Sunday, September 21, 2014

Teaching for Transfer in Law School Clinics

I believe that the biggest problem with traditional legal education is transfer--the traditional teaching methods do not teach students in a way that they can easily transfer their knowledge and skills to being a lawyer.   As a group of authors have stated, "Students performed better when their knowledge organization matched  the requirements of the task, and they performed worse when it mismatched."  (Susan  Ambrose, How Learning Works 48 (2010)). Legal education mainly teaches students to be appellate lawyers and legal  philosophers. The typical lawyer is not an appellate lawyer or a philosopher.  Thus, law schools do not teach their students in a way that is best for the  knowledge retrieval they will need as practicing attorneys.  (more here)

Five authors have recently written an excellent article on teaching transfer to law students, Reaching Backward and Stretching Forward: Teaching for Transfer in Law School Clinics by Shaun Archer, James Parry Eyster, James J. Kelly, Jr., Tonya Kowalski, and Colleen F. Shanahan.


"In thinking about education, teachers may spend more time considering what to teach than how to teach.  Unfortunately, traditional teaching techniques have limited effectiveness in their ability to help students retain and apply the knowledge either in later classes or in their professional work.  What, then, is the value of our teaching efforts if students are unable to transfer the ideas and skills they have learned to later situations?
Teaching for transfer is important to the authors of this article, four clinical professors and one psychologist.  The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to some of the techniques that can improve the transfer of teaching.  While this article focuses on applications in the law clinic, the procedures can be profitably used in doctrinal classes as well. It is the goal of the authors of this article to help you improve your teaching so that your students will understand, remember, and be able to later use what you teach them.  While this may appear overly ambitious, we are not selling snake oil.  Rather, we are relying on established tenets of psychology and pedagogy that have proved successful in other areas of learning.

In the first section, psychologist Shaun Archer will summarize the latest research results on memory and how to best teach so that students can retain and use information.  Before transferring information or ideas from a class to a new situation, one must first anchor the concept in the mind.  To do this, the student must attach the new information to the existing scaffolding in the student’s memory.  Attached to the wrong structure, the new information cannot easily be used in a later application.  For example, if you are told that both a successful asylum application  and chlorophyll  contain five elements, you might be momentarily chagrined since the word “elements” is used in two very different contexts.  Your mind must travel down various discrete neural pathways to make correct sense of the use of the word in each phrase.  This insight from psychology is the core of teaching for transfer.

Tonya Kowalski will then introduce the principles of teaching for transfer, emphasizing “reaching backward” and “stretching forward” techniques.  She will then suggest applications of these procedures in clinical teaching.  In reaching backward, a student thinks back to past experiences or concepts to find existing mental scaffolding that can be used to ‘bear the weight’ and provide an accessible resting place for the new material that is being taught. In stretching forward, a student consciously envisions potential future applications of the material being learned.  Colleen Shanahan will demonstrate backward-reaching transfer techniques for teaching students skills and knowledge, using the examples of initial client interviews, soliciting facts from witnesses, researching eviction procedures, and developing an effective oral advocacy style. Jim Kelly will provide specific examples of stretching-forward transfer techniques.  These range from “hugging,” identifying very similar future applications, such as the business record litany, to “bridging,” preparing students to be able to use new foundational skills or knowledge in complex and extremely varied situations."
Key excerpts:
1. "In thinking about education, teachers may spend more time considering what to teach than how to teach. Unfortunately, traditional teaching techniques have limited effectiveness in their ability to help students retain and apply the knowledge either in later classes or in their professional work."
"[T]o be valuable, your teaching must be usable by your students outside the classroom."
2.  "Transfer of learning is the ultimate goal of education: We aim to teach doctrine, skills, and critical reasoning and expect that students will readily apply them in the workplace."
"Despite receiving rigorous training in doctrinal law, formal analysis, writing, and oral presentation in their first three semesters of law school, clinic students often struggle to ‘transfer’ much of that learning to their clinic work."
"Even more troubling, these experiences suggest that students may also fail to recall and apply many of their clinical skills in their future work."
3.  The authors quote from an article on medical schools, "The experience in numerous medical schools . . . is that information learned in the basic science years is not easily activated in clinical situations. This is a classical problem within medical education, for instance in anatomy teaching, where previously learned knowledge about healthy and normal body structures is supposed to transform into patho-physiological explanations later in medical studies."
4.  "Although we still do not fully understand how transfer works, experts have developed a variety of models to explain why adult learners experience transfer problems and how their teachers can intervene.  According to the prevailing literature, the interventions lie in a number of places, including teaching students to be self-regulated learners, providing more opportunities for practical application in doctrinal courses, designing a more integrated curriculum, and designing course materials to form concrete links among the past, present, and future. . . .  This article addresses the linking strategies that clinicians can use to capitalize on past training and better equip students for future law practice."
5.  "For busy clinicians, it will be good to hear that implementing these strategies is not always terribly complicated or time-consuming. In fact, they tend to flow naturally from a decision to make the transfer problem a very conscious influence on how we design materials, plan for meetings, and even just converse with students about their assignments. For example, the first backward-reaching strategy is to generalize the problem at hand so that its context becomes larger.  Thus, when assigning a student to write an advice letter to the client, the supervising attorney can remind her student that in addition to other considerations like tone, audience, and recordkeeping, the letter calls for the student generally to adapt the same IRAC structure in the paragraphs presenting legal advice as he would in a memo, or a brief."
6. "At its very core, the problem of transfer is one of changing contexts. As discussed in the preceding section on memory and learning, new learning is ‘encoded’ (stored) according to the context in which it was acquired."
"According to our developing understanding of how memory is retrieved, ‘cues’ are the catalysts for memory search and retrieval."
"Accordingly, without continued challenges to match that learning to increasingly varied contexts, it will tend to be ignored as germane only to its original, limited context."
7.  For example, "a clinic seminar simulation on client interviewing might cover a particular skill, such as framing questions to allow the client to tell her own story, rather than the story the lawyer wants to hear. A few weeks later, the student may or may not recall, without prompting, that proper framing is important, particularly if she is now working with a real client, in a different room or building, and with a different set of facts and legal problems. If she had the opportunity to practice the skills in class, and then to review and practice them before the live-client interview, the chances of her success would increase.  For novices like most clinic students, the goal is not to transfer skills at the level of mastery, but to remember to ‘reach back’ for previous learning and to continually enlarge one’s schema for future applications."
8. "A number of teaching strategies can help students not only to recognize the need for previous learning in a new context (backward-reaching transfer), but also to build schematic locations for possible future applications for current learning (forward-reaching transfer)."
"In order to help students ‘transfer out’ or reach forward to new clinic assignments and to law practice, clinicians can nurture professional identity through meetings that identify future uses for skills. For example, a student in the criminal defense clinic who wants to practice commercial litigation will tend to see those contexts as too ‘far’ to warrant any applicability. Teachers can connect those schemata by showing how context-specific skills nevertheless overlap and strengthen into a broader skill set.  When clinical professors expect particularly accurate and concrete transfer to an assignment, such as simulated deposition training from seminar to a live-witness deposition, the expectation to transfer should be made explicit, not assumed."
The article contains many detailed examples on how to teach transfer.
This article is one of many excellent articles written in the last few years on how to better teach law students.  If law teachers would adopt theteaching techniques in these articles, there would be a true revolution in law teaching.
(Scott Fruehwald)

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