EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Flipping Socrates

Sponsored by West Academic

Deborah Jones Merritt (Ohio State):

Cover 4“Flipped” classrooms are gaining popularity in high school and college courses. Students in these topsy-turvy classes watch videotaped lectures as homework, then gather in class to discuss material and solve problems. Hands-on classroom activities allow students to work in groups, as well as to obtain just-in-time help from the teacher.

What’s the big deal? Didn’t law schools flip their classrooms long ago by introducing the case method and Socratic questioning? Our students, after all, absorb content by reading cases and statutes before class; in the classroom we push them to apply their knowledge by answering questions and solving new hypotheticals.

That’s the theory. In reality, the conventional law school class falls short of the engagement and active learning that a well flipped classroom can offer. After the first semester, many law school classes fall into a predictable pattern of lecture cloaked in “Socratic” questioning. Our Socratic questions too often seek specific answers that will advance the underlying lecture, rather than truly engaging students in problem solving. Even when we call on students to apply their knowledge by solving problems, other students simply take notes; they don’t attempt to solve the problem themselves.

I recognized this phenomenon in my own upper-level Evidence class and sought a solution. A colleague, Ric Simmons, had devised an extraordinary number of creative problems for students to solve. I started asking students to solve these problems, either in small groups or through clicker responses. To allow time for problem solving, however, I had to rush through discussion of the cases and rules.

One day an epiphany occurred: We had time in class either to analyze how courts had solved previous problems (the case method) or to use that reasoning to solve new problems. There simply wasn’t time for both.

For upperlevel students, the choice was easy: Both my classroom experience and the cognitive science literature counseled that students would learn far more by engaging with new problems rather than retracing old ones. Ric agreed and we created Learning Evidence, an “uncasebook” that flips the classroom by giving students the basic information they need to allow active learning in class.

Learning Evidence explains the policy behind each Federal Rule of Evidence, walks the reader through the language of the rule, and outlines issues that arise when applying that rule. We use cases to illustrate the issues, but we don’t use appellate opinions. Instead, we present the facts of a case along with an explanation of how the court resolved the dispute. We present this information in concise summaries that we hope model excellent legal writing.

When professors first skim this book, they often say: “But what do you do in class? The book is so clear that I will have nothing left to say!” This reaction underscores the fact that our traditional classes have become lectures in disguise—or that we try to educate students by generating mysteries that we then resolve in class.

Ric and I answer this question by pointing to all of the hypotheticals, simulations, group problems, and other materials we have developed for class. Ric even runs a “sweet sixteen” tournament of hearsay exceptions, an activity that has become one of my favorites. Every year I have more than enough material to fill every class—and then some.

By flipping the classroom, we and other professors have found that students are eager to come to class. They read the book, because the book helps them understand the rules, policies, and open issues of evidence law. They quickly realize, however, that reading isn’t knowing. By participating in a full 50 minutes of problems and simulations, they expand that knowledge—just as the original Socratic method intended.

Flipping isn’t for everyone; students benefit from diverse pedagogies throughout the curriculum. Nor are flipped classrooms homogeneous; there are lots of way to flip your classroom style. I encourage all law professors, however, to assess how active your classrooms really are. From behind the podium, it is easy to overestimate a class’s engagement. After all, we are “on” for the whole class. We participate in every oral exchange, and we’re always thinking about how to steer the conversation in the best direction.

Traditional Socratic classrooms don’t feel nearly as active to those seated in the rows. How many students participate during a single classroom hour? How many are simply taking notes (or worse)? Even if 20% of your students participate each day—a very high percentage for a class of more than 50 students—that means 80% are simply taking notes. How different is that from a lecture?

Try flipping old Socrates. You (and he) may like it.


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