Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Last week, I mentioned an important article by Stefan Krieger and Serge Martinez, which emphasizes students’ ability to reason in practice (cognitive competence) as a better measure of outcomes, than just their ability to perform, which is stressed in the Carnegie Report and Best Practices. They cite to a medical study, which stated, "testing cognitive processes may be a better predictor of ability in practice than scores on standardized-patient exams." Krieger and Martinez propose to study cognitive competence through think-aloud interviews. They declare "one of the methods now being used experimentally by medical educators to assess cognitive competence is the use of the ‘think-aloud’ interviewing methods employed in cognitive science studies of the reasoning process." Under this method, "researchers ask subjects during the interview to verbalize their thoughts spontaneously as they emerge in attention." They continue, "we give students in a clinical program a hypothetical problem that is representative of work they have experienced in a clinical program, and record them as we ask them to talk it through. Our hypothesis is that by prodding students to just talk about a problem without a filter, we will understand, as well as possible, what they are thinking ‘in practice.’"
I propose that not only are think-aloud techniques valuable in assessing student learning, they are a capstone technique in teaching students to solve legal problems. Professors Krieger and Martinez state, "course design must give students opportunities to develop the ability to reason in practice, and not simply to learn different expert techniques." In Contracts, A Context and Practice Casebook, Michael Hunter Schwartz and Denise Rabe include think-aloud problems in their last chapter. A think-aloud analysis "includes the author’s thinking process in evaluating the question and preparing a written answer."
The advantage of the think-aloud process is that it helps students build step-by-step strategies to solve problems. (Actually, it reminds me of math classes in elementary school in which we were required to show our work. In other words, the process is just as important as the answer.) It also helps students to develop the ability to deal with new types of problem, which is vital in practice.
Legal writing teachers have used the think-aloud method for years without realizing it. For example, when a student comes to me and asks how to begin a problem, I have that student tell me how they would approach the problem step-by-step. Similarly, when a student asks me how they should organize the argument section, I help them come up with an outline by having them think aloud the organization. I assume that clinical teachers do similar things.
The one difficulty is how law schools can use think-aloud techniques when law schools generally have large classes. First, this approach can easily be used in legal writing classes, clinics, and academic support, which already have a great deal of student-teacher contact. Similarly, classes after the first-year often are smaller. Law schools have seminars that have a limited number of students; why not capstone classes to develop problem-solving skills that have a limited number of students? Professors can also employ this technique in larger classes, as suggested by its inclusion in the Schwartz/Rabe contracts book. Students can pair off and take each other through the problem-solving process. Students can be video-taped, or they can record themselves. Third-year students could also be teaching assistants to help first-year students with the process. Professors could also assign their students to write out their thinking process (write aloud). Finally, teachers can use this technique in the classroom. If the socratic dialogue works in the classroom, there is no reason that taking students through the process of solving problems wouldn’t also work in the classroom. (For example, in my research strategy class, I have the students think aloud how they would approach a research problem based on a set of facts.) In fact, thinking aloud goes with adopting new materials. If professors do problems in class, then much of the class will consist of thinking aloud through the steps of reasoning for the problems.