Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Grading Grind

Okay, so this begins the part of the semester that is a least-favorite among many of us...the grading grind. In ASP, we tend to grade year-round, so it's not quite the flurry that it is for doctrinal law professors. But nonetheless, I am swamped with papers that need to be corrected, and grades due Dec 22 for my undergrads (much later for my law students).  Here are some pieces of simple advice if you are new to grading or giving feedback on papers:

1) Give yourself a break at between 3-5 papers. If you try to do more than that, you start to get irritated, and it will show in the grades. And that is not fair to the students.

2) At least scan them all once after you have assigned grades. Since it is not wise to grade everything at once due to fatigue, you need to be sure you are using a consistent standard.

3) Rubrics help. They are smart pedagogically, but they also can help keep you consistent.

4) Plan ahead. Grading takes much, much longer than you think it will when you start in ASP. I can easily spend an hour or more on each paper, even when I am not giving detailed feedback (which I almost always do).

5) If you are giving feedback (and you should), be sure students can understand what you are writing. After 3-5 papers, handwriting tends to become sloppy. And feedback can't help a student if they can't read it!

6) Be gentle. It's easy to become snarky and frustrated when you see the same error for the nth time. But think of it this way...if you think you are frustrated with the mistake, chances are the student is much, much more frustrated with themselves that they can't get a concept, no matter how hard they try.

7) Don't try to eat and correct papers. It's gross when a paper is returned to a student covered in food gunk and icky-ness. Don't be that person. (That being said, I think we have all been that person at least once).

(RCF)

December 15, 2009 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Finishing The Week in Grand Style

I have been inspired by one of my colleagues here at UConn, who finishes up with week in grand style. As a part of her job, she writes a weekly update for students in her program. The intro to her weekly updates have become one of the highlights of my Friday. Instead of simple run-down of events her program sponsors, she riffs on what students are going through at that moment--exhaustion, break-ups, annoying rommates--all the things that drive students crazy. It helps that she is hysterical, bringing levity to a very long Friday. The most important thing about her riffs is that she lets students know that they are not alone when they feel like they are losing their mind, and exhausted past the brink of tears.  New students, be it 1L's or freshman, feel like they are carrying these burdens alone. Many are afraid to admit it's not going well for them, or think they are the only one struggling. By providing a (very funny) weekly reminder that we are all in this together, and it's a struggle for all of us, she is providing some needed support to students who won't reach out on their own. You never know which message will reach a student in crisis.

I have no doubt that the necessary part of her weekly update gets more attention because she starts with light-hearted banter. The purpose of the updates is to remind students of major events; some of them they must attend. For Academic Support programs that are new, are comprehensive (1L through bar), or have an unfortunate location, a weekly update can be a powerful tool for getting the attention of students. Even for students who need not need ASP programming, a weekly newsletter or update reassures them someone is looking out for them, and providing them with a needed break from the heavy-duty studying.  The key is make them useful, make them brief, and keep it funny. (RCF)

October 2, 2009 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Personal reflections on a new year, new classes

My last couple of posts have been about starting the school year from a more objective perspective.  I always add my anecdotes as examples, but I haven't said much about how I feel about the start of the school year.

Excited, and terrified. I will admit it; the start of a new semester scares me. I know it's a "good" scared. I am trying something new. In the past four years, there has been only one semester where I did not do something new, different, and out-of-my-comfort zone. I always come home from the summer conferences with a million ideas, and a precious few make it into a new syllabus, a new course, or a new approach to reaching students. 

At the start of every semester, I am sure, in my heart, that whatever I am doing differently is not going to work.  I reassure everyone around me, and then get into a blind panic during the two weeks before the semester begins. I am not sure my blind panic is much different than the panic new ASPer's feel right now. Although I prepare all summer, I am certain I did not prepare enough. It doesn't matter that the brilliant Kris Franklin has reassured me that over-preparation is not the best plan for great classroom learning. It doesn't matter that the brilliant Paula Manning has told me that the sharp learning curve when teaching a new class means I will be one class ahead of the students. I am scared, and I get snappish at the people around me.

I would love to say the first class always allays my fears and goes beautifully. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes my fear gets in the way, and the first class is a clunker. But my worst first-day experience (worse than a clunker; it just bombed) teaching a new class also happened to be the best class I ever taught.  It was brand-new material, at a new school, teaching a class that was new to the school.  Five of the fifteen students assigned to the class showed up on the first day. Someone was checking his cell-phone throughout class.  But then it started to jell. By the end of the semester, I had twenty-seven students; twelve had added the class after the second week based on the word-of-mouth of students who came the second week. It was a great mix of personalities.  I trusted my class and shared my anxieties about teaching, and I let the class become student-directed. They told me what they needed, and I responded with lessons that met their needs.  They trusted that my #1 priority was a class where they learned, where their needs were met, and where they could feel safe to make mistakes. In other words, it just had magic. 

So yes, right now I am in a blind panic of preparation and writing, re-writing, and re-working material I have been looking at all summer. It's not the same panic my students feel right now.  I do trust that we will be in this together. My classes will be a safe place to make mistakes and to take intellectual risks. I will be taking risks right along with my students, but doing my very best for them, for the next thirteen weeks. I don't have success without them. (RCF)

August 25, 2009 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Teaching Inspiration

I have been absent from the blog for a bit as I moved to UConn. It's been a very busy time;  I am planning for a brand-new 2L ASP course at the law school for the fall, as well as planning an undergraduate course for entering freshman in the Honors Program introducing the fundamentals of law. I have not taught to undergrads in many years, and it took some brainstorming to come up with a "hook" that would get them excited about the course and about law.  I decided on "Controversial Issues at the Intersection of Sports and Law." I am not a sports fanatic, by any means, but I am at a sports-crazy school, and I know that is a way that students from across disciplines to see the applicability of the law in their lives.  As I was searching for ways teach the course, I settled on a case study approach.  Further brainstorming, and significant research, led me to topics that spanned most first-year law courses; home run baseballs and Property, Constitutional Law, double jeopardy, dual sovereignty and Michael Vick, beyond a reasonable doubt as a criminal standard, preponderance of the evidence as a civil standard and OJ Simpson. 

What does this have to do with ASP? UConn has given me considerable latitude when planning my ASP course for 2L's, so I have also been brainstorming about different methods to teach that course.  Using doctrinal material to teach ASP is the way to go, but it is sometimes hard to find an area that covers enough areas of law to be useful to students. Remedies (thank you, Mike Schwartz), like Sports Law, is a great way to cover multiple areas of law. Case studies are a great way to reach students who may be turned off by their experience in law school. It can remind them that law is about real people and real problems. It can remind some of them why they are in law school.

I also want to say thank you to the ASPer who wrote me last year about the case study method. I would like to give her a personal thank you for the idea, but I have lost the email (it was on the VLS account).  It really is a wonderful method of teaching law in a creative way; thank you for the suggestion! (RCF)

May 5, 2009 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Motivating Students When the Weather Turns Sunny

For those of us from climates that have suffered through a long winter, spring is finally making an appearance.  With the arrival of spring, also comes the arrival of spring fever and the urge to take advantage of the warmth and the sun. This comes at an unfortunate time in the law school calendar; now is the time when students really need to buckle down and complete their outlines, take practice exams every week, and ramp up time with study groups.  So how do you motivate students ot stay focused on law school when the outdoors are beckoning? Here are a few tips from someone who suffers from spring fever the same time grades are due:

1) You can study outdoors.  Slather on the SPF, grab a blanket, and read while the sun is shining.
2) Use active time as a way to review.  Go for a walk with a Sum and Substance CD/MP3 or walk with your study partners and make up hypos as go. Exercise and studying do not need to be mutually exclusive; in fact, the science indicates they go well together.
3) Remember, in most places that suffer brutal winters, it will only get more beautiful as exams approach. If you waste time now, it means you will be holed up and anxiety-ridden during exams, when you need to rest and rejuvenation of nature to perform at your best.  You got to law school because you know the benefits of delayed gratification. Exercise some now, benefit later. 

(RCF)

March 20, 2009 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Revamping your law school strategy

I  just finished a workshop for 1L's on revamping their law school strategy.  I always give a start-of-the-spring semester workshop, but I wanted to make this year's different.  It's always a challenge to present to students in new and exciting ways; it's easy to get stuck in a rut and use the same strategies.  This semester, I am vowing to use more active learning exercises in my workshops. I thought active learning was a particular challenge while preparing the workshop because some of them have been standing room only--more than 100 students.  I use what I call "quasi-active" learning in many of my big classes; I ask questions and solicit student suggestions, but the students play a minimal role in the actual lesson.  With my background in teaching at the elementary school level, I am most comfortable teaching to a class with less than 30 students.  In my discomfort, I revert to the lecture-with-visuals strategy I know is not particularly effective when the workshops grow to 80 or more participants. 

But as I prepared, I started to reevaluate why I was so uncomfortable with changing strategies. Maybe it wasn't that I didn't think active learning strategies could be used with large groups of students; Kris Franklin, Alison Nissen, and Mike Schwartz's presentations at AALS used active learning strategies in a room with 100+ people.  The ASP and Teaching Methods joint meeting was one of the most fun AALS meetings I have ever attended, because I was allowed to play with the material, and I wanted ot try some of their techniques myself. But my initial discomfort is one that I have heard other professor's lament; active learning requires letting go of (the illusion of) control in the classroom.  I feel comfortable sharing the class with my students when I have fewer than 30 students; in fact, I don't feel comfortable playing "sage-on-the-stage" in smaller classes.   During the two years I was working on my MA in Education and my thesis, I was taught active learning was the only way to go, and it was modeled by the professors who taught my graduate courses.  As a result of the teaching in my graduate program, I know everyone shares "control" in a classroom, and it is an illusion that a teacher can "control" learning or behavior. I never applied active learning to a large class because we did not have, nor did we teach, to large classes in my graduate program. So I reverted to a modified version of the teaching methods used by my (law) professors in large classes because I didn't know how to transfer the lessons from one type of class to another.

It required some self-reflection both during the planning and after the execution of the workshop for me to reach some conclusions about the source of my discomfort.  I know the fundamental teaching principles do not change when the number of students in the room goes from 20 to 100 or more.  In a room of 30 people or less, I have the ability to engage each student personally, by asking questions and soliciting the opinions of everyone in the room. I can manage chatter by calling on students who seem lost or distracted.  I can address confusion without losing the rest of the class.  It's very difficult to do that is a large class; you just can't reach everyone personally.  Most importantly, I learned in graduate school how to build a sense of camaraderie and trust in small classes, and I don't know how to build those into large workshops.  When I trust my students and they trust me, we, as a class, feel comfortable taking risks with our learning. But if I don't trust the class, I replace that need for trust into a need for control.  It's an emotional response that undermines critical learning goals. 

But I took the leap.  I knew I had to try harder to employ active learning to all groups, large and small.  I figured that if the lesson flopped, at least I had tried.  I felt awkward standing at the front of the class, not talking, during the think and pair portions of think-pair-share.   I would have sworn that the students were bored when I asked them to think on their own.  But I caught myself learning from my students. I learned two new strategies for approaching case briefing and outlining that I will be sharing with future classes.   

Then I looked at the evaluations.  Except for one, they were overwhelmingly positive. It struck me that many of the students took the time to fill in the "comment" section on the evaluation (something they rarely do), and note how great it was that they could talk to their classmates about different strategies for reading, case briefing, and outlining. And that one negative evaluation...based on the comments, I don't know if I could have reached the student using any other teaching method. 

I learned you can build trust in a large classroom.  Using Mike Schwartz's think-pair-share, I could reach each group in the classroom.  I could still reach students confused about the material, but I had the additional support of their classmates as I brainstormed how to approach their issue.  Students who are uncomfortable speaking in a large class felt comfortable speaking to classmates in their group, and their group members could share their insights with the rest of the class.  (RCF)


January 21, 2009 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Oft-Forgotten Concern--Guest Column by Russell C. Smith

As we talk to students after first semester grades come out, I find that often I neglect to address one concern that I believe they all have, yet one that is not often expressed in our conversations with students.  We have no trouble focusing on grades, exam writing, study habits, briefing skills, etc.  Yet I find at the bottom of many of my students concerns, maybe subconsciously for some, lurk a couple of nagging questions.  If I am struggling academically, will I be a good lawyer?  Will I be able to make a living practicing law?  Embedded in these questions are perhaps the concern about repaying loans and living up to the expectations of others. 
    Students usually find some comfort when they realize that the correlation between academic performance and the potential for a successful practice career is not as strong as they might imagine.  I try to get students to think of the whole process of becoming a lawyer as hurdles to be jumped only once.  Once you’ve cleared the hurdles (LSAT, school, bar) then you’re at the finish line ready to practice and nobody really cares, particularly your clients, how difficult you found the hurdles.
    I usually tell students some true stories to help them with this concern.  We all know of students who struggled academically and then went on to fame and fortune or at least successful practices.  I share the stories of some people I know like this.  Also, we all know of superior academicians who, because of a lack of other skills, could never make a living as a practicing attorney.  In fact, some of these people would have trouble giving away legal service, let alone getting someone to pay them for it.  (If you are now thinking of some of the people you know in academia, shame on you!)   I practiced for ten years and never once did a client ask me what I made in evidence when deciding whether to hire me for a trial.  As an aside, I did hear a story of an assistant district attorney once who cited his performance in evidence class as authority for his argument regarding a piece of evidence.  The court was not persuaded.
    Students that struggle find some comfort in knowing many stellar legal careers have sprung from less than stellar law school performances.  Even if this is not verbalized by the student, I think most of the time they have concerns about their ability to practice and make a living.  It is a worry that we can help to alleviate.  And after all, every thing that we can help students become comfortable with is likely to take them to a better place, both emotionally and academically.

Russell C. Smith
Assistant Dean for Student Services

Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law
Campbell Law School
Buies Creek, NC

January 16, 2009 in Advice, Guest Column, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pop Culture, Teachable Moments, and Using "There Will Be Blood" to Illuminate Title Statutes

I am a fan of judicious use of pop culture to give context and depth to law.  However, this comes with a  caveat; one must be careful not to obfuscate the purpose of the teachable moment by overuse of film clips, TV snippits, and news articles.  Too many times pop culture becomes a substitute for deep thinking about hard areas of the law, which doesn't help students to learn what they need to know. 

The key to using pop culture references is to use them judiciously.  Here are two guideposts: use a pop-culture reference as a part of the fabric of your class, or use a pop culture reference to illuminate a concept as students are struggling with it.  These guideposts present a paradox; teachable moments tend to be of-the-moment, and often happen spontaneously. However, if the references are not in the context of what the students are learning, the reference becomes opaque and without purpose or focus.  Students don't learn from teachable moments if they don't completely understand why it is a teachable moment, as well as why the reference is relevant to what is going on in class.  Specifically with pop culture references, it is sometimes best to hold back and weave the reference into the fabric of the course the following semester.  This also gives students who may not be "tuned in" to pop culture the opportunity to know what you are talking about. It can alienate students who may not focus on what is on gossip sites and in the movies if the reference is too "of-the-moment."

All this leads up to a suggestion to help illuminate a tough area of Property law.  In the movie "There Will Be Blood", Daniel Plainview, the main character, goes to a family ranch with his young son to scout for oil.  Daniel lies to the landowners about why he is on the land when he tells them he is hunting for quail. Daniel finds oil on the land, but does not tell the family, and tries to buy the ranch without disclosing his discovery.  The next scene follows Daniel to what is presumably the town clerk's office.  He goes to the town clerk to look at a plat of the land he would like to buy throughout the area.  These scenes screamed to me because so many students struggle with title and recording statutes, and these scenes provide fantastic context for why recording statutes are important in land sales or transfers.  Additionally, the set-up gives great material for hypotheticals on trespass and disclosure laws.  But without an understanding of the fundamentals of recording and deeds, students could get lost in the emotions and moral ramifications of an oil baron failing to disclose his unique knowledge to poor farmers at the turn of the century, and would miss the importance of his stop at the town clerk's office.   While the moral challenges may make for a great, dramatic film, it is not going to help students learn Property law. 

This is going to be my only post for the week, as I am off to North Carolina to visit family for the holidays (family without an internet connection.)  I wish everyone a very merry Thanksgiving and a restful break.

See you in December,
Rebecca

November 25, 2008 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"The Law" and Academic Skills

One of the conundrums many ASP professionals run into is the use of “the law” to teach skills. Why is this a conundrum? If more than one professor teaches the same subjects (like two Torts classes taught by two different Torts professors) there are bound to be differences in coverage and interpretation of the law. This is an issue fraught with challenges, most importantly, what law do we use?  After dealing with this challenge each year, I have developed some basic strategies.

1) Use neutral law. What is neutral law? Contract formation requires offer, acceptance, and consideration. A prima facie claim of negligence requires duty, breach of duty, causation, and harm. These are very broad, general principles of law where very few professors will differ, although, as my own disclaimer, I have had a professor disagree with the harm element in negligence. I try to use examples that do not include nuances of law that are ripe for differing interpretations.

2) Always preface any discussion of law with a disclaimer about using the professor’s rules and interpretations on the exam. I frequently remind students that their teacher is writing and grading the exam, not me, and they need to use the law they are taught in class on their exams. This leads to discussion about ambiguity and interpretation in the law, which is another area where many first-year law students need reassurance that ambiguity is their friend, not their foe.

3) Use non-legal examples to illustrate legal principles. Mike Schwartz has some excellent examples that my students have raved about. Charles Calleros provides some fantastic examples in his Legal Method and Writing text. Non-legal examples provide a fabulous vehicle for discussing analogical reasoning and it’s relationship to the case method.

When speaking with reluctant professor’s, I strongly suggest explaining how ASP is using the law. Differentiate using the law as a vehicle for teaching skills from teaching the law itself. I leave plain vanilla law teaching to the doctrinal professors; that is their job, not mine. However, teaching skills to understand, apply, and demonstrate comprehension of the law is my job. It’s hard to teach the skills without a vehicle, akin to teaching car mechanics without parts of a car. I have found that even reluctant law professors are more amenable to ASP when you give them their due and reassure them you are not impugning their teaching methods or teaching skills. Once a reluctant professor is reassured you are not poaching on their turf, it’s helpful to define what you do in a way they understand. Let them know Academic Success in law school is an area of academic study just like Torts, Contracts, or Business Organizations. We have our own methods and goals. While some broad-based rules of law are necessary as vehicles for teaching skills, ASP professionals don’t need to teach the law to teach skills. (RCF)

October 30, 2008 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Teachable Moments: The Passing of Mildred Loving

I am always looking for teachable moments; those times when "real life" intersects with law school teaching.  This morning, a student sent a link regarding the passing of Mildred Loving, whose challenge to Virginia's anti-miscegenation law led to the decision in Loving v. Virginia. The short article provides a great segue into a discussion of the impact of these laws on the lives of real people.

(RCF)

May 5, 2008 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making Law Real--"A Raisin in the Sun"

A crossover possibility for both Property and Constitutional Law:
ABC will be airing a remake of the classic "A Raisin in the Sun" this Sunday night. This is a great example of how restrictive covenants impacted real families, and power of the law to change people lives.
(Rebecca Flanagan)

February 21, 2008 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Making Law Fun

About this time of year, I try to bring in examples of *fun* in the law for my 1L's in my ASP class.  They tend to be so discouraged, so beat-up, and it's helpful to remind them that the law is alive, vibrant, and yes, fun. I want students see remember law is a part of their lives in ways they may not see in their 1L classes. 

Credit where credit is due: This is not my idea; I borrowed this from one of my favorite professors at UNC Law, Dean Lolly Gasaway, who uses this in her Copyright class.

Law and Pop Culture:
Did George Harrison violate copyright laws by plagiarizing the melody from "He's So Fine" by the Chiffon's for his hit single "My Sweet Lord"?

http://www.benedict.com/Audio/Harrison/Harrison.aspx

This website allows you to play both songs simultaneously, so students can hear the similarities, and judge for themselves whether one of the best-selling artists of all time (as part of the Beatles) lifted the melody from a '60's classic.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

The New York Times ran an article on fox-hunting with dogs in England on Monday, Feb. 18, 2008.
"Tally Ho! A Determined Crew Hunts for Fox Hunters" by Sarah Lyall

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/18/world/europe/18hunt.html?ex=1361077200&en=6d8c5ac907c6b327&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

This article can be a great tool to make Pierson v. Post come alive for students who don't see the relevance of a case on fox-hunting, with cross-over possibilities for discussing Keeble v. Hickeringill and Ghen v. Rich.  It also deals with ambiguity in the law; another great discussion-starter for a 1L class.  There are a lot of silly details in the article that make it fun to read and discuss, but opens up the importance of old cases to young law students.  And yes, fox hunting is still an important sport. (Rebecca Flanagan)

February 19, 2008 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Positive Feedback! Efficient & Effective

I have found this to be a wonderfully useful tool. It saves your time while providing an extraordinarily high level of feedback and/or instruction for your students. The tool?  Microsoft’s “Sound Recorder.”  It’s probably sitting on your hard drive right now. It’s easy to use … with a headset mike or just talking into your computer’s microphone.  Did you know your laptop has a microphone built in? (Maybe yes, maybe no … ask your tech support helper if you can’t determine. If it doesn’t have one, ask for a mike to plug in.)

Suggested uses . . .

· Tip of the day, tip of the week – in an email sent to a specific person, specific group or all students, let them know that if they open the sound message they’ll receive a helpful tip by listening (for example) only 20 seconds.  Send them something amazing so they’ll open the next one!

· If you are lucky enough to receive written student work from time to time, this is an excellent way to comment on it. In the body of your email, encourage the student to have a copy of her/his work on the desk, and make notations while listening to your vocal feedback. You’ll find you can say much more than you can write in margins … and you don’t need to make an appointment with the student to deliver the feedback. Result: more personalized help for more students in less time.

· You’ll find it’s a great way to encourage students to attend your presentations, others’ presentations, or off-campus conferences. Mention the conference in an email, and include “I’ve included a 20-second message about how this can help boost your GPA … just click here!”

· If you have the tech-capability at your school, you can store bunches of tips and information on a site that all students can access whenever they want.

Microsoft's is not the only recorder, of course.  I use others as well ... but if it's on your computer already, this might be the best way to begin to get used to recording messages for your students.

Caveat 1: Keep the vocal messages short.  Students don't want to listen to a rambling "tip." (I think it's different in the case of feedback on a piece of writing, however.  Line-by-line positive feedback ... "This is a great way to introduce the rule of law! You should do this more often!" ... will keep them listening ... then you can slip in something like, "What would really help is if you included all four ways of proving malice ... here's how I would suggest you could do that...." A recording like this can go on for several minutes and keep the student's attention.)

Caveat 2: It’s critical not to overuse this method. Remember, emails are easy to delete without opening. (djt)

September 27, 2007 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Keep Them Thinking and Doing

The start of a new semester is a good time to take stock of our teaching methods and make conscious improvements.  One place many of us need to begin is with techniques for increasing active learning among our students.

Because students remember about ten percent of what they hear and about ninety percent of what they do, those things that encourage active participation in classroom discussions can be exceptionally effective in helping our students retain concepts and develop sound reasoning skills.  Several fairly simple techniques can greatly increase active learning even for those not directly called upon to respond during a particular class period.

For example, while your teaching method may be to focus primarily on one student while discussing a case, you can draw the rest of the class into that discussion by frequently asking other class members to comment on what they are hearing:  "Ms. Jones, what is your reaction to Mr. Smith's characterization of the court's reasoning?"  You need not spend much time with Ms. Jones before returning to Mr. Smith, but all students are immediately on alert that they cannot afford to drift during the discussion.

You can also pull everyone in by "beaming" questions to the entire class:  "When I call on you, be prepared to explain the IRAC syllogism."  Give the class thirty to forty seconds to think about the answer, and then call on a particular student.  By the time that student is called on, most of the class will have formulated a response that is correct and will be better able, as a result, to retain the concept and evaluate their colleague's response.

Sometimes, having students take sixty seconds brainstorm on  paper a list possible answers to a question (for example, possible causes of action springing from a complex hypothetical) can put them in a much better position to answer the question more thoughtfully.

Similarly, posing a question and having students discuss potential answers briefly with those sitting next to them can deepen their thinking and enrich the conversation when individual students are subsequently called on to respond before the whole class.

A number of other effective strategies exist, of course; but these few are easy to implement, take little class time, and need be used only infrequently to have a significant effect on students' learning.  (Dan Weddle)

August 20, 2007 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Resources for Teaching and Learning Law

If you are looking for good resources dealing with both learning and teaching in law school, check out Prof. Barbara Glesner Fines's "Teaching and Learning Law Website."  Prof. Glesner Fines provides abundant resources and practical advice.  (Dan Weddle)

June 27, 2007 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Lap tops: some other food for thought

I agree with today's posting that there are some definite negative aspects that can occur with lap tops in the classroom.  Having just been assigned to a sub-committee at our law school to look at this problem because of some of the negatives listed, I have been involved in several conversations on the pros and cons, possible remedies, etc.  We are just beginning our work, but it has caused me to give more thought to the issues.  (Most law schools are concerned with these issues; hence, the topic is on the agenda at the teaching methods AALS workshop this summer.)

Personally, I hope that law schools will consider some of the positive aspects of lap top use before banning lap tops completely.  I think some restrictions are needed, but I am less certain that total bans are necessary.  Although as professors we have academic freedom, we need to make our decisions with consideration of all the aspects of our student learners rather than as a reaction to some "bad" learners. 

I know that many other pros and cons will be presented to me through thoughtful discussions with colleagues and students in the coming weeks, but I wanted to list some of my current observations.  I may change my mind about some aspects of the issue, but I am definitely in search of compromises that improve learning for all students and not just some learners.  (My thanks to colleagues and students for their comments, suggestions, and examples as I have mulled over the issues to come to my current thoughts.  There are too many viewpoints and sources to name.  And, I would not want to describe wrongly someone else's position through my own processing "lens.")

Forgive the length of my submission, but putting the thoughts on paper helps me to see what gaps still need to be considered and may help others process the issues.  I know that my ASP colleagues and others will provide thoughtful comments to assist me (and all of us) in this journey for a solution. 

The reasons that I hope that law schools can find "rules of the road" that will allow for compromise and not mean a complete ban are as follows:

  • Students who transcribe every word and disengage their brains to become stenographers are not new.  (Not all lap-top users do transcription, by the way.)  Plenty of students (whether past or present) have hand-written notes with the exact same transcription style because they have developed abbreviations and other "shorthand" methods.  Because undergraduate courses may have required regurgitation of the lectures for an "A" grade, some new law students have come from educational backgrounds where transcribing and not thinking in class equaled the road to success.  Even upper-division students may use this method of note-taking if they have not been shown more effective ways.  One of the transitions in which law students need guidance is that note-taking in law school needs to be adjusted because law school in-class experiences are building toward application and not regurgitation.  Our focus should be on helping all students learn ways to be more discriminating note-takers.  If we focus on making lap tops the culprit for bad note-taking, then we miss the opportunity to correct the real problem. 
  • Learning styles differ among students and to say that no students should be allowed lap tops creates problems for some learners. 
  1. Strong-preference verbal (read/write) learners usually gain more from some hand-written materials (though not necessarily class notes).  There are far fewer of these strong-preference verbal learners in our classes than we might expect.  Many professors probably have a very strong-preference verbal style.  However, many of our students have grown up in a very different educational landscape where teaching methods varied, and students were encouraged to use their different learning preferences.  (Obviously, all of our students read and write, but the point is that it is often not a strong-preference style for our students.) 
  2. Strong-preference kinesthetic-tactile learners actually use typing to focus in class because it is movement and touch which complements their learning. (And, no, it is not the same with hand-writing for most of them.)  There are significant numbers of these strong-preference KT learners in our classrooms.  Some KT's do multi-task.  However, I have found that once these students are cautioned about why they need to avoid any multi-tasking during class to take advantage of lap tops for learning, these students use the technology to advantage and appropriately. 
  3. Strong-preference visual learners at times learn better with typed notes because they are able literally to "see" the material with the "clean" look of the typed page.  Also, the technology helps them to add visual elements during class that increase learning from their notes and briefs.  For many of these learners, a note pad is only useful to capture graphics used by the professor or that the student thinks of during class to visualize a concept or relationship. 
  4. Strong-preference sensing-sequential and sensing-global students need more detail in their notes than global-intuitive students because they learn from facts, practicalities, and details.  One size fits all note-taking does not work.  For sensing-sequential learners hand writing their notes may well cause them more anxiety and less focus on the discussion in class because they will fear that they are not getting everything down that is needed for them to learn.  Sensing-globals will possibly compensate a bit better, but only if verbal (read/write) is also one of their stronger preferences.
  • Because research shows that deeper understanding and learning take place when students process the material themselves, we all encourage students to make outlines to help them focus on the big picture and inter-relationships as well as understand the application for the black letter law.  Lap tops encourage students to produce their own outlines.  It is extremely easy for a law student to cut and paste typed briefs and class notes and to add insights to form a condensed big picture/inter-relationships/application version of the course.  By restricting lap top class notes, two problems that jeopardize learning are likely to increase.  First, students will be more likely to go with their briefs and class notes alone (which may not focus on the big picture, inter-relationships, and application) rather than type out a whole new outline.  Second, students who want a typed outline will short cut and use commercial outlines or other people's old outlines rather than make their own from scratch because it seems such an ordeal without typed class notes. 
  • I also encourage students to take their own class notes rather than depend on "scripts" which are handed down over the years for professors whose courses do not change in major ways.  Taking one's own notes forces processing of the information rather than depending on another person's processing.  (Not only may the other learner have different learning styles, but the other learner may be wrong.)  Students who are not allowed to type their own class notes may rely on a script which is more appealing than the effort of re-typing hand-written notes.  As a result, learning may well decrease for students who would have typed their own notes if allowed to do so.
  • Students in this generation are tech savvy.  They are used to typing and using the computer technology to improve learning.  For example, students use split-screen so that they can view briefs and class notes or outlines and class notes simultaneously.  Alternatively, some students will toggle among these documents.  Students use computer organizers to organize their briefs, notes, and outlines.  If we want students to process after class, then we need to enable them to do it in ways that are conducive to this generation's modes of processing.  (And, the truth is that many students cannot even read their own handwriting these days and cannot write quickly because they are so used to typing.  In fact, I have been told that some elementary schools do not even teach cursive writing any longer!) 
  • Most of us would have to admit that we had law professors who talked 90-miles a minute, were regularly confusing, and/or were not very organized in their class presentations.  And, despite my best efforts, I would have to confess that I have a few days when my fast-talking Northern mode kicks in or I may not have been as clear and organized as I hoped to be because I know my material so well.  Students often need to sift through lecture notes to make sense of what happened in class and condense or re-organize material into a useable format.  That sifting and re-organizing process is much easier with typed notes offering the technology to cut and paste, edit with bullet points and numbered steps, use find/replace, etc.
  • We may need to consider how changes in our teaching methods can help our high-tech students to learn more effectively with or without lap tops.  I shall only give three examples here.  PowerPoint slides or other graphics that are available on-line or as hard copies to all students can assist in learning.  Students who know that these slides will be available later do not feel as compelled to take as many notes and can concentrate instead on listening to the discussion and elaborating the slides in their notes.  (However, PowerPoint slides need to be more than merely lengthy paragraphs stuck on slides or slides filled with distracting "bells and whistles.") Flow charts, tables or other graphics that capture many of the class points and relational aspects of the material can also be used in the same way.  Preview (for global-intuitive learners) and summary (for sequential-sensing learners) skeleton outlines can help students to organize and understand the material more effectively. 
  • There are students who have legitimate reasonable accommodations for disabilities which require that they be able to have lap tops to use in class.  Even a complete ban on lap tops will need to accommodate these students.  By stating that there is a complete ban and then having exceptions, these students are immediately marked as "disabled" among their peers.  (Some of the requisite disabilities are not obvious and visible to others already so they only become "visible" when the students are made exceptions to a new lap top ban.  For some disabled students, this identification as disabled to everyone is a big issue.)
  • Many of our law schools have touted our wireless capabilities, lap-top financial aid, lap-top purchasing programs, high-tech courtrooms and/or other technology prowess.  By banning lap tops completely, we seem to be making an odd statement in light of all of our marketing.  Restrictions with reasonable policies, procedures, and penalties seem more compatible to our descriptions of ourselves as high-tech than complete bans do.
  • Some professors state that students will never use lap tops in the courtroom or with a clients in practice so that they are just requiring what will happen in those settings in order to increase listening skills.  This argument has some merit.  We can all become better listeners with or without lap tops.  However, the non-use of lap tops in legal settings is not as complete as suggested.  It may be true for some areas of practice and in some courtrooms.  However, I have sat in courtrooms where lap tops were used during the trial for a variety of purposes with court approval.  Many states have made major financial commitments to technology use in their courtrooms including at the attorneys' tables during trial.  And, I have also seen lap tops used in client meetings effectively for drafting, strategizing, and note-taking without being disruptive, unprofessional, or insulting to the client.  Lap tops can be professional tools if the technology is approved/explained/used appropriately in these settings.  A complete ban is no longer the reality for all of the legal profession.      

I totally agree that there are some inconsiderate, rude, abusive, and learning-challenged technology users at our law schools.  But, we don't have to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, we need to deal with the problems and find solutions to allow students to use the technology in ways conducive to learning without penalizing those who are already responsible users who learn better with technology. 

So, how do we go about deciding effective ways of computer use in the classroom?  Each law school will need to make its own decisions that match its environment and concerns.  Here are some suggestions based on discussions that I have had so far:

  1. Have a law school study group to look at issues for the specific law school with members on all sides of the issue and with student, faculty and administrative input.  This study group can research the issue, gain information from other law schools if desired, and determine strategies that are appropriate to the specific law school.
  2. Have clear law school policies on what technology uses are not allowed in the classroom.  Surfing the net, instant messaging, shopping on-line, e-mailing, flashing graphics, and snide remarks about others in class would no doubt top the list.  Most students as well as faculty and administrators would readily support banning these behaviors.  Wording could be such as to include a catch-all that divides class-relevant educational uses from non-class-relevant educational uses to capture "creative" examples that may crop up. 
  3. Well-reasoned policies, procedures, and penalties should be well-publicized.  And, the penalties should be enforced.  It does no good if a professor or law school states that "X" will happen, but nothing in fact happens.  Some law schools have granted anonymity for students who turn others in so that "retaliation" is not possible.
  4. Have discussions with law students about the policies, procedures, and penalties during appropriate sessions (Orientation, class meetings, SBA sponsored events, or other venues that suit a particular law school).  Responsibility and professionalism can be included in these discussions.  Most law students are responsible and will react favorably to reasonable and explained policies, procedures, and penalties.
  5. Investigate technology for the specific campus that may solve some of the problems.  Some campuses are able to limit Internet access in classroom spaces while still activating it in other law school areas.  Some law schools are using privacy screens which make distracting graphics, screensavers, and other non-class items less annoying to responsible users.
  6. Solicit strategies that work from professors who have successful use of the computer in their classrooms.  I have heard of professors taking 5 minutes the first day to discuss responsible use and what will happen if students misuse computers (the student becomes the "expert" for the rest of the class; the student is reported to the Dean's office; the student is pointed out for non-class use).  I have heard of professors who "roam" the aisles as they teach, thus curing some of the problems.  I have heard of professors having students sign statements on proper use with the realization that they will be reported for disciplinary action if they violate the conditions.  I have heard of suggestions that the registration schedule should list the professor's lap top policy so that students can sign up for other sections if multiple sections are available.

Lap top use and misuse are important issues.  There are many valid arguments pro and con.  We shall not all agree on the final stance taken by our law schools and our colleagues, but a stance will probably be needed (with academic freedom considered, of course).  I just hope that as ASP professionals we will be a thoughtful part of these discussions and an active part of the solutions to the problem. (alj)

March 6, 2007 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Laptops in the Classroom: An Unhelpful Distraction?

I know this suggestion is fraught with difficulties, but I think it is worth considering:  maybe law professors should restrict or ban the use of laptops, particularly in large classes. In talking with struggling students, I have found a couple of common problems that are probably widely shared by many other students.

The first is the one we all know about.  Students are surfing the Internet, answering emails, instant messaging, etc.  They grew up multitasking with technology and think it works.  A recent empirical study, however, showed that multitasking significantly interferes with the long-term ability to apply information that was obtained during the multitasking.  They are hamstringing the very skill they will need for success on exams and for learning to apply the law in effective ways.

The second problem is that students who are not surfing, etc., are too often acting like stenographers, typing continuously everything they hear in class.  They are passively and indiscriminately recording a load of information, much of which will not be useful to them.  I have recommended to several that they close their laptops and begin taking notes by hand.  They come back and tell me that they are forced to discriminate among ideas and that they are significantly more intellectually engaged in the discussion.

Another nasty piece of this is that law schools are finding that students are using their computers to attack other students during class by spreading messages simultaneously to all the students ridiculing answers, attacking individuals’ intelligence or character, etc.  It is bad enough when someone does that to a student on a particular day, but what schools are finding is that some students are routinely targeted by a handful of other students.  It was so bad at one school that the dean wrote an article about it, warning other schools that the practice is more rampant than we realize.

Finally, I hear complaints from students about how distracting it is to have nearby students surfing the Internet, etc.  It can be tough to pay close attention when a screen three feet in front of them is flashing websites and videos.  How many of us could conduct class while trying to look past a screen full of moving images?  No wonder some of our students seem surprisingly distracted and disengaged.

I know that restricting students’ use of technology in the classroom is controversial; but many students are hurting themselves; and, worse, many are interfering with others’ learning.  At the very least, we need to figure out how to stop the abuses.  That’s a tough thing to do from the front of a room with sixty students and dozens of laptops.(dbw)

March 6, 2007 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Seeing the Forest

I was speaking with Lorraine Lalli from Roger Williams the other day, and she commented that among the chief struggles for first-year students is an inability to see the forest for the trees.  They may understand a case; they may even master its principles; but they have a tough time seeing how the case fits into the larger scheme of things, how a rule connects to themes and principles running through a particular area of law or to themes running across legal disciplines.  If we can teach them how to find those larger connections, we will have taught them something much more valuable than any case. (dbw)

January 15, 2007 in Meetings, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

ADD, ADHD, and the Law School Experience

A reader suggested to me today that this blog devote some discussion to the difficulties faced by law students with ADHD.  I think the suggestion is a good one.  Let me begin, at least, with a recommended article.  Professor Robin A. Boyle recently published "Law Students with Attention Deficit Disorder:  How to Reach Them, How to Teach Them," 39 J. Marshall L. R. 349 (2006).

Among other things, the article gives a helpful overview of empirical research concerning ADD and ADHD, as well as the implications of that research for law school pedagogy.  Included in those implications are twenty-five insightful, practical suggestions for more effectively addressing the needs of law students with ADD and ADHD. (dbw)

October 24, 2006 in Disability Matters, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Student questions

Asking the right questions

Typically, new students come to law school as a relatively self sufficient group of people.  Many have excelled academically, in their careers, and sometimes both.  And while not every law student achieved the 90th percentile on the LSAT exam, most come to law school willing to work extremely hard in order to achieve success.  Prior to law school, working harder always meant better grades and the Dean’s List, and the unstated assumption is that the law school experience won’t be any different.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, many law students have a blind spot when it comes to their legal education – in inability, or an unwillingness, to ask questions.  At this point, I could list a large number of things that we – and by “we” I mean all law school educators – do to encourage students to ask questions.  However, I’m more interested in discussing the things that we may be doing that discourage students from asking questions.

For example, many teach using some form of the Socratic dialogue.  Those who teach using this methodology  might suggest that these dialogues both encourage and require students to take part and ask questions.  Of course, the words “encourage” and “require” have entirely different meanings.  Students who must to speak in class may feel disinclined to ask a question once they have satisfied the requirement of answering a teacher’s questions.  Also, many use the Socratic dialogue as a way of posing questions to our students as opposed to answering their questions.  In a traditional Socratic dialogue – the kind replicated by John Houseman on the paper chase – the professor turns the student’s question into another question that is then directed back at that student.

From our perspective, we are forcing students to confront unstated assumptions inherent in their questions or to consider an alternative point of view.  From the student’s perspective, particularly during the first days of the law school experience, a simple “yes” or “no” might have been more helpful. 

A common fear among students is that they will appear “stupid” when asking questions in class.  Taking this idea a step further, some fear that they are the only one who is confused.  And to quote Abraham Lincoln, it is “[b]etter to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”  As a professor, however, what I see is everyone in class writing down the answers to those so called foolish questions.

Turning the spotlight on myself, are there aspects to my teaching that suggest to students that their questions are “stupid”?  Am I too dismissive of student questions?  I don’t think so, but am I the best judge of this?  How many of us receive feedback from students, beyond end of the year evaluations, where we solicit this sort of information?  Again, I believe I am sensitive when students questions that indicate they are struggling, but what if class is running late?  What if the same person has asked 5 questions in a row?  What if we are getting way off track?  I hope that my words still indicate a willingness to take on more questions, but do my body language and the tone of my voice indicate exasperation?

Of course, most of us have office hours, and we may even recommend that students use these forums for asking certain questions.  Allow me to suggest that announcing office hours at the outset of the semester may not send a strong enough message that you are available.  Even if we do remind students of our office hours, our actions can speak more loudly than our words.  Do we schedule committee meetings during office hours?  Are we working on our latest law review article when students knock on the door?  By itself, this isn’t a problem, but a look that conveys annoyance at having to put aside this work sends a clear message to our students as to our priorities.

I realize that, for the most part, I am preaching to the choir.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to turn the spotlight back on ourselves on occasion.

Just my two cents . . . (hnr)

September 19, 2006 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)