Thursday, July 17, 2008

Learning Theory and Student Expectations - Tips From Three Experts

Lwi_logo_2Three superstars of the legal writing field are Sonia Bychkov Green, Maureen Straub Kordesh, and Julie Spanbauer, all of The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. They presented a well-attended program this morning on how to incorporate learning theory and student expectations into problem design for a first-year writing course.Spanbauer_2

Julie Spanbauer traveled to Indianapolis from China to give this presentation. She emphasized the importance of thinking of students as learners (rather than thinking of ourselves as teachers).  She compared law students to students of foreign languages who are learning from a native speaker (of law).  These students are learning how to become fluent in our legal discourse (they even have to resort to using legal dictionaries).  Some other points she made:

  • Entering students face many hurdles as they immerse themselves in the study of law.
  • Reading assignments are dominated by appellate opinions, which were never intended by their authors as teaching tools.
  • Entering law students have little or no prior experience reading and analyzing these cases and cannot directly draw on their prior learning experiences as they transition into law school.
  • First-year students are frequently relegated to the position of vicarious learning as they passively listen to the teacher engaging another student in dialog about a case or hypothetical scenario.
  • Much of law school instruction is based upon a self-teaching model because the student is forced to assess other student answers and to ascertain how the teacher's instructional goals relate to the instruction presented.

Kordesh_maureen_straub Maureen Kordesh then spoke on how to control the classroom environment to maximize teaching effectiveness--and especially how (and why) to use controlled problems, as opposed to "real" problems, in the LS classroom.

She discussed the ways teachers can sometimes lose control over the learning environment, differences in teaching children and teaching adults, and being able to appreciate the difference between "indeterminacy" and "chaos" when synthesizing cases.

Green_sonia_bychkov_3 She illustrated some of the case examples she uses to examine holdings and reasoning from judicial decisions, and to do so in a way that appreciates the learning styles of adult learners.  By careful editing of cases, Professor Kordesh illustrated how to minimize first-year student anxiety in briefing complicated cases and thereby maximize the ability of these students to develop particular skills. 

Professor Green then discussed her work with law firm associates and common writing problems that arise in law firms.  She emphasized that the writing problems that associates were experiencing were common to our students as well. 

Schwinn How can we bring clients into the classroom?  She shared a video of a client interview (a father and his son who had fallen off a pile of logs), which forced students to treat the problem more seriously, and to be more engaged in the writing process.

She urged persons interested in learning more about how to incorporate real cases into the legal writing problems to read an article by Professor Steven Schwinn.  Click here to download that article

Contact Julie Spanbauer for copies of the handouts and bibliography from this presentation.


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