Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Contextualized Academic Support

When I started teaching in the academic support field, the pedagogy differed from today’s practices.  The most dominant method at the time was what might be called “uncontextualized academic support.”  In a nutshell, this is analytical skills training not set in the context of students’ current doctrinal courses.[1]  Because much of this instruction occurred in a non-course-based setting, the method frustrated many in the field due to its inability to reach more than one student at a time and because students were less engaged with materials not intersecting with their currently graded courses.  Often the use of such methods was not the product of strategic decision-making but instead a broad fiat to avoid invading doctrinal turf.

In the oughts, more pedagogically progressive schools started to adopt what now might be called “contextualized academic support.”  In this method, students learn analytical skills using problems set in the context of their current doctrinal courses.  An example might look like this:  Imagine a course for 2Ls in the bottom 20% of the class that is comingled with the crim pro course they take at that same time.  Among other active learning assignments, students complete six exam-like essays, three 20-question MCQ quizzes, 250 “extra” MCQs, a mini-mock exam, and a full mock exam.  Such courses, careful to employ measures ensuring doctrinal accuracy, can be of tremendous benefit to students.

Contextualization is important for many reasons.  First, it motivates students to take academic support more seriously.  When students are able to spend double time on topics on which they are about to be graded, they become more engaged and work harder.  Second, contextualization shows that the faculty trusts the academic support faculty, thus fostering student buy-in.  Additionally, and among other reasons, contextualization facilitates doctrinal learning due to active learning methods and feedback that doctrinal faculty may not have time to provide.  (In the elusive search for more formative assessment, might "academic support across the curriculum" be the cure to the age-old problem of insufficient time?)

Contextualized academic support (and embedded academic support[2]) is now the dominant pedagogy.  Through working with other academic support educators, and based on conversations at many conferences, I get the strong sense that most schools with ASPs leverage contextualization.  Empirical evidence of this method’s efficacy no doubt fueled its development into a best practice.[3] 

But some schools still ban contextualization.  This usually occurs against the advice of academic support experts who must somehow meet their goals and objectives without a say in how to meet those goals and objectives.  But banning ASPs from their most optimal methods will leave a mark.  Under such a ban, expecting an ASP to render miraculous results like preventing academic attrition or single-handedly increasing bar pass rates is indefensible.

I end on this note:  I can write this blunt post because I have the benefit of academic freedom, a supportive dean, and encouraging faculty.  Others are not so lucky, and so I cover this topic so that those folks can cite this post as evidence against baseless condemnation of contextualized academic support or the claim that “no other schools do this.” 

Yes, they do.



[Louis Schulze, FIU Law]


[1]  To be clear, there certainly is a place for uncontextualized academic support.  Some matters to be taught do not lend themselves to doctrinal immersion.   

[2] Embedded academic support means doctrinal courses taught with an ASP component.  Often, the ASP instructor will teach both components. 

[3] Kristine S. Knaplund and Richard H. Sander, The Art and Science of Academic Support, 45 J. Legal Educ. 157 (1995).


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