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Editor: D. A. Jeremy Telman
Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reflections on the First Minimester, Part I

I have been periodically reporting in this space on my Law School's new curriculum, which features a new approach to contracts.  We have broken each semester into two, seven-week minimesters, and the traditional four-credit, fourteen-week contracts course has been broken into two, two-credit, seven-week courses.  As a result, I have just finished grading my students' final exams.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on the experiment thus far:

1.    The frequent assessments that we did helped me to understand that students have difficulties with concepts that I had forgotten were difficult.  I'm sure these concepts were difficult for me as well when I was a law student, but after teaching for ten years, they have become dangerously familiar.  For example, I discovered that the distinction between "additional" and "different" terms in UCC 2-207 is not obvious to a lot of students.  I never paused to consider that in past years, but we had a quiz on the battle of the forms, and many students preparing for the quiz asked me to explain it.  Similarly, I learned this year that the phrase "within the statute of frauds" does not obviously and easily translate into "a type of contract that, in order to be enforceable, must be in a writing signed by the party to be charged."  

2.     I had some concerns going in that it would be difficult for students to prepare themselves for a law school exam just seven weeks into their first semester, and there were no doubt students for whom seven weeks was not enough time to digest all the material we covered in the first minimester.  So, I am a bit concerned that some students will underperform on this exam because they are slower than the median at making the adjustment to the law school environment, and I suspect there are students who are slow at the start but nonetheless are capable of developing a profound understanding of the law.  But see #4.

3.    I also had concerns about our students' preparation for law school essay exams, but I actually found that this year's essays were not qualitatively different from those of past years, to the extent that comparison is possible.  There was, as always, a tremendous range in students' approaches to writing the essays, but it was all within expected parameters.

4.     The purpose of the minimester in contracts is to give students a meaningful assessment early on.  This will give students a realistic sense of where they stand in relation to their peers.  It will also help us to identify the students who need additional academic support, and it may even help us to identify what sort of academic support they need.  Since all law students are above average, I expect that many of my students will be disappointed by the grades they receive in Contracts I.  I hope that their response will not be to become discouraged but to re-double their efforts and get the support they need from our able academic support team.  

5.     In years past, when a student would perform dismally in contracts, there was not much I could do beyond handing tissues and hoping that the poor performance was a fluke.  This year, because of the minimester system, I have a real opportunity to work with students to address difficulties before they become career-threatening.  And if students perform consistently poorly in both Contracts I and Contracts II, I will feel much more confident not in showing students the door but in encouraging them to prepare themselves for the possibility that a career in the law may not be in the cards.

My students will get their first minimester grades at the end of the week.  I expect that I will be very busy next week meeting with students who want to go over their exams and extract valuable lessons from the experience.  Part II of this post will address the extent to which that expectation is met.

[JT]

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