Friday, November 15, 2013

Don’t Write Off Struggling Law Students

Yesterday, I covered the practical aspects of Professor Hilary Burgess’s excellent article, Using Multiple Choice to Teach Students to Write: Identifying Discreet Steps Experts Take. Today, I would like to discuss a very important issue in her article–we should not abandon students just because they are struggling.

She declares, "Dismissing law students takes a huge emotional and financial toll on students, faculty, and law schools. Thus, it is important that we don’t dismiss law students who could become ethical, professional, competent attorneys. Unfortunately, many of us have had hard-working, motivated students who were plenty smart enough to succeed in law, but who failed out because they just couldn’t get it. Sometimes, we want to write them off as ‘not as smart as they appear’ or ‘just not ‘law smart.’ Conversely, we say that the students who succeed are naturals."

She then mentions an organization, Jump Math, which "believes that while some people might have natural math intuition, all people have the ability to learn math." She thinks that law teachers can use similar techniques to those used by Jump Math to help "slow" math learners to help "slow" law learners. She does this through the detailed exercises I discussed in yesterday’s post. She notes, "The quizzes walk students through discreet, incremental steps that we, as experts, often don’t even realize we are taking."

She writes, "At first, I worried that I would be asking students to spend even more time studying. However, these ‘additional’ activities save students time because they help students identify the objectives of learning, teach them how to attain those objectives, and help avoid common pitfalls novice learners face. Thus, students who use the materials tend to spend less time studying with better results. Importantly, they rarely engage in activities that waste their time by not helping them attain the learning objectives."

She concludes, "If I’ve learned anything from this process, it’s that I will never be done prepping this class. There is always another quiz question that could help a struggling student. There are always more assumptions to identify. There are always more ways to make law study more efficient for law students while increasing my expectations of what students can master. It’s just a matter of providing continuously improved learning materials for students."

I agree completely with Professor Burgess’s argument. In fact, the Texas A & M Law Review is publishing an article I wrote any day now, entitled How to Help Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds Succeed in Law School, which takes a similar position to Professor Burgess. General education scholarship has demonstrated that schools can help struggling students succeed if they use the proper teaching techniques. Law schools should not ignore students who can succeed just because a few professors want to use failed teaching methods, instead of ones that have been proven to work, just because they have always used such methods.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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