Monday, May 4, 2020

A call for a virtual summit on online legal education and the importance of active learning

Former Northwestern Dean, Daniel Rodriguez, has called for a virtual summit on online legal education.  He wrote, "Bottom line, our universities and law schools may not be able to function as they did pre-March 2020. . . .  We are going to need to develop some fundamentally creative and responsible strategies to deal with this temporary new normal.  .  . .  What I want to suggest is that we would do well to convene a big summit, in a virtual form, to discuss comprehensively, tactically, and in a data-driven way, how we might deliver excellent legal education in an online format (entirely, partially, to some of our vulnerable students)."

He concluded, "We need to do something big. Fingers crossed that the fall will bring relief is not the answer. This strategic endeavor for how to maintain educational quality with fundamentally different pedagogy is a massive undertaking, one that falls squarely under the rubric of worst-case scenario contingency planning. But if we are not intentional and inclusive about this conversation, we could find our proud system of legal education imperiled, or at least knocked seriously back on its heels."

I agree with Dean Rodriguez.  If law schools must remain online this fall because of the coronavirus, they need to plan now to retain the quality of legal education.

I would like to emphasize the importance of active learning as a part of online instruction.  Active Learning: "With active learning, teachers involve their students directly in the learning process. It is the opposite of passive learning, like listening to a lecture. In the class-room, active learning can include asking students questions about what they have read, doing exercises, asking students to reflect on what they just learned, and doing collaboration exercises. Active learning while studying includes self-testing, organizing and rewriting notes, creating a class outline, and doing self-correcting exercises."  (here)  Active learning is effective because students remember more, are better able to apply the knowledge, and are better able to deal with complex problems.  (Id.)  Students who are in classes with active learning classes outperform those in traditional lectures on identical exams.  (E.g., here) My book, How To Grow A Lawyer: A Guide for Law Schools, Law Professors, and Law Students, discusses in detail which active learning techniques work well and which learning techniques don't.

Problem solving exercises are an especially good teaching tool because problem solving requires active participation (not just observation), it challenges students to develop legal skills in context rather than relying on knowing legal rules, and it facilitates self-reflective learning.  (here) You don't have to reinvent the wheel; there are a lot of good exercises out there. I particularly recommend the the Context and Practice Series from Carolina Academic Press.  (here, here)

I have written a torts exercise book, A Companion to Torts: How to Think Like a Torts Lawyer, which would work well in an online class because it includes exercises on both the micro-, medium-, and macro-level.  "This book takes a new approach to learning torts law: its goal is to teach law students to think like torts lawyers. Thinking like a lawyer means solving a problem to produce a legal solution. This process involves using several types of reasoning in combination, including synthesis, rule-based reasoning, analogical reasoning, distinguishing cases, policy-based reasoning, and creativity. A torts lawyer uses these reasoning methods to solve torts problems. This book will include a variety of torts exercises on the different types of legal reasoning to achieve the goal of teaching students to think like torts lawyers. This book is a supplement to torts casebooks and textbooks."

Finally, law schools need to teach their students effective study techniques.  The techniques students used in high school and college, which they learned by trial and error, don't produce effective lawyers.  Effective techniques include self-testing, spaced learning, repetition, interleaving, journaling, etc.  Researchers have demonstrated that several common study techniques are ineffective, including summarization, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and just rereading.  I teach students effective study techniques in detail in my book, How to Succeed in Law School.

Of course, active learning is just one of the topics that needs to covered in a summit on online legal education.  However, it is probably the most important one for the effectiveness of online education.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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