Get Real!

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By Michael Hunter Schwartz from Washburn University School of Law

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.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning