By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law
Over the past six months, I have struggled with what some might call a “mid-life-professor crisis.” As I struggled to keep up with committee work, teaching, writing, applying for promotion, etc., the feeling of being overworked was overwhelming me. I write this post today because I know others struggle with the same feelings. It makes professors wonder if this is the right place and the right job. The answer to that question is intensely personal but the way to get to the answer is not very personal. I took time over the break to look deep into the recesses of my heart and mind asking myself some tough questions: do I make a difference, is this where I want to be, and if so, why? Here is two words that came to the surface again and again: recommit and privilege.
First of all, I realized I needed to recommit to the science and the art of teaching. I needed to put teaching first: before scholarship, before committee work, and before other work responsibilities. We are here to teach students, to perfect that craft, and to dedicate our energy there. The decision seemed so clear to me at that point. Teaching is what I love, and I need to focus on it first. Once I said that out loud and recommitted to that love, my direction seemed so clear: stay with teaching. I have been able to put it first for the first couple of weeks. Feel free to hold me accountable as the semester heats up!
Secondly, once I recommitted to my first love (teaching) I realized what a privilege it is to be able to come to work and teach students how to be lawyers. The last week has been so much more joyful focusing on this privilege. Some may call this gratitude, but I see gratitude as part of realizing the privilege. We are indeed lucky to do this work.
Lastly, once I saw this and felt it in my heart, I knew I had to share this perspective with my students. After I told them what a privilege it was to be a lawyer and to be their teacher, we discussed what lawyers do to make a difference in the world. Some students brought up how helping one person changes the world. As we started to talk and share, I saw the student’s shoulders start to straighten, and, it seemed, their mood lifted. I urged the students to think about what is good in their world and to think about what is a privilege in their lives. This conversation took about 5 minutes and then we continued to learn about grammar and contract drafting. After class, several students stopped me to say thank you for stopping the “rat race” for just a few minutes which allowed them to breathe and be thankful. Take some time to recommit yourself, and, if you feel comfortable, share that commitment and gratitude with your students.
By Aaron Caplan, Loyola Law School, Loyola Marymount University
Visual aids are not the most important thing a law teacher does in the classroom. They can never substitute for well-chosen material, clear organization, thoughtfully chosen in-class activities, being a good explainer or being a good listener. With that said, good visual aids can help students learn more effectively – and bad visual aids make learning harder.
A series of videos based on a presentation I gave at the AALS New Law Teachers Workshop in June 2019 explores what makes successful visual aids work. The first segment explores the psychology of multi-media learning, providing a theory for preparing visual aids that complement one’s lesson plan and not detracting from it. The following segments provide examples of visual aids that I have used with success in various classes, including illustrations, visual renderings of legal texts, visualizations of concepts, and more.
The videos can be reached here: www.lls.edu/CaplanVisualAids/
By Eric Voigt, Faulkner University, Jones School of Law
I have asked myself many times, “Self, could my first-year law students research a legal issue without any guidance from me?” You have probably asked yourself a similar question if you teach a skills-based course. This semester, I decided to create a new assessment measure to answer my question: an online research exam.
Summary of How I Teach Legal Research
My students learn to perform legal research through multiple methods. Students first read the assigned chapters from the textbook I have authored titled Legal Research Demystified: A Step-by-Step Approach. Students then jump online and answer multiple-choice questions on Core Knowledge for Lawyers (https://coreknowledgeforlawyers.com). Core Knowledge automatically grades each answer and provides an explanation (similar to Core Grammar) to reinforce basic research concepts. Next, students complete guided research exercises using the research services and tools they just read about. During class, I discuss the commonly-missed questions and answer their questions. Last, students must apply their research skills to the open memo problem—once again, with guidance from me.
Purpose of Online Research Exam
Despite those formative assessments, I wanted a higher degree of confidence that my students could “fly the research nest” and answer a legal question on any unfamiliar issue. To that end, I am creating an online research exam that my students will take this semester. I have one primary purpose: determine whether my students could find—and understand—relevant statutes and interpretive cases without guidance from me.
Content of Online Research Exam
For my research exam, students will not simply answer questions on research concepts (e.g., What is KeyCite?). Instead, students will resolve a client’s legal question using Westlaw or Lexis Advance. Specifically, they will research state statutes and update them, including confirming their validity, checking effective dates, and reviewing amendments. They will also need to find cases that have interpreted the statutes. Last, students will synthesize the relevant rules and authorities and predict the client’s likelihood of success.
Delivery Format of Online Research Exam
Students will electronically complete my research exam directly on TWEN (The West Education Network), which is my course management system. (Next year, students will be able to complete the research exam on Carolina Academic Press’s platform, Core Knowledge.) Most of the exam contains multiple-choice questions, but it also has a few fill-in-the blank questions and one short answer question. The final question, for instance, requires students to follow CRAC principles (Conclusion-Rule-Application-Conclusion) and write a few paragraphs on whether the client would prevail.
By placing the exam online, I can include questions that build upon prior ones, allowing me to assess students’ understanding of different steps of the research process. For example, suppose a student finds the wrong statutes in response to an initial question. I could still assess whether the student understands how to update the statutes by identifying the correct statutes in subsequent questions and asking about their validity and effective dates.
Because some questions provide the answers to prior ones, I will establish certain limits. Using TWEN’s advanced options, I will prevent students from downloading the exam and viewing any subsequent question until they have answered the question on their screen (called “sequential quizzing”). I will also have TWEN grade the first selected answer for each question, so a student cannot change an answer based on what the student learns from later questions.
I will have students take the exam outside of the classroom, so they will not be limited to our eighty-minute class periods. Students will have a three-day window to start the research exam; once started, they will have three continuous hours to complete it. Students will need the extra time to discern the relevant from the irrelevant authorities, as well as more time to analyze the application of law to the client’s situation.
TWEN’s Grading Features
TWEN has several useful grading features. TWEN automatically grades the multiple-choice and fill-in-the blank questions. As to a short answer question, a professor can electronically mark each one correct or incorrect and can even assign partial credit. TWEN then tallies each student’s scores on all questions. The professor can “release” the grades for all students, allowing each student to view only his or her own grade.
Benefits of an Online Research Exam
Assigning an online research exam has multiple benefits to professors and students, such as the following:
- Professors assess students without giving up an in-person class meeting.
- Professors who assign the exam in lieu of in-person meetings (permitted under the ABA rules) could free up an entire week of classes to provide feedback on students’ draft memos.
- Professors can ascertain whether students have learned how to do “real” legal research.
- Students receive their exam grade immediately upon completion.
- Students discover any weak research skills before the deadline of the open memo.
- Students gain confidence in researching on their own and learn skills that can be applied to the open memo problem.
In short, an online research exam is a good assessment tool for first-year and upper-level students. It could be assigned in an integrated research and writing course or a stand-alone research class. If you would like a copy of my research exam, please email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law
While attending the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning conference this past summer, I learned about live critiquing from Professor Amanda Sholtis from Widener University Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her session captivated me, and it made me want to try live critiquing with my first year LRW students. The following is a brief description of my formative assessment with my first closed-universe writing problem:
- The students are given three heavily edited cases to synthesize and a fact pattern containing a problem to solve. It is a problem which has three elements and, therefore, will have three IRACs (or IREAC, CREAC, etc.).
- We synthesize the cases in class together.
- For the next class, I give them a writing template and a writing example. They are to read those documents and bring a completed draft of the closed-universe problem to the next class.
- During that next class, they were given my rubric to self-assess one of the IRACs they wrote (I choose which IRAC they self-assess in class).
- I give them 20 minutes to work through the rubric with their own paper.
- For the self-evaluation, I instruct them to use the rubric which fully explains what a good issue statement should contain; what a good rule statement should contain; what definitions should look like, etc.
- I also instruct them to note in the margin of their paper what needs to be improved on their paper for each section of the IRAC.
- Then, I give them a “good” example of the IRAC for the same issue which they just worked on for the self-assessment. The “good” example is fully annotated by me, showing the students what is good about each section of the IRAC.
- The students used the rest of that class period to review the “good” example and compare it to their paper.
- I was available during that classroom work time to answer questions, etc.
- Once the self-assessment was over, I told them they need to apply what they learned while writing the final draft.
- Once the students turned in their final draft, which only contained the two un-assessed IRACs, they signed up for a live critique with me.
- I give each student ½ hour to go over their final draft with me.
- I don’t review their final drafts until we are sitting together for the face-to-face conference.
- I have my rubric with me, and I have a “good” copy of the two remaining IRACs with annotations of what is good in each section of the IRACs.
- The students take the rubric and the “good” paper home with them.
- During the ½ hour, I spend with each student, I just start reading his or her paper. I stop periodically and make comments on what is good and what needs improvement. The students take notes, ask questions, and dialogue with me.
I found the process helpful in getting to know my students, getting to know the sticking points in their thought/writing process, and getting feedback on my instructions. The students overwhelmingly preferred it to getting a bunch of comments on a paper which they admit they usually don’t read, and if they do, they often don’t understand them. With the next paper, I gave the students the choice to have live critiquing or written critiquing. Over half of my students chose live critiquing, which I considered a good sign that students liked it.
The downsides to this process, however, are:
- I have 37 first-year LRW students so I spent a lot of time meeting with students. I would, however, have spent the time grading anyway. Thus, I think the time spent is a wash.
- It is stressful to meet face-to-face with students and talk to them about what they are doing wrong. I am a social person, and so I really enjoyed the process.
I found live critiquing inspiring, helpful, and surprising. If anyone would like more information about this, I am happy to engage in a further conversation.
By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law
I hope your semester is off to a great start. I know that I have been silent these last few weeks, but I have been swamped with the end of summer and the start of the semester. I had some time today to post a blog post with a teaching idea on getting to know your students and starting to build a learning community in your classroom. At the beginning of the semester, I sent my students a “Getting to Know You” form which contained the following questions:
- Tell me anything you would like me to know about you.
- How comfortable are you with writing and research? Please give me as much information as you can so I can gauge your experience.
- Why did you decide to go to law school?
- Why did you choose Gonzaga?
- What study methods work best for you?
- How do you learn best in the classroom?
- Think of your favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your favorite?
- Think of your least favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your least favorite?
These simple questions gave me insights into who is sitting in front of me. I stapled a picture to each of their information sheets so that I could put a face to the information. I am only one week into the semester but the information has already helped me. For instance, when I am forming working groups for the day, I was able to pair students who are comfortable with writing and research with students who are less sure. Also, knowing what study methods work for the students in front of me, helps me shape how I teach each group of students. Because each group of students is so different, it is good to have information about those students rather than creating lesson plans without that information.
By Jane Korn, Gonzaga University School of Law
I have taught first year law students for a long time. Please do not ask how long! But years ago, I became worried about the mental health and stress levels of my first semester, first year students. I teach a four credit, one semester course in Civil Procedure during the first semester of law school. On the last day of the week that I teach in Civ Pro, I take a few minutes out of class time and ask my students to tell me how they are doing.
The first time I do this, usually at the end of the first week of law school, I tell my students that it is my custom, from time to time, to take time out from Civ Pro, and talk about anything they would like (with some limits). In some years, it takes weeks for them to take me up on this offer. Other years, they start right in. They ask questions like the following:
- When should I start outlining?
- How much time should I spend studying every night?
- How important is getting involved in extracurricular activities?
- What if I don’t know what kind of law I want to practice?
- Do professors care about grammar and organization on a final exam? (I only answer what I expect and do not answer for other faculty)
I think that much of the time, they do not get a chance to ask a law professor these kinds of questions, and can usually only ask upper class students. While we have faculty advisors, students may or may not feel comfortable asking them questions like the above. They eventually do (and sometimes quickly) feel comfortable asking me a wide variety of questions. They sometimes ask personal questions and, within reason, I answer them because it makes them feel more comfortable with me. Questions on gossipy matters about other faculty are off limits. If for example, they complain about another professor, I handle this question with a smile and say something like – you should ask that professor about this issue.
I set aside class time for several reasons. First, while I do worry about giving up valuable teaching time, lessening the stress of my students may make them more able to learn. Second, students often feel like they are the only one with a particular concern during this first semester, and they often do not have the ability to know that others have the same concerns or questions. In the first year, many of our students are not from this area and are far away from support systems, at least at first until they can make friends at law school. The ability to know that other students have the same problems they do can lessen the feeling of isolation. Using class time to answer questions to the entire group may help them with this sense of isolation and being the only one who doesn’t know something. It also lets them see that their concerns are important and credible.
Every year my teaching evaluations reflect this process positively. Students feel like I care (which I do). However, the reason I do it is to increase their comfort during those first few exciting, confusing, and terrifying months of law school.
By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law
I have been doing training on assessment practices for in-class use and for institutional programmatic assessment. To that end, I am learning many techniques which I am employing in my class to find out what teaching methods are working and what are not. I learned the following coding method which allows me to assess answers from my students to open-ended survey questions. To use the coding method, I look for themes in their answers. I describe the system below. Please contact me should you have any questions on the methodology or what I do with the information. In traditional, interactive fashion, there is a practice exercise at the end so readers can see how simple this method is. Once I see themes, I am able to respond and make changes.
Course goal: Students will learn how to locate and print and on-line sources which are complete and relevant to solving a factual problem.
Question posed: You are asked to do many assignments and activities in this class to help develop your legal research skills. Please identify an assignment or type of activity that you found most helpful in developing your research skills. Please include in your answer a specific description of what about the assignment and/or activity that helped you.
I asked this question to my students as I wanted to hear the student perspective on which types of assignments and activities most effectively helped them develop research skills. I give many assignments, but I was unsure which ones were useful. I also wanted to know what about the assignment was helpful: step-by-step instructions, group work, lecture, or flipped classroom model. I developed a coding system so that I could analyze the results. I devised the coding after reviewing a 20% sample of student responses. I randomized who I chose. They turned in the responses, and I chose every 5th one.
- Identification number for class level: (accelerated student=1; a traditional 1L=2)
- Overall response: (0=no response/question was unanswered; 1= student provided a usable response; 2=state/implied that research skills were not strengthened in LRW I course; 3 =response was either not useful or could not be coded)
- Positive mention of a structured assignment which led the student with step-by-step instructions to helping them develop research skills. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of a structured assignment which required to use or develop research skills but no mention of step-by-step guidance being useful. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of a structured assignment which required students to work collaboratively. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of lecture on how-to-do research in print by LRW professor. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of demonstration on how-to-do research on-line by the librarians. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of video demonstration on how-to-do digest research in print which is uploaded to the TWEN page. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of one-on-one assistance of a faculty member. (0=no; 1=yes)
- Positive mention of one-on-one assistance of a librarian. (0=no; 1=yes)
Use the coding scheme on the previous page to code the following three responses. Each student has one row.
Student 1: Accelerated student: I learned the most about research when we did the mini assignments on finding cases in the digests in print. It was most effective to me as we were allowed to work in groups, the professor gave us clear instructions as to each step in the process and I was able to watch the video on TWEN where the professor walked through an example. Other assignments did not teach me as much when I had to struggle alone as I wasted a lot of time.
Student 2: Traditional 1L: This class and all my law classes have been a struggle for me. I often don’t know where to go for help, and I am tired and stressed all the time. The teacher seems to favor the three girls in the front row. The rest of us aren’t encouraged to say anything.
Student 3: Traditional 1L: the assignment that taught me the most about research and really helped to develop my research was our first open memo. What helped the most was struggling through the resources myself, asking for guidance from the librarian, and meeting personally with the professor who went to the library with me. I found myself looking back at my lecture notes and the reading to remember how to do things. This particular assignment helped bring it all together. The other mini-assignments were too disjointed to help me much.