Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I tell my students DON'T outline

I'm at the point in the semester where I'm about to wrap-up Personal Jurisdiction.  This seems like a natural break point to encourage my students to go back and review the material and make sure they understand what we've covered.  That's exactly what I've told them to do, but I also told them not to outline.

You're probably wondering why the heck I would tell my students to review their material, but NOT to outline.  The reason is simple, most of my first year law students (in fact many of my 2nd and 3rd year students too) don't know what the term outlining is intended to mean.  So they go with what they know (for the most part undergraduate outlining experience) and they rehash their typewritten notes into very well organized, paginated, tabbed, bulleted dictation notes which don't help them understand the material now or for the exam.  It seems there is no synthesis or attempt to understand the material, instead it's a clerical exercise, often involving 100's of pages by the end of the semester, especially when study groups collaborate to make one mega outline.  What a waste of paper and time. 

Instead of this "outlining" process, I've told my students to develop an "Analytical Framework."  I don't use the term outlining, in fact I don't use it in any classes I teach.  I instead always tell my students to develop a framework which helps them apply the material we've covered to new circumstances.  The results have been extremely encouraging.  Instead of fielding questions such as "what is the rule here?" I'm fielding questions such as "So when applying my minimum contacts analysis, should I read Shaffer to say that International Shoe always controls?"  Those types of questions are the norm, and considering that we're in Week 4 I'm pleased to see my students synthesizing the material and thinking in terms of application and analysis not regurgitation.  (In fact, in my upper level class one 3L student came to office hours to tell me that he had never thought of outlining as developing an analytical framework and since he has looked at it that way he has a whole new grasp of the material---whoa.)

With so much else to worry about, how did I integrate this teaching method into my class?  Well, once we made substantial progress through Personal Jurisdiction I began hammering home the point of developing an "Analytical Framework."  In the Hypo's found in the book and in the cases we covered I started pressing my students to tell me how they would approach the facts of a problem to resolve the jurisdictional questions.  At first they ALWAYS wanted to jump to the quick answer "yes/no there is/isn't jurisdiction" or "yes/no there are/aren't minimum contacts."  Rather than let them flail about I began to press them to tell me, if presented with such a fact pattern as a lawyer or a judge, what would be the first question they'd seek to resolve?  I have forced them to articulate their rationale in light of what we've learned so far.  I repeat this process through each step of the analytical framework. 

Here's the hard part about this.  First, it requires me to have my analytical framework fully developed---that is to say when it comes to personal jurisdiction questions I need to know today how I want students to approach the problem.  If I don't have that in my hands it's tough for me to fairly evaluate how well they are comporting with the approach I believe to be correct and consistent with what we've covered.  Luckily, I did this, and when we get to exam time the 5 page analytical framework that I developed will form something of a scoring sheet for that portion of the exam.  Second, the in-class part of this is also extremely time consuming, at least at first.  The first time I did this I spent 45 minutes with one student on the hot seat, and used him to walk the class through his analytical framework.  What actually was happening was that I walked the class through my analytical framework by helping him along the way with guidance and suggestive questions.  When we finish personal jurisdiction I will end by doing the same thing, and hopefully it will flow seamlessly. 

With that said, it is time consuming at first but it gets easier  After a little more than a week of this analytical framework talk, we've arrived at a point where I believe most of my students have taken the time to develop their own framework.  When I pose a question, rather than flail they jump to their analytical framework (usually there's a shuffle of papers or a click click of opening windows).  As they begin to ponder the question, their answers demonstrate a reasoned analytical approach which details the steps in their thought process, the questions they'd attempt to resolve, and how they would apply the facts of this case or hypo to their understanding of the law.  This is a good time (at least for me). 

One of my most enjoyable exercises is to take a case we've covered and to change the facts just slightly.  Then, based only on the facts of that case (perhaps with my slight modification) I have the student explain to me how they would approach those facts within their analytical framework.  Oftentimes I'll ask them to argue against jurisdiction where the court found that jurisdiction was proper.  It's fascinating to watch them develop legal arguments and use what they've learned and to do so in an organized analytical fashion. 

I'm not sure if time will permit me to continue this approach throughout the semester.  However, I believe that getting them in the habit of developing an analytical framework at this stage in the semester will benefit them throughout the course, and hopefully throughout their legal career.  I'm also hoping that it will make for some great exams to read over Christmas break.  We'll see!   


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I like your thoughtful approach, Alex, but I wonder if (1) students really understand "analytical framework" any more than "outline" and (2) whether ultimately their "analytical framework" looks a lot like an outline anyway. I do not speak from experience here, so I may very well be misguided. I'll be interested in your thoughts at the end of your semester.

For what it's worth, I completely agree that students have little idea how best to assimilate the material in a useful way at the outset. My school requires a mid-term in 1L classes. It is up to the professor's discretion as to whether the mid-term counts for points and for how many. I tend to make my mid-term practice, and we go over what kind of answer I was expecting in the class period immediately following the class in which the exam is given. Because I don't grade it, I undoubtedly do not get the maximum effort from my students taking it, but I have found that 1Ls are sufficiently scared of law school and sufficiently interested in using the practice exam to improve that most take it with a significant degree of seriousness, by developing outlines and studying in advance. My belief is that many come out of the experience with a much better sense of what kind of "analytical framework" or "outline" works best for each individual student.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Sep 21, 2007 1:14:07 PM

This process sounds excellent. While I understand where Professor Dodson is coming from, I have a feeling that calling the process “developing an analytical framework” will make a difference in the end.

Outlining should always have been a process of taking everything one has learned and distilling it into a form that can be applied to other fact patterns (which, if I understand correctly, is the analytical framework approach described here). Unfortunately, almost no one explains that to law students in clear terms. In my first year, I constantly heard the verb "to outline" and the noun "an outline," but I don't think many of us knew what it meant. For many, the result was as you described: a mechanical process of typing up and organizing class notes.

I think your analytical framework approach may, in one sense, just be “outlining” by a different name, as Professor Dodson suggests. But, it’s a far more apt name and you’re combining it with instruction on how to properly make an outline. I think that skill will be invaluable for your students, both when they are in other classes and when they are out in practice. They won’t always have a professor to help them piece together complex legal doctrines, and this skill will help them to it themselves.

Posted by: Jeff Fisher | Nov 9, 2008 10:19:16 AM

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