Friday, September 21, 2007

"November in September"

In my last post I detailed how my approach for much of this semester has been to encourage students to develop an analytical framework rather than outline.  Part of what this means is that I've accelerated the "freak out" questions that usually come in the weeks before the exam.  Experienced professors and recent graduates know what I'm talking about--- that time in the Fall semester when Thanksgiving comes around, students sit down with a practice fact pattern and have no idea where to start and what to say.  They then frantically appear in the professors office feeling as though they've been missing something all semester.  There are ways to avoid this, such as to provide a "sample final" or midterm, but those students who respond to the offer for extra work are either the one's who get it, or the one's who are totally lost--- the large group in the middle "sorta gets it" and believes that what they don't get they'll figure out by the end of the semester.  Unfortunately I don't think that time ever comes for many of them, and they leave the class feeling as though they were missing something.  I'm hoping to avoid that feeling. 

As a result, my approach has created what I'll call the "November in September" effect.  The freaking out that normally occurs with a few weeks left in the semester is happening now, but on a somewhat smaller scale.  As such, I'm fielding lots of questions.  Some professors reading this may be thinking "What a pain in the a$$, I'm definitely not going to encourage them to figure stuff out early if I'll have to deal with a semester's worth of out of class questions and freaked out students" in fact, I briefly thought that myself.  I mean, I have writing to do, all this teaching and question fielding is taking time away from my scholarship.  But, all this teaching is also a part of my job (albeit not given as much weight as scholarship) and at the end of it all some of my students will walk away with $135k+ of debt.  I think I need to give them something more than a guided tour of the pool house that ends with me kicking them into the deep end where they will sink or swim.  So I push the analytical framework approach early, and with it comes early questions.  My hope is that it will minimize the number of questions at the end of the semester and will improve their understanding of the material. 

So how do I handle the questions such as "Is my framework right?," "Am I analyzing this correctly?" "How do I know the right approach, is there a supplement out there?"

First, I frequently use hypothetical problems forcing students to use their framework.  My expectation is that they will follow along as we deconstruct problems in class.  Hopefully while one student is being grilled other students will be following along answering the question on their own, and where they can't find the answer they will make notes to themselves on areas where they may need to flesh out their analytical framework. 

Second, the casebook I'm using makes it a bit easier to point students in the right direction so they can answer some of their questions on their own.  For example, yesterday we covered the recent Jones v. Flowers 126 S.Ct. 1708 (2006) case, dealing with notice.  For didactic purposes Spencer left out of the casebook Roberts' examples of additional steps the government could have taken to ensure notice.  Some students keying in on this wanted to know what additional measures might have worked.  Rather than answer that question for them, I pointed them to their electronic casebook and informed them that they should click on the citation and read the full opinion.  Clicking the link in the casebook took them straight to WestLaw, providing them with the full opinion and because it's WestLaw it also provided them with the KeyCiteNotes which helps to pull out some key rules from the case which are hyperlinked directly to the body of the case where the rule comes from. 

I informed my students that having the entire opinion at their fingertips in this instance can help them to further develop their understanding of the case, and also provides one way for them to double check their instincts.  I also told them that the hyperlinked full text of the case, the hyperlinks to other informative cases and the links to law review articles are great resources for when they are reviewing and studying the material.  Lucky for me, they are reviewing and studying the material now and as we go along, rather than trying to cram and syntheisize at the end. 

Here's my vision.  By developing their analytical framework early on, they begin to think about the material and how to synthesize it.  The downside of this approach is that it may raise more questions than answers for them, and they're going to look to me for the answers.  I don't see my role as providing them answers; instead in keeping with the pool analogy I'll kick them into the deep end, but I'll make sure I taught them how to swim first.  By using some innovative resources that I've detailed above I'm teaching them how to swim by teaching them that they can find answers and further understanding of the material by working through problems, re-reading cases, consulting on-point articles and legal research tools.  Those are law student skills I believe they should learn for my class, and they are lawyer skills that they should begin developing for life. 

I suppose in December I'll have to report back on this and tell you if my scheme worked. 

-Alex

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