Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Retrieval Practice"-Creating Tests that Reaffirm Knowledge

What do you want your tests to accomplish? Are they meant to measure learning that has already occured? Are your tests meant to provide an end of term grade? Are your tests meant to assess how much material students covered in the semester? If you use tests in any of these ways, I challenge you to see tests in a new light: as a teaching tool. Before I begin, I want to hat tip several people who already use this technique in their teaching: Ingrid Michelson Hillinger of BC, Rory Baduhur, Jeremiah Ho, and Michael Hunter Schwartz of Washburn, and Paula Manning of Western State. I am certain there are more people who use this technique; these are the people I know off the top of my head on a Monday morning.

"Retrieval practice" uses tests as a method of assessment and reinforcement, seeing the test itself as a learning experience that helps consolidate knowledge. For students, retrieval practice means something they need more of but dread: tests. But testing should be frequent and involve self-quizzing, as well as tests that build upon previous skills so students are reviewing as well as consolidating new information. Each of the law professors above have presented at conferences on different methods of frequently assessing student learning in ways that build skills; there is no one correct way to use retrieval practice. Prof. Hillinger uses group work that challenges students and builds skills throughout the semester. Prof. Badahur and Ho use frequent mini-tests, which students can peer-correct or self-correct, to test skills as they are being learned. Prof.'s Manning and Schwartz use so many different testing methods throughout the semester to keep students active and engaged.

Based on what I have learned over the past year, I have dramatically changed the structure of the Remedies course I teach each fall. Instead of giving fours tests throughout the semester, I give four exams (each with increasing value towards their final grade) and a mini-assessment at the end of every class. I start each class with a lesson on a skill, such as outlining for learning. This is the most typical "ASP" part of the course. I move into a doctrinal lesson in Remedies. Unlike traditional doctrinal teaching, I use visuals, give note-taking guides, and explain my pedagogy as I am teaching. Students know why I am using any particular teaching method, how it is used in their other courses, and how this teaching method relates to a practice skill. I make my thinking explicit. In other words, I don't hide the ball. I give them the ball, and then explain why I use the ball, the other ways of using the ball, explain it's character and design, and how the ball can be used outside the classroom. The last part of my class is a mini-assessment that tests their understanding of the lesson and asks them to apply the skills they have been learning in class. This past week, when we reviewed the science and skills of reading and briefing cases, I asked them to brief next week's case in class, with me, trying the techniques they just learned. I gave them a 1/2 hour; far more time than they would take if they were rushing through the brief at home. I assured them their was no "wrong" answer, that this was a chance to experiment with technique and format and get feedback on their efforts. The benefit to me from this lesson is that I get to see if they understand before I move on to a new skill. Because skills build on each other, I can assess early in the semester if we need to spend more time on a skill, before we all become frustrated with a lack of understanding later in the semester.

While it is at best a brief introduction to retrieval practice, there is an article in the NYT's on it in practice. The article mentions Mind, Brain, and Education. There is a Mind, Brian, and Education journal from Harvard's Graduate School of Education; it is excellent and well worth the very modest subscription pric (I have been subscribing since 2007). I have also been to a Harvard conference on mind-brain connections in students with learning differences, and I regularly use what I learned at the conference. (RCF)

September 13, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, News, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #91311 – Spot the Issues

To score high on law school essay exams, you need to spot as many issues as possible.  They lurk in the narrative.  If you can't spot the issues on an exam you won't score the points.

Issue-spotting is the most fundamental activity in the process of writing an answer to a law school essay exam question. Those students who spend their exam time spotting issues then follow up by organizing their answers, formulating their legal analysis of the issue they have discovered, and then writing the answer in a way that demonstrates their lawyer-like thinking will get the best grades.

Consider making a mental checklist of the issues that continually arise in (for example) Contracts essay exams, then scrutinizing each question/answer by running through your checklist. Some students actually memorize a checklist of possible issues and scribble that down (quite abbreviated) after the test period begins … others use a “mental” checklist. This works for many students … think about it!

If you use the “checklist” approach, remember that it’s just for comparison against your answer outline. Don’t expect to write about everything on the checklist! Selecting and divining the right issues, and only the right issues, for discussion on an exam has its analog in narrowing and selecting the right issues to research and prepare for when you will be advising clients, or when you prepare for oral arguments in court.  Clients have neither the time nor the money to pay for unnecessary research.  Judges are even more demanding than clients! (In other words … try to find all the issues, but only the issues!)

To improve in the area of spotting issues, search through the question for facts that either side might use to fashion an argument that might help that side – then, if the argument is untenable, explain why. Here's a hint: as a general rule-of-thumb, most facts you find in the narrative can be used to support or attack a position.

On the other hand, if the argument would be merely specious (superficially attractive but actually of no real interest or value) it ought not to be raised. This is a decision a lawyer has to make in real life, asking herself, “Do I raise this as an issue, or is it too far-fetched?”  Likewise, it is a decision a law student needs to make in composing an answer to an essay question. But the law student has an advantage: most professors adhere to the policy that no points are taken off for including as an issue something that is not an issue. (Keep in mind, however, that you need to be prudent in this regard, because spending time writing about “non-issues” uses up time which would be better spent earning points by discussing actual issues.  Also, be sure to find out from your professor if this is the grading policy.)

Separating the actual issues from non-issues is a skill that you will pick up as you proceed through law school. If it seems difficult, don’t worry – you are on the road to learning this skill now, and as you answer more essays you will become better and better at it!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

September 12, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)