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Racial Anxiety

Racial Anxiety

By Anastasia M. Boles, UA Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law

As law professors, we care deeply about our students.  We put a tremendous amount of effort into our teaching, advising student organizations, and serving as formal and informal mentors.  Unfortunately, science has taught us that unconscious racism may be operating to degrade our student interactions. Many of us are familiar with the term “implicit bias.”  Over the last few decades, social psychologists have explored the ways implicit preferences and biases permeate society, including criminal justice, health, and education.  Thus, unconscious racism may be interfering with our student interactions.

While lesser known than implicit bias, a common consequence of unconscious racism is “racial anxiety,” which is the unconscious anxiety we may experience or exhibit when interacting with a person of a different race.  For example, racial anxiety can cause undetectable physical changes in our bodies such as nervousness, discomfort, stiffness, and decreased eye contact.  The experience of unconscious racial anxiety sets up a vicious cycle; we unconsciously minimize interactions that have made us uncomfortable in the past, even if we cannot name the source of the discomfort. Racial anxiety expresses differently depending on race – people of color may be anxious about experiencing racism; whites may fear saying the wrong thing, or being labeled a racist.  Whatever the cause, as our cognitive resources are directed to mitigating any racial anxiety we are experiencing, the quality of our personal interaction with the differently-raced person can degrade.[1]

Racial anxiety is likely present in the halls and classrooms of law schools as well.  Despite our best intentions, law professors may experience racial anxiety symptoms in cross-racial conservations and interactions with our students.  At the same time, our differently-raced students may experience racial anxiety as they interact with us.  Consider this common scenario: a white law professor and a student of color meet outside of class for the first time to review an exam, talk about an issue from class, or discuss a paper.  Racial anxiety can affect the professor’s ability to build rapport with the student, appear open and friendly, evaluate the student’s learning needs, engage the student’s questions, and build trust.  The student of color, if also affected by racial anxiety, is less able to ask questions, absorb feedback, and seek mentoring.  If either the law professor or law student experienced unconscious racial anxiety during the meeting, future interactions between the professor and student may be affected.  Now imagine the potential for racial anxiety to disrupt the law school classroom where a sensitive issue related to race comes up in class discussion.  Racial anxiety may degrade the ability or willingness of the professor to engage the issue.  The ensuring student discussion could suffer.  Our students require our full attention; if racial anxiety is depleting the attention we give, we should do something about it.

What can we do?  If racial anxiety operates in our unconscious minds, can we ever hope to banish it?  The great news is that we can.  To combat racial anxiety, psychologists recommend that we start by increasing our cross-racial interactions with our students.  Psychologists call this “intergroup contact.”  Strategies such as encouraging students to attend office hours to increase familiarity, attending and supporting student events with differently-raced students, and increasing the amount and depth of conversations with differently-raced students can help.  During cross-racial interactions, seek to understand cultural differences as well as identifying similarities; the goal is to recognize and appreciate the varying cultural backgrounds of our students – not minimize them.  The more law teachers and law students from different racial backgrounds interact with one another, the less potential for racial anxiety to disrupt those interactions.

[1] For more information about racial anxiety see here, and here.

The Compounding Effects of Assessment

The Compounding Effects of Assessment

By Lindsey P. Gustafson, UA Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law

If you’ve found your way to the Institute of Law Teaching and Learning, you are likely already a believer in formative assessment. We do have empirical evidence that formative assessment improves student learning in law: Two recent studies have shown that students who received individualized feedback during the semester outperformed students who did not on final exams, and not just in the class where they received the feedback but in every single class they were taking.  [1] One study’s authors note the “likelihood of this occurring by chance is one in 256.”[2]

But as we add formative assessments to students’ semesters, we must consider how we are altering the demands on their time. The middle of the semesters, which have traditionally been the playground for the Socratic Method and for legal writing assignments, may now be filled with a variety of assessment activities, and some of them may dominate students’ time in a way that impacts students’ learning in other classes. When our assessments interfere with students’ participation in other classes, or vice versa, the inferences that we draw from our assessments about student learning may not be valid. And an assessment that provides invalid data is worse than no assessment at all. Consequently, we must all consider our assessments as students experience them, “holistically and interactively.”[3]

How do we deeply coordinate assessments and avoid an assessment system that instead overwhelms students, clutters or fragments their learning, or discourages them early in their first semester? We must coordinate beyond shared calendars, starting in our own classrooms by ensuring that our own assessment activities, as a slice of the student-time pie, are designed with and justified by best practices that encourage an assessment’s validity. In a recent article, I’ve identified five relevant best practices:

  1. Make the assessments’ alignment with learning goals transparent to students and to other faculty members with whom we intend to coordinate: A clear alignment with learning goals helps students understand how the assessments will move them towards learning goals, and helps them make informed decisions about their allocation of time. A clear alignment also allows us to clearly communicate our assessment choices to other faculty members.
  2. Use rubrics to create a shared language of instruction: Once we identify learning goals, rubrics help us refine our communication with students. They see how they will be assessed, and we see with specificity what they have learned.
  3. Ensure the assessments encourage student autonomy: One particularly harmful potential outcome of a tightly orchestrated assessment system is that it may overly dictate student decisions, rather than facilitate student autonomy. Our assessment systems should build students’ feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are fundamental to learning.
  4. Set high expectations and display confidence that students can meet those expectations: Students prone to maladaptive responses to feedback are likely to be overwhelmed and discouraged by frequent assessments. Explaining our high expectations and displaying confidence in students can help address these tendencies.
  5. Regularly review the entire assessment system, paying particular attention to students’ ownership of their own learning within the system.

When we ground our formative assessment decisions in best practices, we are better able to communicate our decisions to students, and better able to more deeply coordinate with other faculty members.


[1] See Daniel Schwarcz & Dion Farganis, The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance, 67 J. Legal Educ. 139, 142 (2017) (finding that formative assessment improved performance on final exams for students with below-median entering credientials); Ruth Colker et al., Formative Assessments: A Law School Case Study, 94 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 387 (2017) (finding the same); Carol Springer Sargent, Andrea A. Curcio, Empirical Evidence That Formative Assessments Improve Final Exams, 61 J. Legal Educ. 379, 383–84 (2012) (finding that formative assessment improved performance on final exams for students with above-median entering credentials); Andrea A. Curcio, Gregory Todd Jones & Tanya M. Washington, Developing an Empirical Model to Test Whether Required Writing Exercises or Other Changes in Large-Section Law Class Teaching Methodologies Result in Improved Exam Performance, 57 J. Legal Educ. 195, 197 (2007) (finding the same); Andrea A. Curcio, Gregory Todd Jones & Tanya M. Washington, Does Practice Make Perfect? An Empirical Examination of the Impact of Practice Essays on Essay Exam Performance, 35 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 271, 280-82, 302-306 (2008)(finding the same).

[2] Schwarcz, supra note 1, at 142.

[3] See Harry Torrance, Formative Assessment at the Crossroads: Conformative, Deformative and Transformative Assessment, 38 Oxford Rev. of Educ. 323, 334 (2012) (noting that “assessment is always formative, but not necessarily in a positive way”).

Review: Feb. 2019  Article(s) of The Month

Review: Feb. 2019 Article(s) of The Month

By Rory Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

This month’s contribution departs from the format of reviewing and recommending a law review article.  Rather it summarizes four separate articles which are published in journals other than law reviews.  The articles are:

  1. “Understanding Generation Z Students to Promote a Contemporary Learning Environment,” available on line at: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=jete
  2. “How Generation Z is Shaping the Change in Education,” available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sievakozinsky/2017/07/24/how-generation-z-is-shaping-the-change-in-education/#2086c0e46520
  3. “Designing Performer-Centric Learning Systems for Millennials, Generation Z and Beyond,” available at:  https://trainingindustry.com/magazine/issue/designing-performer-centric-learning-systems-for-millennials-generation-z-and-beyond/ ; and
  4. “The Challenge of Teaching Generation Z,” available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312659039_The_challenge_of_teaching_generation_Z

The reason I felt justified in departing from the usual format of this column is because I was alarmed recently by a discussion on a list-serve by legal pedagogy experts who were trying to minimize the impact of the current information environment on reshaping what we consider effective pedagogy.

The argument made in support of the statement that we don’t need to teach differently in the internet-era was essentially, “We should just keep teaching the way we have because even though information access and portability have reshaped the way the world functions, we don’t need to change the way we have always taught since before the dawn of the internet.”  Ironically, even a superficial google search reveals the patent lack of empirical support for that argument.

The truth about how teaching needs to change for it to be effective teaching to today’s students is discussed in the above referenced articles and a summary of the articles’ findings is as follows:

  1. Today’s students live in a world where information is instantly accessible;
  2. Communication needs to be replaced with interaction for these students;
  3. Learning needs to be more learner centered;
  4. The teacher needs to create a classroom environment that facilitates creativity and critical thinking as the delivery of information is no longer something we need teachers for;
  5. Because information is now widely and instantly accessible, teachers must find ways other than providing information to grasp and engage students;
  6. Most non-Generation Z teachers will need professional development help in order to effectively communicate with today’s students;
  7. Current students are dissatisfied being passive learners and educational experiences need to be fully immersive and these students need to learn by doing; and
  8. Collaborative learning environments are essential to teaching them. We can’t just be Professor Kingsfield at the head of a hierarchical learning environment as has been the norm since Langdell walked Harvard’s hallowed halls.

Unfortunately, our resistance to confronting the inertia involved in changing the way we teach is no longer a valid excuse if we want to teach effectively to the students who are now entering law schools.

Review: Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond

Review: Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond

By Jane Bloom Grisé, University of Kentucky College of Law

Scott Turow, the bestselling author of One L, compared reading cases to “stirring concrete with my eyelashes.” Reading cases is challenging for many law students, but critical reading skills are incredibly important for success in law school and legal practice. Empirical research shows that lawyers read cases differently than non-lawyers. In addition, top law students use different reading strategies than lower performing students. While expert legal readers read cases to solve client problems, novices often read to memorize facts. Higher performing law students use an arsenal of different reading strategies depending upon the complexity of the case, but novices tend to indiscriminately highlight large quantities of text. Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond was written to teach students the skills utilized by lawyers and higher performing law students. This book introduces students to a series of critical reading strategies so that they can become effective readers and move on to be successful in law school and law practice.

The Critical Reading program is premised on two ideas. First, it is based on the idea that critical reading should be taught. While it is often assumed that students enter law school fully equipped to read and understand cases and statutes, there is no evidence to support this assumption. One student in a focus group conducted in connection with the Critical Reading program indicated that reading a case was like looking for a purple dinosaur without knowing what a dinosaur was or what the color purple looked like. Critical reading strategies can be taught, and it is important to explain to students, as adult learners, how these strategies will improve their ultimate performance.

Second, Critical Reading is based on the idea that strategies should be presented in a sequential manner. As Bloom’s taxonomy suggests, students must master the lower level skill of understanding before they can be expected to engage in higher level skills, such as analysis and synthesis. For this reason, Critical Reading starts by examining the purpose for reading cases—to solve problems. Students are also introduced to the structure of cases so that they can understand different sections of cases. Critical Reading then presents information about civil and criminal procedure so that students can understand some of the commonly used terminology found in cases.

Then the program teaches students pre-reading strategies such as understanding the context of cases and doing case overviews before reading more carefully. After students master these foundational skills, they are introduced to techniques for reading facts and understanding complicated text. Rather than simply providing a template for a case brief, the program examines the components of a case such as the issue, holding, and dictum, and provides techniques to understand the main ideas in the case. Higher level skills such as finding rules, synthesizing cases, and evaluating cases are addressed at the end of the book.

These strategies can be introduced and incorporated into all classrooms in a few ways. First, students can be advised that they should read cases to identify rules and concepts that will be used to solve client problems or hypotheticals on a final exam. Students should be explicitly told that they do not need to memorize most cases.

Second, students can be instructed to read actively and pretend that they are either one of the parties in the case or the judge. Studies have found that higher performing students read actively in this way. Professors who ask students how they would decide the case or how one of the parties would argue in the case are encouraging students to adopt this active reading strategy. Finally, professors can take one sentence from an opinion and model good comprehension techniques such as paying attention to conjunctions, noticing repeated words, and shortening long sentences by inserting periods.

Critical Reading describes these and other strategies that can be introduced in the fall and/or spring semesters. As you are planning the spring semester, consider incorporating critical reading strategies into your courses. If you would like to discuss how you can introduce these strategies to your students, please feel free to contact me at jane.grise@uky.edu.

Review: Feedback Distortion: The Shortcomings of Model Answers as Formative Feedback

Review: Feedback Distortion: The Shortcomings of Model Answers as Formative Feedback

By Lindsey P. Gustafson, UA Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law

Elizabeth Ruiz Frost, Feedback Distortion: The Shortcomings of Model Answers as Formative Feedback, 65 J. Legal Educ. 938 (2016)

Elizabeth Ruiz Frost’s article Feedback Distortion: The Shortcomings of Model Answers as Formative Feedback was published in 2016, but it continues to affect the way I design and critique my students’ assessment activities—both in my classroom and across our curriculum—as we respond to the ABA’s mandate for more formative assessment. Professor Frost posits that, while providing a model answer (either student- or professor-authored) in place of individual feedback may allow for efficient formative feedback, in most situations it does not provide effective formative feedback. She points to evidence that weaker students tend to misinterpret model answers and are less capable of accurately assessing their own work against the model.

In her article, Professor Frost gives reasons beyond efficiency a professor may have for giving feedback through a model answer, including that learning through a model answer encourages a students to self-teach, a skill they will rely on throughout their career; model answers provide feedback quickly, while students are still primed for it; model answers will not alienate students with personalized, negative comments; and model answers are what students clamor for. Professor Frost explains why each of these reasons is inadequate to justify what she describes as a shift in the learning burden: the professor avoids learning how to provide effective feedback by forcing a student to learn how to improve from a model.

Model answers provide effective formative assessment only if students are able to compare their work with a model and see what they did wrong. Professor Frost roots the assumption students do this in the “Vicarious Learning and Self-Teaching models of education, which have pervaded legal teaching since the nineteenth century.” In fact, whether this feedback is effective depends first on the characteristics and mindset of the learners, and second on the type of knowledge the professor is assessing. As to the first variable, because weaker students are less self-aware, they face a “double curse”: “[t]he weakest students, who lack the ability to distinguish between the standard exemplified by a model answer and their own work, will learn the least from a model answer. So the students who need feedback most for continued learning will get the least.”

The second variable is relevant because model answers can provide effective feedback for questions of factual knowledge and concept identification. But any assessment that requires higher-order thinking—where students need to demonstrate analysis, for example—model answers are not as effective. Students instead need elaborative feedback.

Professor Frost ends her article with methods for using model answers to give feedback that best promote student learning: (a) providing an annotated model answer together with individualized feedback; (b) creating opportunities for remediation and reassessment for students after they have reviewed model answers; (c) using a student’s own work as a model answer; (d) requiring students to review model answers in small groups instead of individually; (e) providing multiple sample answers for review, including both strong and weak samples; and (f) focusing on metacognitive skills throughout so that students can better self-evaluate against model answers.

Several of her methods have worked for my students. Recently, I’ve noticed the first method recommended above working across the curriculum: students learn more from a model answer when the same skill (here, answering a midterm essay question) is tested in another course and personalized feedback is given there. In short, learning in one course is improved by the efforts of professors in other courses.

Review: Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law In Less Time

Review: Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law In Less Time

By Tonya Krause-Phelan, WMU-Cooley Law School

Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law In Less Time by Gabriel H. Teninbaum
17 JOURNAL HIGH TECHNOLOGY LAW 273 (2017)

Spaced Repetition explains why spaced repetition is so much more than learning from flashcards. This article presents a concise tutorial detailing the psychological phenomena known as spaced repetition and how it can help to law students, bar preppers, and practitioners learn the law more quickly, effectively and efficiently. Discovered in the 1800’s, spaced repetition is a learning and memorization method that not only improves the way people learn and prepare for exams, it also fosters faster learning and greater retention. To understand how spaced repetition promotes learning and aids memory,  it is important to consider the three related psychological phenomena that form a spaced repetition system: the forgetting curve, the spacing effect, and the testing effect.

The forgetting curve is the decline in the ability to recall information. This occurs because as soon as a person learns something, they begin to forget it. To combat the forgetting curve, spaced repetition cues learners to restudy immediately before the learned material is predicted to be forgotten. Research shows there is an ideal moment to reinforce learned information. Recalling the information at just the right time allows learners to not only keep the memory active, but to identify the information that has already been forgotten so it can be targeted for restudying.

The spacing effect requires study sessions to be properly spaced to slow down the forgetting curve. Because of the initial steep decline of the forgetting curve, learners will need to review information frequently at first. Over time, the spacing effect increases allowing learners to wait for longer periods of time between review sessions. If done correctly the spacing can go from hours, to days, to weeks, to months, and even to years. As a result, material learned via spaced repetition in the first year of law school could be reviewed periodically throughout the second and third year of law school to be easily recalled during bar review and the bar examination.

The testing effect describes the ability of people to more readily recall learned information. Learners experience the testing effect when they recall learned information by testing themselves instead of passively observing the information. The benefit is even more pronounced when assessment is followed by meaningful feedback that includes exposure to the correct answer. The most effective spaced repetition techniques involve learners answering questions which force them to use their memory as much as possible such as free recall, short answer, multiple-choice, Cloze deletion exercises, and recognition. But spaced repetition can be so much more than just definitional flash cards and fill-in-the blank exercises; it can also be used to help learners apply complex content.

Early on, spaced repetition systems had to be created and used by hand. However, today, mobile applications have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for staging spaced repetition platforms. While Spaced Repetition is a primer on the basics of spaced repetition systems, it also promotes the author’s web-based platform: SpacedRepetition.com. The author has built in several key benefits into his platform including: it’s a web-based platform easily used on smartphones and mobile devices; it uses an algorithm to apply spaced repetition; it includes expertly created core content; it allows for editable content; it provides a third slide option (to include other pieces of black letter law or context); and, the content is shareable.

Spaced repetition can help law students, bar preppers, and practitioners learn more effectively and efficiently. The author cautions, however, that spaced repetition requires more than just looking at flashcards. Users of spaced repetition must still learn how to organize, apply, and express the law. But, if learners use spaced repetition outside of the classroom, legal educators can make more effective use of flipped classrooms as well as active learning and application exercises. While this article promotes the author’s platform, it is worthwhile read for legal educators looking to understand and provide spaced repetition learning opportunities for their students.

 

Review: Of Courtrooms and Classrooms

Review: Of Courtrooms and Classrooms

By Rory Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

Daniel Cover, Of Courtrooms and Classrooms, 27 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 291 (2018)

In her recently published article “Of Courtrooms and Classrooms,” professor Cover suggests ways that trial lawyers can increase the efficacy of their presentations to juries by analogizing the jurors to students in a law school classroom.  Even though the article is targeted at practicing attorneys her comparisons of jurors and law school students provide useful insight in to the hallmarks of effective pedagogy.

In her introduction, Cover points out that essentially a trial lawyer’s job is to convince jurors who have no idea going in what the case is about. She does this through a storytelling/narrative technique that captures the jurors’ attention even though many of the concepts coming at them are new and they are in a difficult environment where long days promote fatigue.  This she suggests is akin to the law professor’s job in the traditional doctrinal classroom.

She then examines the theory of how adults learn or andragogical information and concludes that some essential components of adult education are:

  1. The student rather than the subject matter is the center of the inquiry
  2. Adults learn better when they have a need or experience learning will satisfy
  3. Adults want to be self-directed in their learning
  4. Because of the various experiences acquired over the time it takes to become an adult, effective pedagogy must take into account difference in style, time, pace and place of learning.

The article goes on to describe in tangible and very useful ways law professors and trial lawyers can ensure the principles listed above are incorporated into presentations.  However, the most fascinating of these is here reference to the “disorienting moment.”

Cover explains that in the law school classroom and in trials students and jurors experience moments when their previously held beliefs and assumptions are challenged.  This she explains is a “disorienting moment.”  She suggests that these disorienting moments, when an adult’s schema are challenged, provide the most fertile ground for planting the seeds of new information. This is because challenges to schemas facilitate the incorporation of new information into the schemas and the creation of new schemas.

If you take only one useful piece of information (though the article is chocked full of useful information) form Cover’s work, then consider she suggests designing classroom presentations to deliberately include disorienting moments which facilitate significant incorporation of new knowledge into old knowledge.

Ultimately, the article is well researched and very useful.  It is a must read

 

 

Review: Teaching Law Students to Teach Themselves…

Review: Teaching Law Students to Teach Themselves…

By Rory Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

Teaching Law Students to Teach Themselves: Using Lessons from Educational Psychology to Shape Self-Regulated Learners, 59 Wayne L. Rev. 311

In her article, “Teaching Law Students to Teach Themselves: Using Lessons from Educational Psychology to Shape Self-Regulated Learners,” Elizabeth Bloom sets forth a very user friendly and informative road map for “maximiz[ing] the learning experience” to help a “diverse population of law students become self-regulated learners.”

The article initially defines self-regulated learning and discusses its origins in both the cognitivist and constructivist learning theory movements.  She isolates the essential components of self-regulated learning as Schema creation, using prior knowledge to add new knowledge and metacognition.  She concludes by precisely describing self-regulated learning as consisting of the following three phases: forethought, performance, and reflection.  The unique aspect of this article is that it then describes concretely and tangibly what each of these phases looks like or consists of rather than leaving those terms as isolated amorphous learning buzzwords divorced from the reality of the classroom.

But the article goes even further and provides concrete methodologies to teach self-regulated learning.  These methodologies are broken down into strategies to:

  1. self-regulate motivation,
  2. self-regulate behavior and resources and,
  3. self-regulate cognition.

This article is a must read for anyone seeking to bridge the divide between the copious abstract, academic literature on teaching and learning and practical strategies to implement these methodologies without being overwhelmed by terms and buzzwords which seem foreign to may faculty members.

 

Review: From Seminar to Simulation: Wading Out to the Third Wave

Review: From Seminar to Simulation: Wading Out to the Third Wave

By Tonya Krause-Phelan, WMU-Cooley Law School

From Seminar to Simulation: Wading Out to the Third Wave by Margaret Moore Jackson
19 JOURNAL OF GENDER, RACE, AND JUSTICE 127 (2016)

From Seminar to Simulation: Wading Out to the Third Wave encourages legal educators to embrace simulated teaching in light of the newly-adopted ABA standards relating to experiential learning. Because ABA Standard 303(a)(3) requires students to complete at least six credits of experiential coursework which can be earned in law clinics, field placements, or simulation courses, Professor Jackson suggests that simulation teaching can be integrated into existing courses by reformatting seminars, those upper-level, reading and discussion-based courses that typically focus on specialized areas of law not usually tested on the bar exam. Reformatting a seminar course as a simulation course allows faculty to accomplish two significant goals. First, it provides an experiential learning opportunity for students that meets, if not exceeds, the new requirement. Second, it can also create an opportunity for students to develop and use professional values as they learn to apply the law.

Beyond meeting the new standards, including simulations as experiential teaching is a way professors can foster integrated learning. Many professors already incorporate classroom exercises and role play into their doctrinal classes. Even though these efforts are designed to develop students’ professional skills, they do not satisfy the ABA’s definition of a simulation course. To comply with Standard 304, a simulation course must reasonably assimilate the experience of   client representation or engage in other lawyering tasks in a set of facts and circumstances devised or adopted by a faculty member. The simulation course requires faculty to directly supervise the student’s performance followed by faculty feedback and student self-evaluation. Finally, there must be a classroom instructional component.

From a faculty perspective, a potential barrier to merging simulated teaching and experiential learning into existing courses is the time-consuming nature of simulation teaching. Faculty are also apprehensive about how much subject matter will have to be sacrificed to carve out enough time for the simulation component. Despite the potential difficulties, there are many benefits to simulation teaching. For starters, simulation teaching assists in applied knowledge and introductory skills development in that it cements learning of substantive law. Faculty can continue informal doctrinal teaching as students engage in simulated roles by structuring assignments that teach practical lawyering skills that will also reinforce their learning of legal analysis. And because simulated teaching fosters concentrated learning of professional skills and values, it also promotes justice, underscores service to the community, and helps students to overcome assumptions and inherent biases.

Although the ABA requirements for a simulation course appear formidable, Professor Jackson suggests that restructuring courses to provide students with six credits of experiential education might not be as daunting a task as some might think. Professor Jackson provided a template for creating a plan convert a seminar course into a simulation course based on her housing discrimination class. But the format easily translates to any substantive class or seminar. Begin by identifying the competencies students should achieve by the end of the course. Make sure to envision these competencies in the context of the area of law. The objectives should be relevant and realistic in the area of practice. Be careful to limit the goals to an amount that can be effectively implemented and assessed. Consider a format that focusses on repetition and refinement of targeted skills in relation to more elaborate doctrine.

For example, in Professor Jackson’s fair housing seminar, students were assigned to represent a hypothetical client. The assignments required students to know the applicable law, provide client advice based on the law and the particular situation, communicate with other lawyers, judges, and real estate professionals as the client’s case required, and to be alert to potential injustices. Supplementing exercises included professional writing activities and oral presentations to a community audience.  A final component of the exercises encouraged students to focus on client communication designed to develop relational skills and empathy, dispel students’ false assumptions about the role of law in society, and to develop their self-conceptions as professionals to promote justice.

Transitioning to simulation teaching provides faculty with opportunities to connect learning the law with developing the skills, instincts, and inclinations to use the law to promote justice. Whether a professor seeking to augment a doctrinal class with experiential learning exercises or a professor looking to dive into the full spectrum of simulated teaching, From Seminar to Simulation: Wading Out to the Third Wave provides the pedagogical support and procedural format to transition to simulation teaching.

 

Review:  Words Count: The Empirical Relationship Between Brief Writing and Summary Judgment

Review: Words Count: The Empirical Relationship Between Brief Writing and Summary Judgment

Reviewed by Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Review: Words Count: The Empirical Relationship Between Brief Writing and Summary Judgment and Summary Judgment Success, 22 J. Leg. Writing Inst. ___ (2018).

SSRN Article Link

By Shaun B. Spencer and Adam Feldman

Because I teach first-year law students, the spring semester always brings back recollections of the first-year legal writing experience, culminating with the classic appellate brief assignment.  When I came across my colleague Professor Shaun Spencer’s latest article, co-written with Adam Feldman, a J.D./Ph.D post-doctoral fellow at Columbia Law, I thought it was apt to share—not just because the article’s main handle pertains to the topic of legal writing, but also because of what it implies for law teaching generally.  The article is titled, Words Count: The Empirical Relationship Between Brief Writing and Summary Judgment Success, at it is forthcoming this year from the Journal of the Legal Writing Institute.

At the start of Spencer and Feldman’s article, the piece seems exclusively relevant for practitioners because it presents us with a statistical relationship between the readability of summary judgment briefs to the rate of favorable case outcomes.  Thus, in terms of readability, proficient legal writing is a valuable commodity in law practice according to their results.  However, the academic implication is also clear because legal writing is also what law schools teach.  The idea of effective legal writing lies at the heart of various legal writing textbooks and numerous pieces of scholarship on the subject.  Since Langdell, legal writing classes have been welded into the law school curriculum.  And ABA accreditation standards reinforce that tradition of teaching legal writing by mandating that students take writing courses throughout their law school careers.  In this way, Spencer and Feldman’s article is one to observe.  Their empirical study underscores the value of instruction and competency for the art and skill of legal writing.

Judges might hesitate to divulge that the quality of a practitioner’s writing can influence judicial decision-making of a case—since this revelation would clash with the idea that cases are resolved based on adjudication of law and facts, rather than on the skills and proficiency of practitioners.  However, several existing scholarly studies that have already examined appellate brief writing and correlated subjectivity and readability to favorable outcomes.  In their study, Spencer and Feldman now bring the empirical lens to state and federal trial court briefs in order to determine whether a positive association exists between brief readability and case outcomes.  Here, they frame two hypotheses.  First, “[i]ncreased brief readability will lead to a greater likelihood that a party will prevail on a motion for summary judgment.”  Secondly, “[w]hen the moving party’s brief is more readable than the non-moving party’s brief, the moving party will be more likely to prevail on a motion for summary judgment.”  With these hypotheses raised, they embark to test their hunches.

Spencer and Feldman use cognitive theory to explain their hypotheses.  Because the brain processes familiar and unfamiliar information differently, the fluency of information presented affects whether a person would process new information associatively or analytically.  The more fluent the information presented is, the more one tends to process associatively, and vice versa—the less fluent, the more one processes analytically.  In writing, fluency can be affected by formatting and “the look” of the document—as predicated for example by font, color, and spacing—as well as readability-related characteristics such as length and complexity of sentences, grammar, and vocabulary.

From here, the authors outline the research method they designed that includes their reasoning for examining summary judgment briefs, a protocol for selecting briefs for their sample, and the definition and coding of variables.  In total, they looked at 654 total briefs in 327 cases from both federal and state courts.  What Spencer and Feldman found was that “[w]hen the moving party’s brief was more readable, the moving party was typically more likely to prevail[.]” Also, “[m]oving from cases where the moving party’s brief is significantly less readable than the non-moving party’s brief to the opposite situations, the likelihood that the moving party prevails on the motion for summary judgment more than doubles from 42% to 85%.”  Both findings appear consistent with their initial hypotheses.  The authors explain alternative theories for these results but ultimately dismiss those theories for the correlation they reached.

For lawyers and advocates, this study presents an important focus on effective and presentable writing in litigation.  However, although Spencer and Feldman’s study does not prove a causal relationship between readability of briefs and favorable case outcomes, the authors do call out that the strong correlation raised here does bolster “the ever-increasing emphasis on legal writing instruction in law school curricula, the ABA standards on law school accreditation, and continuing legal education programs.”  Thus, this study lends credibility for elevating the profile and status of legal writing colleagues in law schools across the country.

In reading Spencer and Feldman’s article, I was reminded of the old schoolhouse phrase, “neatness counts”—but here perhaps it’s “readability counts” that is more appropriate.  With readability highly influenced by the proficiency of legal writing, what this study eventually provokes in me as a doctrinal law faculty member can be crystallized into two thoughts.  First, I have a question: does readability correlate to final examination grading or am I as the grader of my final exams doing something else in the grading process (such as assessment) that is conceptually and functionally different from the adjudication process?  Secondly, if readability does correlate to exams (even if I am assessing competency rather than adjudicating cases), then knowing how to affect fluency and readability would be an intrinsic part of the art of lawyering, factoring into the choices and strategies a legal thinker makes in advocacy.  I would see that, other than teaching doctrine, imparting such skills would be part of my job as well.  Teaching it effectively would be another way to help my students engage with the law and help empower them.  Ultimately for me, it is this correlation, drawn from Spencer and Feldman’s study, that resonates most with me.  In this way, beyond “readability counts” for practitioners, their study is also very significant for the teaching of effective lawyering.

 

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