Friday, February 27, 2009

Which kind of motor vehicle is this case?

The typical law school class is heavily focused on cases.  Consequently, to 1L law students, the cases often seem to be the essentials rather than mere vehicles for bringing them the essentials they will need for developing a bigger picture of the course.  Part of their misunderstanding of how to use cases is caused by our teaching methods and part may be because of their learning styles. 

Some law professors expect their students to know every detail of every case for class recitation.  Others just touch on a few points from the case.  The former style suggests to some students that they need to know every detail for the exam.  The latter style may leave some students wondering which details tie to those points or which details were important.

Professors will often throw out a series of hypotheticals to get their students to understand nuances of the application of a legal rule.    And, professors may give no answers to those hypotheticals and leave the ultimate task of getting from the cases to the big picture for students to discover in their studying outside of class.  Some students will walk away not knowing how the class discussion of cases related to the hypotheticals and what they were supposed to learn.

Does this mean that these professors are bad teachers or bad people?  No.  It does mean that some 1L students struggle with determining what is ultimately important in the course.

Because of their learning styles, some students will struggle more than other students in making sense of law school classes and cases.  Global-intuitive learners will tend to have less problem than the sequential-sensing learners in the class.

Global-intuitive learners naturally process everything looking for the bigger picture and the inter-relationship of ideas.  They prefer essentials because details are not particularly attrative to them.  The highly detailed professor will have them wondering why they have to sit through all of the trivia.  The professor who touches on a few points, throws out unanswered hypotheticals, and expects the students to pull it all together is more understandable to these learners.  However, if these learners are high scorers on their learning styles, they may miss important details, organization, and nuances of analysis. 

Sequential-sensing learners naturally process each case and each sub-topic as discrete individual parts.  They think about units and the facts and details of those units.  They naturally gain security from knowing everything there is to know about a case.  They only look for the bigger picture later.  The stronger their preference for "bottom up" learning, the harder it will be for them to see the bigger picture.  It is these learners who sometimes get "left in the dust" of our typical law school case approach.  Without help, they may get to the bigger picture too late to do well on the exam.  (By the way, these students actually know more law usually than any of their global-intuitive friends.)

(In the "old days" of law school teaching, global-intutitive professors probably predominated and may have thought that the sequential-sensing student was not made of the "right stuff" to be a good lawyer.  Fortunately, more awareness of learning styles means that both processing types are seen to have advantages and disadvantages in the study of law because all four processing steps are needed for the best essay answers or memos.  And, in practice, the client benefits most if both types of learners are on a team for the case.)

My sequential-sensing learners struggle in deciding what can be discarded for their outlines.  They are concerned that they will leave out something important.  They are concerned that they need to know it all - every minute detail and every tiny fact.

Over the years, I have tried to find ways to help these sequential-sensing learners get a different perspective on cases.  They will still read in more detail and still have separate units initially, but they can get to the bigger picture more quickly with some help.  I talk a great deal with them about synthesis of cases, of sub-topics, etc.

By chance I came up with a basic analogy to help sequential-sensors understand the relevance of cases to the overall course.  We talk about cases being like motor vehicles that may drive into your driveway but are ultimately owned by someone else and just "visiting." 

The shiny little sports car:  These zippy little cases pull into your driveway with little cargo capacity.  As a result, there is less of importance to unload.  Perhaps, you will find a definition of an element or an exception to a rule.

The family sedan:  These sedate cases pull into your driveway with large trunks of essentials.  One may find a substantial rule discussion, a sizeable interpretation of a statute, and/or a well-reasoned opinion with steps of analysis.

The family station wagon:  These workhorse cases will be loaded down with many essentials (using even the roof rack).  In addition to the type of cargo found in a family sedan, they often come loaded with extra policy discussion, additional variations on rules (minority and majority rules, restatement rules, model code rules), discussions of ambiguous or vague statutes, and/or discussion of multliple issues.

The U-Haul rental truck:  These vehicles are the really major cases driving into your driveway.  Think U.S. Supreme Court and state court of last resort.  These major cases are packed with important essentials: doctrines of epic proportion, significant policy discussion perhaps, methodologies or bright-line tests, involved discussions of multiple precedents, complex issues and points of law, and/or possibly dissents and concurrences. 

Whatever the motor vehicle size of a case, however, you let it drive away.  You do not park it permanently in your driveway.  You unload the essentials for your outline and wave goodbye to the driver with a thank you.

My sequential-sensing learners suddenly understand that it is okay to let go of the myriad of details once the essentials are spotted for their outlines.  They begin to see that their task is to find only the most important cargo.  They begin to see how cases are mere vehicles that fit together into a bigger picture of sub-topics and topics and applying that law to new fact scenarios.  (Amy Jarmon)   

   

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