in a 75-minute class, you could divide the class time in half, having a student or group of students facilitate the first 35 minutes, another student or small group the next 35 minutes. While their classmates are reviewing key class principles, you can briefly chat with student facilitators about class objectives and answer any questions. During the class, sit in the back or on the side of the room, supporting the student facilitators by nodding encouragingly and reinforcing important points at the end.
However you engage students in helping run the class, explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. The first time students develop hypotheticals, explain that this helps them on exams, the bar exam, and practice. Finally, thank your students for their part in constructing and shaping their learning.
Pass the Pen
In order to address the dual challenges of providing active learning opportunities and eliciting student participation in class, I periodically employ a simple classroom activity that I call "Pass the Pen." The method is fun, compels rapt student attention, and gives individual students an unforgettable classroom learning moment.
A Pass the Pen session starts by the professor stepping away from the lectern and handing a student a dry erase marker, thus inviting her to temporarily take on the role of guest speaker. The student with the pen is asked to come to the front of the classroom and explain to the class a given case, rule of law, policy implication, or other concept. The student steps into the role of professor for this limited purpose, and when she is done, at the prompt of the professor (who poses another question or challenge for the class to explore), the student chooses a classmate to come to the front and lead the discussion of the next topic - designating her choice by passing this student the dry erase marker (the "pen").
Pass the Pen puts students at the front of the classroom, in the position of teacher, and allows the professor to shrug off the "sage on the stage" role. Actually explaining a case or a concept to the class while at the front of the classroom, pen in hand, elevates a student's learning to its most active phase. In this context, students go beyond merely hearing and remembering information or concepts and go beyond merely applying concepts to hypotheticals or answering questions based on their case brief. They must actually figure out not only how to answer questions, but how to anticipate issues and clarify ambiguities. Students have the opportunity to distill their legal knowledge by creating outline-type subheadings or bullet points to write up on the board. Students also use the board to diagram party relationships and key facts from a case. And, yes, all this is done on the fly.
That is not to say that student "guest lecturers" proceed without guidance. The professor must remain actively engaged, but more in the role of an encouraging coach rather than a player. The professor can ensure that the explanations are accurate and effective by providing hints and suggestions. And the professor can cheer on student successes or soften the frustrations of student mistakes.
This sort of active learning by teaching others is extremely effective. It allows students to get in the game and actually try their hand at articulating legal concepts. Putting students, pen in hand, at the front of a classroom to discuss a legal opinion or distinguish between various applications of a legal rule is akin to allowing baseball players time for batting practice. Student effort increases with responsibility. Plus, the pressure of being in the professor role, leads to greater student preparation, poise, and engagement - both for the student at the front of the class and for the rest of the class who anxiously observes that student (and awaits their possible turn at bat).
The Pass the Pen method has a bonus benefit of allowing students to "cold call" each other - removing from the professor the burden of having to select among the students someone to put on the spot. In a Pass the Pen session during a class, the professor need only call on one student (in the first pass of the pen), and the students themselves will do subsequent selections. Professors thus can avoid the sighs or grimaces that come with cold calling as well as the predictability of proceeding to ask questions down a row or in alphabetical order. Allowing students to choose someone to whom to pass the pen also makes the entire process seem somehow less top-down intimidating. Instead, Pass the Pen takes on a more game-like quality, complete with cheers and laughter. Everyone - including the student at the whiteboard and all those eagerly watching him - is in the same boat. (I do endeavor to pick less-active student participants to start a Pass the Pen session in order to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to actively engage and teach the material in this manner).
Pass the Pen provides a new sort of opportunity for active learning in class. It gives students the chance to think on their feet and speak in public. And it creates a fair - yet unpredictable - method for eliciting classroom participation. Some students may be nervous for their turn, but with batting practice in class today, tomorrow's lawyers will be more ready to get out there and start hitting homeruns.
Washburn University School of Law
New Semester's Resolutions
'tis the season of reflection on the past year and the current state of nearly all aspects of our lives - the expanding waistline, those neglected foreign language CDs, the still untidy basement storage room. Most glaringly for educators, the semester break presents an opportunity to regroup, step back, assess our performance over the past four months, and to lay the groundwork for a more effective classroom experience the next time around.
Dig out the syllabus from this past semester and maybe your class notes, and evaluate the big picture structure of the course. Did you cover the material you had hoped? Were there topics that seemed to just drag on for days and days? Did you incorporate active learning exercises as regularly as you intended? If you can identify some needed changes, perhaps now is the time when you might have some space to think about how many days you spend on each topic or which chapters you might wish to rearrange or whether someone on your substantive topic listserv might have a teaching exercise for a particularly dry or difficult subject.
I, however, tend to close the book on a semester and promptly forget anything that happened before yesterday. But I also hate that nagging feeling I get when I'm teaching.... "Oh right! This didn't go well last time I tried it. I should remember to do something different next time." And so I'm learning that self-assessment and modification shouldn't be left solely for the end of the semester.
So here's my suggestion for you over this break. It's not time consuming at all, but it will lay the ground work for regular and continuous assessment over the course of the next semester. As you're putting together your syllabus, save a copy on your desk top called Postscripts. (Yes, yes... you can call it whatever you want, but it's my column so I get to pick.) That's it. That's your assignment for over break. That's all you need to do. Save an extra copy of your syllabus on your desktop.
AND THEN. Next semester, right after each class, open that document, scroll down to that day's topic and reading assignment, and make yourself notes about how the class went down. Were the students confused about a particular case? Did they have lots of questions about a topic you weren't expecting? Did a classroom exercise go over well? Flop completely? Too much time on a topic? Not enough?
Now you've created a reference sheet for the next time you're planning out your class syllabus and notes. You can avoid previous mistakes, repeat the successes, and continue the iterative self-assessment process for the next time and the next time after that....
Daily Assessment: You Can Do It!
As our semesters are coming to a close and we are starting to think about planning for next semester, I would like to share a daily assessment idea I instituted this year in my Real Estate Transactions class. My Real Estate Transactions class meets three times per week for 50 minutes each time. I also have 40 students. Before you stop reading due to the overwhelming thought of grading a daily assessment for 40 students, let me ease your fears. My system takes only a few minutes per day and has been highly effective in improving readiness for class and participation among my students. It can also be done with or without technology.
To be effective assessment must be directed at gathering information about how well students are meeting course objectives, must be reviewed by the professor to look for common themes, and must be used to improve teaching and student learning. To be true to the purpose of assessment, I wanted to design a system that collected data, did not seem like busy work to the students, and gave me feedback on their learning. I came up with a daily feedback form which allows students to respond the problems we discussed in class. I asked several questions including:
- What problem or case was covered in class?
- Why did this problem/case happen?
- How did the team (chosen at random at the beginning of class) demonstrate that they understood (be specific):
- The relevant legal issues.
- The relevant authority and policy.
- How to achieve the client's goals (if it was a problem and not a case).
- The best legal arguments.
- The effect this case/problem could have on the clients, the real estate system, and society.
- Different approaches to solving the real estate problem (if it was a problem and not a case).
- Did the team challenge assumptions made by judges, legislatures, attorneys, students, professors, themselves.
- How can you use what you learned while studying this section in your future practice as an attorney?
- What was the most valuable thing you learned while studying this section?
I set up a drop box on the course's TWEN page for every day (this takes about 1 hour to set up). I assign a total 5 points for each feedback form. The form is due prior to the next time the class meets. You can set TWEN to take forms up until a certain time and to not accept them after that time. To grade the feedback form, if the student turned in a form in the drop box, I assign 5 points to that student. Then I go back and randomly select between 2-4 to grade. I subtract points for incomplete responses and TWEN allows you to provide feedback and send that feedback back to the students. During the first class, I showed them an example of a "good" feedback form and explained what was good about it. I also showed them an incomplete feedback form. When I gave individual feedback on a student's paper, I was very specific in what I wanted.
The information and learning gained by this paid big dividends. By the end of this semester, the quality and introspectiveness of students' answers to these questions increased dramatically. After every class, I was able to access immediately what students were learning and what they thought they would use in the future. Those answers surprised me on many occasions. Many days, after reviewing 2 or 3 forms, I noticed a common thread of misunderstanding, which I could clear up either by email or in class. Lastly, the students have commented about their love/hate relationship with the feedback forms. They love it because it makes them review their notes and think about their learning; they hate it because it makes them review their notes and think about their learning, which is hard.
In the end, the combination of the students not knowing who was "on" for any one class period and having to pay attention during class to fill out the feedback form, led to more engaged students. If the team was not prepared and are called on, their team received a low score for their participation points for the day. Also, students are not allowed to file a feedback form if they were absent; thus, that is an automatic zero. These easy-to-implement assessments have dramatically improved class participation, student learning, and student engagement. I am happy to share more details with anyone who wants to set this up. Email me, Sandra Simpson, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mid-semester Feedback from Students
Now around mid-semester, you may have some sense of how well students are enjoying your courses. They may appear engaged and enthusiastic, asking probing questions and volunteering thoughtful analysis. Some students may seem disengaged or frustrated. Because it's hard to know what students are truly thinking about the teaching and learning exercises in the course, it's helpful to get information directly from them, as Gerry Hess suggested in the October Idea five years ago. Getting student feedback allows us to see what students perceive is working and make some changes long before course evaluations are released. And even if we don't implement any changes, students appreciate that we are asking about and listening to their input.
I put three questions on a sheet of colored paper:
- What teaching and learning methods are effective for you and should be continued?
- What teaching and learning methods are NOT effective and should be stopped?
- What other suggestions do you have about ways to improve teaching and learning in this course?
The questions are spaced out on the sheet so students have lots of room to write. They're on colored paper because it's easy for them to see the handout, and easy for me to keep track of them.
I distribute and introduce the forms for a couple of minutes at the beginning of a mid-semester class. I tell students that I want their anonymous feedback, that I will give them the highlights of their responses, and that I have always made some changes. And I tell them I will not implement every suggestion. Because I want them to be thoughtful and do not want them to feel pressured, I ask them to take as long as they need, and I leave the room. Before leaving, I ask a student to collect the forms and let me know when all students are done. (I stay in an area near by.)
Within a week, I review and compile all students' responses and give them the highlights in class. Even with a class of over 80 students, reviewing and compiling the responses rarely takes more than an hour. And the reading is fascinating; every year students' responses vary.
This year, students responded that their learning was helped by 1) collaborative work - 61%; 2) having frequent short quizzes - 47%; and 3) having material written on the board -17%. The things students found least helpful for their learning were: 1) going too fast through the material - 39%; 2) not allowing enough time for questions -17%; and 3) allowing too many questions in class -11%. The third question, asking for their suggestions, had no common themes.
In talking to the class about their responses, I put the top responses and percentages on the board. I promised to slow down at points. Students were invited to write down questions in class and bring them to office hours or post them on the course website. Given that some students wanted less time for questions, pacing would vary - sometimes many questions would be welcomed and sometimes we'd have time for only a few. For the students who dislike collaborative work, and there are usually one or two, showing them the responses gave them information about their classmates' learning. I asked for their forbearance and patience, and briefly re-explained the research on how collaborative exercises enhance students' learning.
Getting Students into the Office
Recently, Inside Higher Ed reported on a professor at Salem College who decided to ban student email contact in favor of live contact. Professor Duvall built a no-email rule into her syllabus, with one exception for messages to arrange a meeting or phone call. She hoped the new plan would encourage students to establish a connection with her, rather than hiding behind the safety of their screens. Perhaps surprisingly, Professor Duvall reported that she received very good course evaluations that semester, sharing positive student comments about her accessibility and her genuine concern for the students.
Regardless, it did not take long for the idea to generate some critique, suggesting that perhaps there is a middle path to balancing workload and building student-teacher rapport. In her responsive essay, Professor DeRise, a literature and professor, pointed out that email is a good opportunity to model and teach good professional correspondence practices. That point holds particularly true in law school, where we are training professionals for one of the most demanding possible business environments.
I've experimented with a number of approaches myself, over the years, with a mix of successes and failures. For example, when I was new to the job and feeling rather overwhelmed by the learning curve, I made a formal point of asking students to stick to office hours for in-person contact outside of class. These days, I prefer to honor our faculty's informal, open-door policy, and find that it is not only more efficient to deal with needs as they arise, but also that when students have a choice, they tend to exercise that judgment wisely. And for the rare few who do not, it is an important opportunity to provide feedback on workplace custom.
The word is out on the importance of student-instructor rapport to academic success (and, I would venture, not just to the students' success). What follows is a brainstorming session on the middle path to getting students into the office. Most of these are ideas I have heard from others over the years, but can no longer recall specifically enough to properly credit:
- Make coming to office hours at least once during the term either a course requirement or a small, for-credit assignment.
- Skip one week of formal class sessions and instead use that classroom time to hold small-group conferences, perhaps to cover the topics from the readings for that week, or to review progress on an upcoming assignment.
- In classes with a writing assignment, limit emailed questions about the student's draft to a certain number of words (I allow up to two paragraphs in my legal writing classes, and simply advise students that if they use the option a bit more than feels reasonable, I'll ask them to come to office hours instead). Alternatively, allow email questions for everything else, but ask students to come in person for questions about the content of a draft.
- If students write to ask about policies that should be evident from the syllabus, gently remind the student where to find the policy and invite follow-up questions for any points of confusion that may remain. A biting response does not really model professional behavior; it signals the student that it is not safe to show weakness in front of this teacher. Another idea: give a quiz on the syllabus during the first or second week of class.
- Take the "office" out of office hours, and occasionally spend that time in a common area where students congregate (this idea is inspired by an Institute colleague, Jeremiah Ho). Alternatively, occasionally hold those hours in a virtual space, such as your course website's chatroom. Students who are feel uncomfortable getting to know you on your "turf" may reach out to you in these more neutral environments. When I use this approach, I often start seeing new students come to live office hours thereafter.
- Keep the office welcoming: leave the door open when you can; make sure chairs are not cluttered with books; have a place where students can put their backpacks and coffee cups down; if space permits, consider having a small table for working together, or two chairs next to each other where you can look at a laptop screen or draft together; if you know students will be waiting in the hall for office hours, consider placing an extra chair or two outside. In addition, some instructors like to keep a bowl of small candies near the door to welcome students in, health concerns permitting, and others may like to keep news articles and cartoons on their doors for students to scan while waiting.
Day 1 Interviews and Introductions
At the very beginning of their law school careers, I want students to experience active learning, begin to build a student community, and engage in lawyering skills. A simple interview and introduction exercise during an orientation session or in the first session of a 1L class can accomplish these goals.
The directions for the exercise go something like this. "I am asking you to pair up with another student. You will interview one another. You will each have three minutes to conduct an interview of your partner. After the interviews, I will give you a minute to gather your thoughts before you present your partner to the class. Your presentation is limited to 30 seconds and should include your partner's name and two memorable things about your partner. Then your partner will present you to the class. You and your partner will both stand during your presentations. When your partner is presenting you, your job is to remain silent, no matter what your partner says about you."
In a class of 24 students, the exercise takes approximately 20 minutes. I then debrief the exercise for a few minutes. My debrief focuses on the purpose and value of the exercise, emphasizing five points.
- Interviewing clients and witnesses is a core skill for many lawyers. You just conducted an interview and were interviewed.
- As you prepared to present your partner, you filtered the information you gathered during the interview. You made choices about what information to present.
- A central feature of the role of a lawyer is to speak for others. The act of speaking for others entails power and responsibility. You just experienced speaking for a classmate. What were the strengths and weaknesses of your presentation?
- Often clients have the experience of remaining silent while their lawyer speaks for them. You just experienced a classmate speaking for you. Are you satisfied with the choices your classmate made on your behalf?
- In life and in law, a critical skill is to be able to communicate clearly and concisely. Effective speakers can communicate memorable ideas and images in 30 seconds.
The exercise is fast paced and fun. Almost every student gives an interesting 20-30 second presentation. The students all learn some memorable stuff about one another. And they all get over speaking in class for the first time.
Get off the Island
For your summer vacation, think about island hopping. Leave the comfort and safety of the law school island and head out to the nearest undergrad institution.
Washburn University's main campus has a Center for Teaching Excellence and Learning, and I've been fortunate enough, given my role as ILTL Co-Director, to get to know the woman in charge of the Center. Last month, I joined her and four other professors from the undergrad campus for The Teaching Professor annual conference in Boston.
The target audience members, and I would guess that nearly all of the 500+ attendees, were undergraduate professors. But the resources I found there were amazing. Apparently, undergrad professors are thinking about teaching and learning issues too!
To the extent this is eye-opening for you in the same way it was for me, I offer some ways this bit of information can help you:
- If you're doing teaching and learning research, consider expanding your search to publications outside the legal field. Many disciplines have a Law and _______ Teaching journal with great scholarly work on all aspects of teaching.
- If you're looking for conferences with some fresh (to you) ideas, consider checking out the conference schedule at your undergrad campus. [Shameless plug: Definitely keep ILTL conferences on your travel agenda, though. The upcoming conference at Northwestern is shaping up to be tremendous! And we're busy planning two more great events for next year! Stay tuned...]
- If you go to an undergrad conference, spend some time at the publishers' tables to see what kind of books and resources they have available. I saw tons of books on online learning, student engagement, creating teaching and learning scholarship, mindful teaching, learner-centered classrooms, technology, and more. (It might be the case that I bought so many books that American Express called my house with a fraud alert check.)
- If you're interested in more collaboration, reach out across campus (or to the nearest undergrad institution) to see what the teaching and learning folks there are doing. Join in their faculty development seminars, host a campus-wide teaching event at the law school, pick a teaching-related book and start a cross-campus book club. There's energy in finding kindred spirits, even if they're not lawyers.
I'll leave you with one specific classroom technique I learned at the conference in a session by Leslie Myers of Chestnut Hill College. It's called Pick the Expert. (Have you ever played the board game Balderdash? It's sort of like that.) Divide your students into five or six groups and give each group a sheet of paper from a flip chart. Have each group write on the paper something related to a key concept you've been working on. Maybe you have them create a point-heading or a Question Presented. Maybe you have them outline the elements of a particular cause of action. Or you could have them write the main points of the court's reasoning in a particular opinion. Unbeknownst to the students, you also complete the task (ahead of time) on the same kind of paper.
Gather all of the student papers, secretly mix yours into the pile, and then post them all on the walls for everyone to see. Have students evaluate each submission and vote for the one they believe best illustrates the concept or topic.
Then discuss. Why is this your favorite? What does it do better or differently than the others? What about the second-highest vote getter? What about this one that I made? I like that the exercise gets students thinking about the concept on their own as they create their answer and that it facilitates discussion beyond just "can someone tell me.... what do the rest of you think...."
Set aside a bit of time this summer to see what's happening on islands other than the law school. Good teaching is good teaching, and law professors can find great ideas and resources and energy from our colleagues in the undergraduate schools. Grab a drink with a tiny umbrella and see what you can learn from the others down the beach.
Good Teaching Is Both Important And Quantifiable
Law professors are by and large brilliant. They are also by and large great advocates, as are most lawyers. Hence the recommendations of any report whether it is Carnegie or Best Practices are easily argued away as too general or not applicable to (insert your own name here). The truth is that like all good advocates, what law teachers are doing in dismissing these recommendations is justifying why they should not do things differently than they currently do with his or her decades old and established routine.
Let's be clear, currently there is no supportable suggestion that the Socratic Method alone is sufficient. And the sole genesis of its applicability to law school is the unscientific suggestion of one Harvard Dean from the late 1800s, who in the hierarchical pecking order that is law school, had way more influence than any person espousing an unsubstantiated hunch should have had.
Carnegie and Best Practices are not revolutionary by any means. They simply reflect what other academic disciplines have identified as good teaching after more than half a century of research. The amazing thing is how easily accessible these good teaching principles are. For example, see "Seven Principles of Good Teaching Practice" on the University of West Georgia website.
Right there at the touch of two or three keys are the results of 50 years of research by the American Association of Higher Education on what is effective teaching. The seven hallmarks of effective teaching are as follows:
- Encouraging faculty student interaction
- Encouraging interaction and collaboration among students
- Using active learning techniques
- Providing prompt feedback
- Effective and efficient use of time
- Communicating and maintaining high expectations
- A respect for diversity in terms of the both the talents or expertise already present in the student population and ways of learning.
If you don't want to hear it from the studies geared specifically to legal education at least hear it from another source. You owe at least this much to your students.
Beyond "Wexis": Bringing Research into the Upper-Level Classroom
Once law students are introduced to case law on Lexis and Westlaw, they tend to don blinders when they approach legal research. Rather than perusing secondary research materials or reading a controlling statute, they launch directly into case law. Although delving into the cases is critical at a certain point in the research process, starting there can waste valuable time and fail to provide students with important skills and knowledge that can set them apart and raise their profile with employers.
Honing research skills need not remain in the province of legal research and writing classes. Research can easily be brought into the "doctrinal" classroom - particularly when the law is enforced through a regulatory agency. In my Employment Law class, for example, I deem it vitally important that students understand the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor in enforcing federal employment laws. Thus, on "research days" throughout the semester, which are the only days that students may use laptops in class, I introduce students to the agency websites and their vast array of resources- including required workplace notices and forms, helpful "FAQs," and links to the many statutes, administrative regulations, and agency guidance documents that practicing attorneys should be familiar with. To solidify their ability to use these websites, I distribute problems and short hypotheticals, which they work on in small teams to address using these no-cost resources.
It is similarly vital that students understand that state, city, and local employment laws supplement the federal statutory scheme and understand that they can vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Because most Employment Law textbooks necessarily concentrate on federal law, I also use the "research days" to make this point. Thus, students are introduced to the state agencies responsible for enforcing state employment laws. Moreover, in collaboration with one of our research librarians, I introduce students to subject-matter research resources via the print and online Bloomberg (formerly BNA) materials. Again, I provide students with problems and short hypotheticals, which require them to analyze the law of several states and compare those results with federal law. For example, I might pose the following problem:
You are the general counsel of a company that has offices in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kansas. You just learned that an individual who claims that he was discriminated against because of his arrest and conviction record is threatening to sue your Wisconsin office. Does this individual have any recourse under federal or Wisconsin law? Would he under Illinois or Kansas law?
By providing several different problems and requiring students to articulate their findings to the class, the entire group learns the importance of going beyond federal law--and beyond case law--when faced with employment law issues.
To insure that students learn that blind searches on Westlaw or Lexis can slow them down and produce dubious results, I also require them to find state laws that use different terms for the same concepts. For example, one problem I frequently use is:
An employee of your client's company wants to see her employment file. Is your client obligated to allow her access under Illinois law? Under [another state's] law?
I use this problem because I know that Illinois has the Personnel Record Review Act, which students will likely miss if they search broadly for "employment files." I also know that other states' laws refer to "employee records" or other terms, if they have a law granting access at all. By using the state-specific tables of contents in the BNA materials, students can expeditiously compare state laws granting "individual employment rights" to arrive at their answers.
Although I must sacrifice some material in my casebook, one of my course goals is to provide students with necessary practice skills. I am satisfied that the tradeoff is worth it; just last week a former student told me that the Employment Law course was one of the most valuable classes she took in law school when it came to teaching her how to approach the law.
"Reading" the Classroom: Encouraging Students to Perform Assigned Readings
You know that feeling—you're excited about the topic, you've prepared a good opening discussion, and you even have a few active learning ideas to keep your class engaged. But the students' responses make it clear that many have not done the reading, or have not really engaged the material while reading. This post suggests a few basic strategies to triage and address the problem. The bottom line is that classes designed around active learning—both before, during, and after the classroom meeting—are most likely to create a culture of reading among students.
Consider the student perspective: Before jumping to the conclusion that failing to read is entirely a student-driven problem, consider the most common concerns students cite beyond general lack of time or law school ennui: (1) the assigned materials are not related to the class discussion, or (2) the professor spends class time explaining all the readings, so I'd rather just listen and take good notes.
Based on survey results from my last class, I can see that I'm not doing enough to connect the readings to our classroom activities. Next time, I plan to make many more explicit references to the text during exercises. I may also "flip" some exercise preparation outside of the classroom by releasing an exercise early and noting in the instructions how it relates to the readings. For instructors whose approach falls in the second category—too much review of the readings—the problem is often that the professor is not using enough hands-on application in the classroom, such as exercises. Or it may be that exercises are preceded by a long lecture, which could be broken up with interactive review questions and the like (see below).
Prepare in-class review questions: In my doctrinal classes, I often move the class through the highlights from readings by constructing a series of in-class, multiple choice review questions that I reuse from year to year. They appear on PowerPoint screens, and call for ABCD answers. Students can use clickers to answer, or the instructor can pass out sets of five large index cards labeled A, B, C, D, and All/None to each group of 2-3 students. Teams have 1-2 minutes to confer, agree upon an answer, and then hold up the answer when time is called. This exercise gets the students engaged with the topic and teaching each other. There is no need to keep score; groups tend to take pride in their own results. This strategy also works wonders as a classroom assessment technique. The "wrong" answers are structured around common misconceptions from the material, so a trend toward a certain wrong answer provides a great opportunity to pause and discuss.
Assign questions and problems: Short assignments can require students to go beyond skimming and engage the readings in order to solve a problem. Although it's not necessary to collect the answers, doing so tends to hold students accountable—even when ungraded, students anticipate you will skim their work. In fact, skimming just before class begins is a great assessment technique, and student work can be used on screen for triage. One great idea for a short assignment is to give the class a small client problem based on the readings. See Professor Steven Gerst's materials on "letters to student lawyers" (465 KB PDF).
Give quizzes: Quizzes can be ungraded as a form of self-assessment, graded, unannounced, or scheduled. If graded, be sure to devise a makeup, absence, and grading policy in the syllabus. One strategy for avoiding makeups in classes with frequent quizzes is to drop each student's 2-3 lowest quiz scores (including zeroes for missed quizzes) before calculating the grade. Quizzes can take the form of short answer, IRAC analysis, multiple-choice, and so on, and can be "marketed" to students as valuable exam preparation (if they do in fact resemble the form of final examination).
Just the Facts Ma'am
In the January Idea of the Month, Sophie Sparrow noted that legal research and factual investigation are among the top skills lawyers need to be successful. While many students graduate without enough upper-level experience in either legal research or factual investigation, most do understand what "law" is. Surprisingly, however, many upper-level students have difficulty determining what "facts" are. They can easily confuse inference, conclusion, characterization, and speculation with fact. A very simple exercise, which I adapted from a National Institute for Trial Advocacy exercise I observed, can help students identify the differences. Although I have used this exercise in Legal Writing and Pretrial Advocacy, it can be used in any course in which a class goal is to focus students on factual details.
In preparation for their initial client interviews in Pretrial Advocacy, I asked students to each take a turn articulating one fact about me. I assured them that I was not easily offended and invited them to use their powers of observation. The first student offered as "fact" that I "have high standards." The second posited that I am "passionate about the class," a third observed that I have "darker hair," another that I am "short-sighted" and so on. After each student, I asked the class whether the student had provided a fact or something else. After discussion, students correctly concluded that these were not facts but conclusions, comparisons, speculation, and characterizations. It took several other mistakes before we started getting "just the facts," such as what I was wearing.
When faced with non-facts parading as facts, one might ask students "How do you know?" or "What do you base that on?" For example, when asked, the student who had concluded that I was "short sighted" explained that his conclusion was based on the fact that I was wearing glasses and that I had had difficulty reading the clock in the room. When probed further, the student also admitted that not all people who wear glasses are short sighted and all of the students experienced the "aha!" moment of seeing how easily one can confuse a fact - I was wearing glasses - with a conclusion or inference - I am short-sighted. Additionally, students also learn to avoid assumptions based on the absence of certain facts (if an individual is not wearing glasses, that person is not short-sighted) and to focus instead on the facts themselves.
This simple exercise can also highlight the need to allow facts to speak for themselves or to avoid adopting the opinions or conclusions of others. For example, students correctly noted that the "fact" that I have "darker hair" was an opinion based on a comparison with an unknown actor. When probed, students realized they had to take a leap of faith to assume that the statement conveyed a fact - that I had dark hair - but even then, they did not know what that actually meant: if they did not know me, the possibility existed that I had brown, black, or dark blond hair.
Practicing lawyers know that success lies in the details. To be truly "practice-ready," students need to identify "just the facts."
Incorporating Experiential Learning: Practice-based Research Exercises
Multiple studies have identified legal research and factual investigation among the top ten skills lawyers need to be successful. Legal writing and clinical programs teach these skills well; students benefit from additional practice in specific areas. Incorporating practice-based legal and factual research assignments across the curriculum, or at least in multiple upper-level doctrinal courses, helps all students come closer to developing as lawyers. Practice-based research exercises can be as simple as finding a specific jurisdiction's requirements for a legal will, or as elaborate as learning how to navigate the FDA's approval process for a new medicine. They can last part of a class or an entire semester. They can be graded or not, completed individually or in groups. Related to important course concepts, these experiential exercises help students understand the kinds of questions, resources, authorities, and facts that arise in practice. They can also help students see the complexity of accurate, efficient, effective practice.
Here's one way to incorporate practice-based research exercises, adapted from Gerry Hess's "Factual Investigation-First Exposure," from Gerald F. Hess et al., Techniques For Teaching Law 2.
Exercise. Students worked as a 5-7-person team of associates for 60 minutes to collaboratively draft a 1-page memo to their supervising attorney analyzing a client's potential products liability claim. The memo constituted 10% of their course grade.
Preparing the students for experiential learning. Students had read about and had classes on products liability. During a previous class, a law librarian spent part of the class showing students how to find jury instructions, verdicts, forms, and practice materials on products liability. Students had also read a short summary of facts about a client who was poisoned by carbon monoxide by swimming near a powerboat. Out of class, students individually researched specific facts about carbon monoxide, the boat manufacturer, and model. They also individually researched a state's strict products liability law and jury instructions.
Engaging the students during class. Students received additional facts in class, and collaborated in groups to prepare a 1-page memo analyzing the client's potential claim and its likelihood of success. After 60 minutes, each group posted their memo to the course website, read other groups' memos, and wrote responses to reflective questions about the assignment.
Feedback to students. Students self-assessed by comparing their memo to others, reviewing a rubric, and reflecting on the experience. From the teacher, groups received a rubric, comments, and grade. Individual students received brief comments on their reflections.
A Krafty Review
Peter Maggs was my contracts professor at the University of Illinois College of Law and, according to the law school's Facebook feed, he's been there 50 years. He's a legend. Beyond sheer longevity or his myriad accomplishments in contract law, he will forever be remembered by my classmates for Maggs' Last Stand: on the final day of contracts, Professor Maggs stepped up to the podium, recapped the entire semester of contracts law in 50 minutes, gave a slight nod, and exited stage left to thunderous applause. It was truly something to behold. (I'm actually surprised it's not on YouTube by now.)
In preparing for my final day teaching Decedents Estates and Trusts this semester, the first non-legal-writing class I've taught in seven years, I was trying to decide what kind of review session to have. When I asked my students what would be most helpful to them, they smartly suggested anything in which I tell them what's going to be on the final exam. Right. A Last Stand was certainly an enticing option, for the drama if nothing else. I also considered the opposite end of the spectrum - just taking questions (sent in advance, thank you very much!) without having anything scripted in advance.
I ended up borrowing an idea from Laura Graham, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, who shared with the Legal Writing Professor listserv a way to help students organize the analysis section of a memo. I hung pieces of brown kraft paper around the classroom, each with a topic heading of a section of material from the semester: Intestacy, Will Formalities, Nonprobate Transfers, Charitable Trusts, etc.
As the students came into the classroom, I handed them a half sheet of paper and a sharpie and instructed them to write down a concept or rule or case holding from the semester. Each student then taped their rule on the appropriate piece of kraft paper, in logical order to the extent possible.
After the taping, we talked through each major topic, identifying the rules and case holdings that students had included under each, with me supplementing from my own list of rules and adding any necessary color or clarification or reminders about the subject. By the end of class, we had talked through, or at least mentioned, the major topics from the semester and provided a rough sketch of a course outline.
Likely not as YouTube-worthy as Maggs' Last Stand, but it was a fun way to engage the students in the review process.
Good Teaching is Quantifiable
In the legal academy we often dismiss efforts to be a good teacher because we consider it an unquantifiable and therefore unattainable goal. However good teaching is identifiable and has some universal characteristics. The System for Adult Basic Education Support ("SABES") recently described what makes a good teacher. SABES stated good teachers:
- have a sense of purpose;
- have expectations of success for all students;
- tolerate ambiguity;
- demonstrate a willingness to adapt and change to meet student needs;
- are comfortable with not knowing;
- reflect on their work;
- learn from a variety of models; and
- enjoy their work and their students.
A sense of purpose must be specific. Good teachers think about specific goals they have and teach in a manner to achieve those goals. For example, a teacher who wants students to be good litigators might actively recreate the adversarial nature of hearings or arguments in her classroom. SABES reaffirms the need for careful goal setting, reminding us that to be an effective teacher, "You can't be good in a generic sense; you have to be good for something."
SABES also reminds us that what we do in the classroom and the efficacy of it is only a part of the reasons for success or failure when we are educating adults. Many other factors outside of the classroom affect adult learners. However, if a professor gives up on students and adopts a "fatalistic, 'it's out of my hands' attitude, students will sense our lack of commitment and tune out." Good teachers realize that they can't control everything and that complete success is not a reality but they behave as if complete success is a reality. This might be similar to economic theory, which assumes a perfect market while knowing it doesn't exist. SABES summarizes the appropriate approach as follows: "Did I do everything that I could in this class, this time, to meet the needs of all my students, assuming that complete success was possible? As long as you can answer in the affirmative, you're creating a climate for success."
Related to the point above is the acceptance of ambiguity. We can never be certain what the result of our pedagogical choices will be, but that should not prevent a good teacher from "choosing instead to focus on what we can control, and trusting that thoughtful preparation makes good outcomes more likely than bad ones."
Adaptability is also necessary for good teaching. SABES points out, "a great lesson plan and a great lesson are two entirely different things; it's nice when one follows the other, but we all know that it doesn't always work out that way." In other words, if we notice that something is not working in the classroom, a good teacher will try to find a different way to present the material because, at the end of the day, whatever methods engage students also improve learning.
Refection "may be the only infallible, absolute characteristic of all good teachers, because without it, none of the other traits can fully mature." Good teachers are constantly trying to improve, retool, and do away with what did not work in the classroom. Role models also play an important part in good teaching. Good teachers are able to identify their own best teachers and implement some of the strategies they learnt from them. For those teachers who did not have good role models, pairing with a teacher who is generally accepted as a good teacher can serve as a substitute.
The last thing SABES mentions is that good teachers really enjoy interacting with students and teaching them. This simply cannot be faked and is patently obvious to students. If you think of your class time and students as a speed bump on the highway to publication fame, you will never be a good teacher.
Cross-training for Law Students
The semester is more than half over for many of our students. If students haven't already completed a course-related writing assignment, now is a great time for them to do so. Because writing exercises are exceptional at helping students develop and refine their analytical skills, many of us give students writing assignments. Ideally we design these exercises to promote a variety of complementary goals, similar to what athletes do when they cross-train.
Among other objectives, writing exercises can be designed to help students
- identify a client's goal;
- respond appropriately and creatively to a client's problem;
- engage in factual investigation;
- research and evaluate sources used by lawyers in the field;
- draft documents that are used in practice;
- work quickly under tight deadlines;
- follow instructions given by a professor in the role of a supervising attorney;
- review and give feedback to peers; and
- engage in metacognition - reflecting on what they learned from the process.
One way to cross-train students is to have them write within an experiential context. For example, rather than write an essay responding to a hypothetical scenario, students could draft a letter or contract clauses in response to a client's request for advice about protecting employees from stealing trade secrets. To add complexity, students could
- interview the professor acting as the client, and elicit the relevant facts about the client's business and goals;
- research the law about trade secret protection and employment in an identified jurisdiction;
- find and modify sample contracts and letters to reflect the client's goal;
- complete preliminary analysis within a few hours, much as they would have to do in practice;
- follow particular directions, such a writing a letter in the form of a business email to the client;
- assess their work against a rubric or scoring sheet distributed afterwards by the professor;
- read and comment upon their classmates' documents; or
- reflect about what they learned from the exercise and how they would approach it differently in the future.
Cross-training with writing exercises can be done efficiently. First, not every writing assignment needs to receive individual feedback. Feedback can be given by peers, distributing scoring sheets and rubrics, and discussing the analysis with the whole class.
Colleagues who teach legal writing and analysis have a wealth of ideas, resources, and expertise designing effective writing exercises. Similarly, clinician colleagues have excellent ideas and samples. Legal writing texts, practice materials, bar exam assignments, and former exams are all sources of complex writing exercises.
Depending on the goals of the writing assignment, students can complete much of the process outside of class, coming to class to review classmates' work and receive feedback. Giving writing exercises can take time away from doctrinal coverage, but it's well worth it, especially if the writing exercises focus on challenging topics that appear in practice. After all, legal employers routinely wish law graduates could write more effectively and efficiently. Let's help our students get there.
Classroom Management, Body Language, and "Power Poses"
Good classroom management is not just about having your technology sorted and your exercises well timed. It is also about the rapport you establish with your students through body language. Because the professor occupies a position of power and a prominent spot at the front of the room, students take important cues about the professor's worthiness on that day from his or her body language. We have heard from other sources that as social creatures, we tend to look for just the right balance of caring, consistency, and control from our leaders. And in those all-important early days of the semester, the first impression is so strong that it can influence the students' learning for the rest of the course, not to mention the experience of teaching. Long-standing research shows that the first impression of a person accounts for at least 55% of one's overall impression.
Thus the need for both positive and confident social signals is especially strong at this time of year. That need is even more pressing for women faculty and faculty of color, who face measurable, often unconscious bias from many students of all backgrounds. And because many men also exhibit "submissive" body language at times due to factors like personal stress or family history, everyone can benefit from the tips provided. Fortunately, our colleagues in the fields of psychology, sociology, and business management have been studying body language in professional settings. They have several recommendations for faculty who wish to set a more confident and assertive tone in the classroom. Some of the advice will be familiar to most readers, for example:
- Keep arms relaxed and uncrossed
- Pull shoulders up
- Take up more bodily space with arms and legs when standing or seated
- Similarly, occupy more space in the classroom by moving around
- Make eye contact, but focus on the triangle between the eyes and upward toward the center of the forehead
- Smile to reduce group stress, but not when authority is particularly needed
- Stand in the open, away from the podium or desk
Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School also has studied methods for developing a naturally calm, confident and assertive mindset before one even enters the classroom. They are surprisingly simple. For example, before you leave your office, get into the habit of standing in a "victory" pose with arms outstretched above one's head (in her "TED Talk" on this topic, Prof. Cuddy shows a now-iconic portrait of Olympic runner Usain Bolt in his famous winning pose). You can also spend your last few minutes of preparation stretched out with your feet up on the desk to send the signal that you are comfortable taking up space, or adopting your best Wonder Woman stance. Prof. Cuddy's research shows that such poses create a strong psychological response: test subjects who practiced the poses increased their performance measures significantly. Prof. Cuddy explains more colloquially that instead of "fake it 'til you make it," these power poses can actually help you "fake it until you become it," i.e., more focused and outgoing in pressurized social situations. Even though they may feel silly at first (and maybe they are), they can lead to quick results. Happy power posing!
A note on sources: The following electronic resources contain even more detailed suggestions. Readers who decide to research further may notice that some of the advice from both male and female experts focuses on what women are doing "wrong" to "cause" unwanted responses. While it is unsettling that some experts tend to characterize stereotypically feminine body language as inferior, it nevertheless accurately reflects the bias we encounter in leadership positions.
- Deborah Gruenfeld, For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Center for Social Innovation.
- Harvard Business School, Faculty & Research: Amy J.C. Cuddy (including a link to Professor Cuddy's popular "TEDTalk" on the subject).
- Teal Ruland, Good Body Language Improves Classroom Management: Successful Teachers Blend both Verbal and Nonverbal Communication.
Our Development as Teachers - Plan It, Do It
As summer moves along, way too quickly, and the academic year approaches, the time is right for us to think about our professional aspirations for the year. How will we serve the profession, the community, the school? What scholarship do we hope to produce? What goals do we have for our students - the knowledge, skills, and values we hope they take away from each of our courses? Those questions get to the heart of our role as legal academics.
If we are serious about continuing to grow as teachers, we should ask another set of questions as well. What will we do to:
- Deepen our knowledge of teaching and learning principles?
- Articulate and refine our teaching philosophy?
- Heighten our level of confidence in our teaching?
- Increase our enthusiasm and passion for teaching?
- Make appropriate changes in our teaching practices?
To turn our best intentions into reality, commit to engaging in several teaching development activities throughout the year. The menu of teaching development activities is extensive.
- Explore the vast literature about law teaching and learning. Read books, articles, newsletters, and blogs about law teaching and learning. View videos and websites devoted to legal pedagogy. The resources and links on the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning website provide an entrée to the literature.
- Systematically record our reflections on our teaching by making notes after each class or keeping a teaching journal.
- Gather feedback from students throughout the course about their learning and the teaching techniques that are most and least effective for them.
- Carefully review student evaluations after the course, identifying themes that run through the evaluations, including our strengths, weaknesses, and suggestions for change.
- Collaborate with colleagues to improve one-another's teaching. Opportunities include informal conversations about teaching, regularly scheduled brown bag lunches devoted to teaching and learning, viewing each other's classes to provide feedback, and viewing videos of one another's classes.
- Contribute to the literature on teaching and learning by writing an article, essay, or blog post.
- Attend national or regional conferences on pedagogy or attend teaching workshops at our own institutions. Better yet, present a session on teaching at a conference or workshop.
There is no magic in this partial list of teaching development activities. No law teacher would do all of these activities in a year. Some of these activities will never be a good fit for some teachers. The key is for us to identify activities that will help us to grow as teachers, plan to incorporate them in our professional lives, and then to follow through.
Maximizing Active Learning
Engaging students in active learning has long been one of my main teaching practices. As many of us know, educational experts have found that students learn more when they are actively engaged, such as by speaking, writing, or discussing, rather than listening to a lecture or discussion. Having just completed a three-day workshop with educational expert L. Dee Fink on course design, however, I learned that I should redesign my approach if I want maximize what students learn from their active learning assignments. This month's idea is about how to improve active learning exercises.
Fink, author of Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, advocates "holistic active learning," where we integrate multiple modes of learning: 1) information and ideas, 2) experience, and 3) reflective dialogue. When we integrate these modes, our students are more likely to gain deep understanding, the kind of significant learning that lasts well beyond a course.
First, Fink recommends that students use information and ideas from primary sources to solve problems. Most law students already engage in a version of this; for example, my Torts students read edited primary authorities in casebooks and then apply that reading to hypotheticals. Edited court opinions, however, do not expose students to the kind of advanced legal reading that attorneys use. Suggestion: assign fewer edited cases and more frequently require students to read and research authorities that would solve a legal problem.
Second, Fink recommends that students use those primary sources to solve authentic problems–the kinds of problems they will likely encounter as lawyers. While writing an essay analyzing a legal issue replicates the exam format, a more authentic problem would be to ask students to draft a variety of documents they would likely encounter in practice, such as client letters, emails, contracts, or pleadings. Suggestion: have students write a number of different documents that reflect their work as soon-to-be lawyers, reinforcing skills they learn in other courses, such as legal writing.
Last, to maximize students' ability to learn from their experience of solving problems, they need to engage in what Fink calls "reflective dialogue," where they process what they have learned through reflective essays, journals, or discussing their experiences with others. For years I've asked students to engage in these kinds of metacognitive reflections several times a semester; I now plan to incorporate more of these assignments during the course. If Fink is right, students will learn more. I can't wait to see how it works out.
Resources for Incorporating Practical Problem-Solving Teaching Into The Doctrinal Classroom
The transformation of legal education to teach more law students to be practice-ready is a movement that is here to stay. Adding more clinics, externships or simulation courses can help accomplish this transformation, although this is less likely to reach students in large numbers and it is often more expensive than other vehicles. An additional way to expose many more students to lawyering skills - at no additional cost - is to integrate the teaching of problem-solving skills into existing doctrinal and other larger courses.
In 2010, the ABA Section on Dispute Resolution launched the Legal Education, ADR and Problem Solving (LEAPS) Project to increase instruction of what we call "practical problem-solving" (PPS) in a wide range of courses, including doctrinal, litigation, transactional, and ADR courses. PPS involves the range of skills that lawyers use regularly in practice in addition to legal research, writing, and analysis. These skills include fact gathering, client interviewing and counseling, communication, negotiation, representation in ADR processes, drafting legal documents, and professionalism, among others. For more detail about PPS, see http://leaps.uoregon.edu/content/what-pps.
Among other projects, LEAPS created a website with a variety of resources to support and expand the teaching of PPS, including:
1. Explaining the many reasons why increased teaching of PPS benefits students;
2. Detailing teaching ideas for PPS instruction;
3. Providing materials and consultants to enable law faculty to implement increased PPS teaching; and
4. Linking to other useful websites and teaching resources.
Faculty interested in incorporating more PPS into their courses will find the teaching techniques link particularly useful. The page includes general descriptions of various teaching methodologies, with exercises, problems and simulations instructors can adopt, as well as links to other resources. Many of the ideas require little or no additional time for instructors or students. For example, when discussing selected cases in doctrinal courses, faculty can frame questions in the context of client interviews or counseling or negotiation between lawyers, instead of appellate arguments. Faculty can inject PPS into class discussion when analyzing hypothetical problems and possible solutions, or assign students to conduct simulations during or outside of class to work through particular legal issues in a specific factual context. These are just a few ways that faculty can increase attention to practical application of legal doctrine.
Incorporating PPS into doctrinal courses may be quite natural for some faculty - and, indeed, many faculty have been using these techniques for a long time. Some colleagues may not feel comfortable doing this without some help. So LEAPS has convened small panels of highly-respected faculty to be available to consult with faculty around the country who want advice about incorporating PPS into their courses. These panels of consultants cover nine subject areas: civil procedure, clinics, contracts, criminal law, family law, labor and employment law, professional responsibility, property, and torts. Consultants can provide teaching tips and materials to law professors teaching those subjects who want to incorporate more PPS in their courses but don't want to reinvent the wheel.
In addition to increasing one's own PPS instruction, we think it is important for faculty to encourage colleagues to increase their PPS instruction. We have developed suggestions you can use to help individual colleagues increase PPS teaching in their courses. Some faculty may feel reluctant to incorporate PPS elements into their courses, so we have suggested responses to address foreseeable concerns. Addressing their concerns can help them figure out how they can try teaching methods that can help future generations of law students graduate more practice-ready.
Finally, in light of the current pressures on legal education, your law school may be particularly interested in sponsoring colloquia, talks or informal discussions about improving instruction. You might suggest the law school sponsor a discussion about PPS teaching by inviting an outside speaker, such as a member of the LEAPS executive committee or one of our subject area consultants, or by facilitating the discussion yourself. Regular users of ILTL resources may be in the best position to lead such discussions with colleagues at their own schools. The LEAPS website provides suggestions and materials, including a generic PowerPoint presentation that can be adapted for particular audiences, for making the discussion as productive as possible.
Pace Law School
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.
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.
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.