Friday, April 19, 2019
It's that time of year again. Many states have released February 2019 bar passage rates. Thankfully, the rates have risen in some places, but they are still at suboptimal levels. Indeed, the July 2018 MBE results sunk to a 34- year low. A recent article on law.com lists some well-known statistics and theories, explaining, in part:
Kellye Testy, president of the Law School Admission Council . . . suspects the falling pass rates are the results of a combination of factors, the most obvious being the lower credentials of incoming students. The declining quality of public education—meaning an erosion of the reading and writing foundations children develop in elementary and high schools—may also be a contributor, she said. Moreover, the evolving way that law is taught may explain why today’s law graduates are struggling more on the bar exam, said Testy, whose organization develops the LSAT. Professors now put less emphasis on memorizing rules, and have backed off on some of the high-pressure tactics—like the Socratic method—that historically dominated the classroom. “The way we used to teach wasn’t as good for caring for the student, but it made sure you could take a closed-book exam,” she said. “You knew the doctrine. It was much more like a bar exam, in some ways. Today, when you go into a classroom, it’s all PowerPoint. The teachers give them an outline, the students are on computers. There’s a different student approach and a different faculty approach.” The fact that so many law graduates now take bar preparation courses online rather than in person is another avenue worth examining for a potential correlation to falling pass rates, said Judith Gundersen, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. “You used to have to go to a lecture and show up every day,” she said. “Now so much of it is online. People are wondering whether that’s changing how people prepare, because there just isn’t that communal aspect where, ‘I have to prepare in case I get called on.’”
I'm not sure how I feel about these assertions. I agree that many students lack some of the key critical thinking and writing skills needed to analyze legal problems. I also see far fewer professors using the strict Socratic method and more allowing computers in class. I allow computers for specific activities but not throughout the class. I also employ more of a modified Socratic method, use powerpoint, and often post it in advance with questions for students to answer prior to class so that we can spend time in class applying what the students have learned. Am I doing a disservice to my students with a flipped classroom? Do we need to go back to rote memorization and cold calling students for the bar passage rates to rise? And if so, will that make our students better lawyers?
I remember how difficult it was to take the Florida bar after three years of law practice in New York. The rote memorization helped me pass the bar exam while working a full time job and caring for an infant as a single mother. But it didn't make me a better lawyer. Having worked for three years, I remember slogging through bar study thinking that what I was learning in bar prep had little to do with what I actually did in practice. When I prepared for the New York and New Jersey bars, I went to classes live but some were in a classroom via video. I'm not even sure that purely online courses were an option back in 1992. When I moved to Florida and studied for that bar, I used tapes in my car (yes, it was 1996). I had tried the live courses for a few days and realized that my time was better spent reciting the rules of evidence to my son in lieu of nursery rhymes. I passed three bars using two different methods but I wonder how well I would have done with an online version, the way most students study for the bar now.
I no longer teach courses tested on the bar, but when I did, I had the perpetual conflict-- how do I make sure that the students pass the bar while instilling them with the knowledge and skills they will actually need in the real world? I see now how some of my transactional lawyering students dread going to the bar prep classes offered during the semester. But they also consider these classes a necessity to pass the bar even through they will engage in full time bar prep upon graduation. Does the proliferation of these law school bar prep classes mean that the doctrinal professors aren't teaching the students the way we learned? Or does it mean that that the students are no longer learning the way we did? I don't have the answers.
But these articles do have an effect on how and what I teach. Under ABA Standard 306, law schools can offer up to one-third of their credits online, including up to ten credits for first-year coursework. As I prepare to teach my contract drafting and negotiation class asynchronously online for the first time this summer, I'm learning about presenting information in short, digestible chunks for the students- no more than 15-20 minutes per video, and preferably even shorter, I'm told. I'm also reviewing the conflicting evidence about whether online courses are a help or a hindrance.
Some of my students have taken many courses online as undergraduates. As a compliance officer, I required employees to take courses online and did live training. Personally, I like taking online courses. But I don't know enough about how well students retain the information and how well they learn to use key skills to serve clients. I'm fortunate, though, to have excellent instructional designers working with me who understand adult learning much better than I do. I'm convinced that more students will seek online courses and more schools will adopt them as a way of earning more revenue through developing programs for working professionals and JD students who need more flexible schedules. This means many more of us may need to prepare for this new way of teaching and learning.