Law Teaching

Home / Archive by category "Law Teaching" (Page 2)
Back to Basics: Teaching Constitutional Law through Content Review

Back to Basics: Teaching Constitutional Law through Content Review

By Allison E. Butler  CSULB – College of Business, USC Gould School of Law

Exhibit A: Comparative Chart: U.S. And Italian Constitutional Provisions

Co-Authors: Allison E. Butler, JD and Laura Fabiano in collaboration with Fulbright Award 2019.  Allison E. Butler worked with Laura Fabiano with reference to the Italian/U.S. Comparative Constitutional Law.

  1. Introduction

Instructing constitutional law can be challenging given the broad scope of its content. Notably, the U.S. Constitution not only provides the federal government structure but also provides for numerous enumerated rights and guaranteed personal freedoms. While most instruction in law school is through case law, most students have little idea as to the actual structure and content of this document. This article provides a different approach by requiring students to obtain and assemble a U.S. Constitutional booklet, which is subsequently reviewed in a classroom. This exercise enables learners to recognize and find constitutional citations and provide an overall understanding of the contents of this vital historical document.

  1. The U.S. Constitution
  2. Examining the Booklet

The first requirement for this process is to mandate that students download and assemble a free U.S. Constitutional booklet.[1] One day, preferably in the beginning of the course, should be dedicated to reviewing the relevant constitutional provisions prior to actual case law studies. To provide a background on the subject and to begin the instruction, two optional videos can be viewed 1) British Library’s What is the Magna Carta[2] and 2) the History Channel’s The United States Gets a Constitution.[3] While there are numerous other clips, these links are highly effective in refreshing students’ knowledge and providing international students with a general background on the adoption of the document. This review technique can also be facilitated for a comparative or international law class with the students obtaining two constitutions and comparing the two. For example, see comparative chart of the Italian and U.S. Constitutions, set forth in Exhibit A.

  1. Articles and Amendments

While a review of the applicable provision is subjective, it is necessary to begin with a review of the federal government structure beginning with Article I – Legislative Branch of the Constitution. While discussion on the different legislative branch may be warranted, Section 8 of Article I provides the enumerated rights specifically designated to Congress, which with reference to business law includes, but not limited to, the following:

  • Commerce clause to discuss state powers. [4]
  • Copyright and patent clause to discuss intellectual property.[5]
  • Coinage clause for possible discussion on cryptocurrencies.[6]
  • Creation of inferior courts to discuss the federal court system. [7]

Section 10 of Article I provides for a brief discussion on freedom of contract that invokes examination of this clause as well as the substantive due process clause, including discussion on the Lochner Era, in which the U.S. Supreme Court continuously struck down numerous state statutes.[8]

Thereafter, Article II is discussed with focus on the Executive Powers. The primary objective here is the executive power to appoint “[j]udges of the supreme Court and all other Officers of the United States” with advice and consent of the Senate;[9] however, this section also provides discussion on current topics ranging from State of the Union to impeachment proceedings. Lastly, Article III establishes the Supreme Court and the judges therein. With the establishment of the three branches of government, students are directed to Article VI, Clause 2, discussing the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Upon establishing the main content of the constitution, the Bill of Rights is examined, starting with the following:

  • Establishment Clause[10]
  • Freedom of Speech[11]
  • Search and Seizure[12]
  • Warrants[13]
  • Due process clause – federal[14]
  • Taking Clause[15]
  • Privacy[16]
  • State Powers[17]

These discussions also include a reference to amendments and how they apply to the Constitution leading to the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendment after the U. S. Civil War. The 14th amendment discusses how the due process clause incorporated many of the bill of rights as applicable to the state government as well as the equal protection clause. The 15th amendment illustrates race suffrage and its application solely to the male population but the adoption of the 19th amendment provides for sex suffrage.  Another provision worth discussing is the 28th Amendment, prohibition, and its relation to the 21st amendment repealing the prohibition of the transportation or importation of intoxicating liquors.  Lastly, discussion of the 26th Amendment provides age suffrage.

After full discussion on the various provisions and applicable case law, the pamphlets can be collected and returned to the students on the day of the exam, which is essentially an “open constitutional exam.” Sample questions can range from what articles establish the Supreme Court to what clauses provide for substantive due process. Moreover, questions can be of multiple-choice, essay, or short answer depending on the mandate of the overall course.

III. Conclusion

This type of constitutional review provides students with a broader perspective of this instrument of government. Learners learn to navigate the pages while observing the language adopted by courts such as “probable cause” or “supremacy clause,” observing that these phrases are nor fabrication of the courts but language of the constitution itself.  This learning technique provides the students with a solid base to begin further examination through case study.

EXHIBIT A

COMPARATIVE CHART: U.S. AND ITALIAN CONSTITUTIONAL PROVISIONS

Constitutional Provision United States Italy
Year 1787 1947
Legislature Article I Parte II – Titolo I – sezioni I e II (artt. 55 -82)
Executive Article II Parte II – Titolo III –Sezione I (artt. 92-96)
Judicial Article III Parte II – Titolo IV Sezioni I e II (artt. 101-113) ;

Judicial Review – Constitutional Court: Parte II, Titolo VI sezione I (artt. 134-137)

Supremacy Clause Article VI Art. 5
Reservation of State or Regional Rights Tenth Amendment Art. 117 ( more in general on regionalism: Parte II Titolo V artt. 114-133)
Freedom of Contract Article I, Section 10; Due Process of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Art. 41
Freedom of Religion First Amendment Art. 7 ; art.19
Freedom of Speech First Amendment Art. 21
Right to Privacy ·        The First Amendment; Third Amendment;

·        Fourth Amendment; Fifth Amendment;

Ninth Amendment.

The right to privacy is most often cited in the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment

Artt.13-15
Due Process – Procedure Fifth  Amendment (Federal); Fourteenth  Amendment (State) Artt.24-27;

Artt. 111-113

Due Process – Substantive Fifth Amendment (Federal); Fourteenth Amendment incorporates application to the States of Fundamental Rights Art. 2;

Parte I , Titoli I-II-III-IV (art. 13-54)

Taking Clause Fifth Amendment Artt.42-44
Voting Rights Fifteenth, Nineteenth and Twenty-sixth Amendment require that voting rights cannot be abridged on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, or age for those above 18. Parte I, Titolo IV (art.48-54)

Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

[1] See https://constitutionbooklet.com/ for free download and instructions.

[2] See, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xo4tUMdAMw

[3] See, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1YLoO9sHvI

[4]  Article I, Section 8, Clause 3.

[5] U.S. Const., Article I, Section 8, Clause 8.

[6] U.S. Const., Article I, Section 8, Clause 5.

[7] U.S. Const., Article I, Section 8, Clause 9.

[8]  U.S. Lochner Era wherein development of economic due process (14th and 5th Amendments) [1897-1937]; see also,  Arruňada, Benito and Veneta Andonova, Common Law and Civil Law as Pro-Market Adaptations, 26 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 81 (2008); for recent case law on contract clause see, Sveen v. Melin, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct., 1815 (2018).

[9] U.S. Const., Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.

[10] U.S. Const., amend. I

[11] Id.

[12] U.S. Const., amend. IV

[13] Id.

[14] U.S. Const., amend. V

[15] Id.

[16] U.S. Const., amends., I, III, IV, IX and X

[17] U.S. Const. amend. X

Recommit to the Profession of Teaching and Helping Your Students Recommit to Their Work

Recommit to the Profession of Teaching and Helping Your Students Recommit to Their Work

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.

Visual Aids for the Law Classroom

Visual Aids for the Law Classroom

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/

Assessing Legal Research Skills: A Fresh Approach

Assessing Legal Research Skills: A Fresh Approach

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 evoigt@faulkner.edu.

Formative Feedback in Many Forms

Formative Feedback in Many Forms

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:

  1. 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.).
  2. We synthesize the cases in class together.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. I give them 20 minutes to work through the rubric with their own paper.
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
      3. 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.
      4. The students used the rest of that class period to review the “good” example and compare it to their paper.
      5. I was available during that classroom work time to answer questions, etc.
      6. Once the self-assessment was over, I told them they need to apply what they learned while writing the final draft.
  6. 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.
  7. I give each student ½ hour to go over their final draft with me.
      1. I don’t review their final drafts until we are sitting together for the face-to-face conference.
      2. 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.
      3. The students take the rubric and the “good” paper home with them.
      4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Review:  Teaching Controversial Topics

Review: Teaching Controversial Topics

Reviewed by Jane Korn, Gonzaga University School of Law

Article:  Teaching Controversial Topics [1]
Written by Beth Burkstand-Reid, June Carbone, and Jennifer S. Hendricks

In the highly politicized climate, it seemed especially appropriate to look for advice on teaching controversial topics.  While the article reviewed is in the context of a family law course, almost any course can have controversial topics.  I teach both Civil Procedure and Employment Discrimination and while there are more minefields in Employment Discrimination, Civil Procedure has a few.

The authors first explore what controversial topic is and they indicate that this includes those that are heavily politicized and note that these areas often promote rigidity in thinking.   Controversy can also arise when topics are personalized by students, either by personal experience or because of a lack of diversity in the classroom.  While some diversity is noticeable, other types may not be known to the professor such as sexual orientation or some disabilities.

It is important to lay the groundwork before the first class or even before.  A course description can set the expectation for prospective students in your class.  For example, you can indicate the wide range of topics you will be covering which should put students on notice that there will be controversial topics covered.  The authors also suggest that if you want to market the class more narrowly, you can state that a certain position is the starting point rather than a matter for debate.  You can also lay the groundwork during the first class.  The authors caution that dictatorial control can backfire but that laying expectations can aid discussion without chilling all debate

The article lays out three strategies for expected controversy:

  1. Learning who stands for what – deciding who in the classroom advocates for which position.  Sometimes an outside speaker or colleague is helpful to present a viewpoint.  You can also take blind surveys to find out various positions on anticipated controversial topics to gauge the varying positions.
  2. Using media and pop culture to bring in what otherwise may be marginalized views.  This can also reduce tension through humor.  Historical versions of pop culture can also provide context and background.
  3. Shifting ground by blunting controversy by confronting it obliquely. One way to accomplish this is to shift the discussion away from what side is right to what arguments can be made.

No matter what we teach, there will be controversy.   The authors note that we must recognize that what worked in one class during one semester may not work in another.  The toolbox of techniques suggested by the authors is a welcome resource for dealing with the difficult issue of covering controversial topics in the classroom.


[1] Beth Burkstand-Reid, June Carbone, and Jennifer S. Hendricks, Teaching Controversial Topics, 49 Fam. Ct. Rev. 678 (2011)

Getting to Know Your Students

Getting to Know Your Students

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

Hi All,

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:

  1. Tell me anything you would like me to know about you.
  2. How comfortable are you with writing and research? Please give me as much information as you can so I can gauge your experience.
  3. Why did you decide to go to law school?
  4. Why did you choose Gonzaga?
  5. What study methods work best for you?
  6. How do you learn best in the classroom?
  7. Think of your favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your favorite?
  8. 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.

Being human to my students and letting them know I care

Being human to my students and letting them know I care

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:

  1. When should I start outlining?
  2. How much time should I spend studying every night?
  3. How important is getting involved in extracurricular activities?
  4. What if I don’t know what kind of law I want to practice?
  5. 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.

Content Analysis Coding Practice

Content Analysis Coding Practice

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

Hi All,

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.

Method:

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.

  1. Identification number for class level: (accelerated student=1; a traditional 1L=2)
  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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. Positive mention of a structured assignment which required students to work collaboratively. (0=no; 1=yes)
  6. Positive mention of lecture on how-to-do research in print by LRW professor. (0=no; 1=yes)
  7. Positive mention of demonstration on how-to-do research on-line by the librarians. (0=no; 1=yes)
  8. Positive mention of video demonstration on how-to-do digest research in print which is uploaded to the TWEN page. (0=no; 1=yes)
  9. Positive mention of one-on-one assistance of a faculty member. (0=no; 1=yes)
  10. 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.

Coding sheet

 

 

Change Your Syllabus, Change Your Life

Change Your Syllabus, Change Your Life

By Elizabeth Sherowski,
Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

What’s in your syllabus? If you’re like most law professors, it’s a mash-up of course information, schedules, learning objectives, and university-dictated policy language. You probably cobbled it together during your first few years of teaching (cribbing some parts from other professors’ syllabi), and you probably haven’t updated it, other than to change the dates on the reading assignments, in some time.

But what message is your syllabus sending to your students? The syllabus is usually the first thing that your students experience in your course — and you never get a second chance to make a first impression. By changing the focus of the syllabus from rules and policies to explanations and support, we can change our students’ (and our) view of the course.

The Rule-Focused Syllabus

Imagine if, on your first day of teaching, one of your senior colleagues handed you a list of all the ways she predicted you would make mistakes in your first year, and the penalties you would incur for making those mistakes. That’s basically what we’re handing to our students when we kick off the course with a list of all the things they’re not supposed to do (miss class, turn work in late, start emails with “Yo, what up?”) and the penalties for doing them.

Syllabi that focus on policies and rules create a transactional relationship between the learner and the teacher. “If you do these things, and don’t do these other things,” it says, “I will reward you with this grade.” Frankly, that’s a terrible way to learn. It leads the student to focus on the outcome (the grade) rather than the process and importance of what they are learning. Additionally, research on adult learners shows that they learn best when teachers are partners, rather than authority figures. Presenting the course as a collection of rules, and presenting ourselves as the arbiter of those rules, actually hinders learning.

The Learner-Focused Syllabus

Now imagine if, on your first day of teaching, that senior colleague instead handed you a list of teaching practices they had found to be effective, with explanations of why those practices worked. That’s the idea behind the learner-focused syllabus — it explains what the students will learn, why it matters, and how to be successful. Rather than focusing on what matters to the teacher or the administration, it focuses on what matters to the learner.

For example, instead of just listing course objectives (“students will be able to research and apply federal regulations”), a learner-focused syllabus explains why those objectives matter and how they will be met:

Federal regulations impact almost every part of life, from the time we’re born (Department of Health, Department of Education) until after we die (Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service). Through in-class demonstrations and client simulations, we will learn to locate these regulations in print and online and apply them to our clients’ legal issues.

A student receiving the first syllabus will know what they will learn, and no more. A student receiving the second syllabus will know what they will learn, plus how they will learn it and how it fits in with their larger goal of becoming a successful attorney.

The same is true for rules and policies. Instead of taking a punitive or dictatorial stance (“students are required to bring both books to every class session, and failure to do so will negatively affect their grade”), a learner-focused syllabus explains the reasons behind the rules and policies, and helps students know and do what’s expected:

In some courses, it may seem that the reading is optional, but that is not the case in this class. Our casebook and supplement illustrate concepts that we will be learning throughout the course, and we will refer to them often. Therefore, please bring both books to every class meeting.

Nothing has been lost in the conversion from rule-focused language to learner-focused language — the students are still required to bring their books to class. But they’re more likely to comply with the second request because it explains the reason behind the rule and shows how following the rule will help them to succeed.

Changing Your Syllabus Will Change Your Life

Two years ago, I switched from a rule-focused syllabus to a learner-focused syllabus (you can see the evolution here). I knew it would change how students interacted with the course, but I didn’t realize how much it would change my teaching (and my attitude) as well. Changing my syllabus refocused my attention on what I love about teaching: helping and encouraging students, not making and enforcing rules.

The learner-focused syllabus also forced me to explain (and subsequently re-evaluate) my course objectives, making the course more coherent and the teaching less taxing. The new syllabus helped my students focus on what really mattered, and teaching became more enjoyable with learners who were interested in learning skills that would help them achieve their long-term goals, rather than just angling for an A.

Changing my syllabus was a lot of work, but it paid off in more-motivated students, a more coherent course, and a much happier professor.

 

Elizabeth Sherowski is a Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law. Email her at esherowski@unc.edu.

 

 

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning