Sunday, January 20, 2013

An Innovative Contracts Course at UVA

Professor Rip Verkerke has developed an innovative contracts course at the University of Virginia School of Law.  (full story here)  He received a grant "to convert a fall-semester course into a 'hybrid technology-enhanced' offering."  In addition to using innovative technology in his class, he redesigned his course as a "flipped" classroom model, "in which students watch pre-recorded lectures outside of class and participate in more interactive learning inside the classroom. . ."  His goal for this flipped model is "to promote deeper learning for students."  The article states, "he has taken a quantum leap this year in reimagining how to teach Contracts with online tools and a new understanding of how students learn."

The article states:

"Now Verkerke records most of his lectures sitting at his desk in his office while navigating PowerPoint slides for students to view at home. Class time is primarily reserved for problem-solving exercises, small-group discussions, and making sure students understand the materials and lectures they covered at night. The course is supported not only by a binder of collected readings, but also a website that allows Verkerke to post materials, administer quizzes and participate in online discussion forums."

For example, "The students' first exercise was to negotiate their own classroom policies, guided by a series of surveys whose results could be viewed real-time on a projector screen."

His course uses frequent formative assessment: "Unlike most law classes where grades are based on a single final exam, students' final grades will be based on multiple assignments throughout the semester, including frequent quizzes, written preparation for class, two midterm essay exams, simulations, and in-class exercises. Instead of the traditional final exam, students will prepare a final learning portfolio in which they collect examples of their work throughout the semester and write an essay that documents the content, scope, and quality of what they have learned, along with reflections about how they have developed as learners."  More specifically, "Throughout the semester, students take quizzes at night so Verkerke can gauge their understanding of the materials. Most are true/false or multiple-choice, but the final question is open-ended and the same each time: 'What aspect(s) of the materials in this module did you find most difficult or confusing?'"

"Verkerke said he is transforming his courses so that students are not simply 'observers' in a classroom where a professor is engaging with only a few students. His goal is to have 'as many students making arguments as much of the time as possible, and having them listen to their classmates' arguments, and trying to persuade their peers and wrestle with difficult legal problems.'" "A key part of developing the ability to be a lifelong learner is to develop the capacity for self-reflection," Verkerke said. "And the purpose of this part of the course design is to help students develop that skill." He added, "The instructor is available to provide guidance and mentorship, to answer questions and to provoke students to think more deeply about the issues."

This is exactly the type of class that law schools should be teaching to better prepare their students for the contemporary legal world.  Problem-solving exercises force students to apply what they have learned to facts, and studies have shown that students learn more when they apply their knowledge.  Small-group discussions, along with the problem-solving exercises, make the students active learners, rather than passive receptacles as the Socratic method does.  Education scholarship has determined that frequent formative assessment helps students learn more and remember more.  I suspect that Verkerke's nightly quizzes are especially effective.  He is also developing metacognitive learning by asking metacognitive questions to his students and causing them to self-reflect.  (''What aspect(s) of the materials in this module did you find most difficult or confusing?' is a metacognitive question because it forces the students to "think about their thinking.")

In sum, Professor Verkerke's Contracts class is a model of what a law school class should be.  Hats off to Professor Verkerke!

(Scott Fruehwald)

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