Thursday, September 17, 2020

Making more effective use of samples in an online legal writing course in the time of Covid

Providing students with helpful examples of the writing projects I assign in my legal writing course is a key part of my classroom pedagogy. In fact, I think it’s one of the best, most effective things I do as a teacher. Good, well-designed examples not only help communicate my expectations to students about the form, style, and organization of their writing assignments but embedded within my examples are also substantive lessons about how to do sound legal analysis.

In the fall, my focus is on teaching 1Ls to write an objective “office memo” based on the IRAC paradigm (other LRW profs use different acronyms like CREAC but we’re all teaching basically the same thing when it comes to organizing a written legal discussion). I rely heavily on several samples I’ve created over the years that relate to each step in the drafting process. I begin the semester with baby steps – I have students read, dissect and “brief” a couple of short cases that will eventually wind-up in the final office memo assignment that analyzes a couple of legal issues for a hypothetical client. After finishing that, the next step involves turning those “briefs” into textual discussions, what I call “case narratives,” which will serve as the “rule explanation” portion of IRAC. Students next complete an IRAC that incorporates those case narratives. After receiving feedback from me, the final step is to have students incorporate their IRACs into the capstone office memo assignment.

At each step along the way, I give students multiple examples of the assignment they’re working on at that particular stage. I also give them at least one example of the final office memo incorporating each of the smaller components to help them understand how each step in the process relates to the big picture. All of these examples also include annotations explaining how each sentence contributes to the overall purpose of that document. I further include cross-references to the relevant pages in our legal writing textbook should students want to read more about, for example, how to draft a good topic sentence. My examples are based on hypothetical problems I’d previously created for class but are now retired. With at least one of these examples, I even give students two short cases the problem is based on so they can try to understand the editorial decisions an author makes in boiling down a judicial opinion into a few pithy sentences that become the “case narratives” at the heart of IRAC. As I tell my students, “if you take the time to really study these examples, you’ll understand everything you need to know about what it means to ‘think like a lawyer’ and how to draft a good legal memo.”

What makes these samples even more effective, I think, is that in addition to serving as examples of each step in the drafting process, I’ve also designed them to be different enough from each other so that it discourages students from looking for any stylistic formula they can imitate in working on their own assignments. Indeed, I explain to students that I’ve purposely designed the examples to avoid stylistic similarities so they don’t assume there’s an easy, formulaic approach to drafting a good office memo. Rather, my examples are intended to show them there are many ways to skin a cat. I tell students they should instead look for the deeper, underlying patterns that are common to all the examples. Cracking that code, I say, will be the most helpful to them as they work on their graded assignments.  

While relying on these samples has always worked very well for me in the past, I’m struggling a bit this semester to adapt some of my methods to teaching by Zoom. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think Zoom is especially well-suited to what is otherwise a hands-on, practical skills course like LRW. Part of the problem is that Zoom requires students to toggle back and forth between the lesson being shared on the professor’s screen, taking notes, viewing whatever cases are being discussed as well as looking at any other handouts or materials referenced by the professor. All my students are using laptops; none have the large, dual monitor set-ups like their professors which makes it easier to view multiple materials at once. Moreover, the majority of my students don’t have printers at home so they can’t print and spread-out materials in front of them like they would in class while watching the lecture. Thus, Zoom actually encourages the kind of task-switching that we know undermines learning. It’s not the same learning experience as being in a classroom where students and teacher can take advantage of multiple modalities – the whiteboard, handouts, PowerPoints, etc. – to engage with the material.

If there’s a silver-lining to teaching by Zoom, it’s that it has forced me to look for ways large and small to more effectively communicate the material to students. One of the small changes I’ve made is to more thoughtfully organize the many samples I use on my course homepage. Others have noted the importance of being thoughtful in designing a syllabus so it doesn’t merely describe the readings and assignments but also makes it self-evident to students how all of those things relate to the overarching goals of the course. Likewise, I’ve now thought more deliberately about organizing my writing samples on TWEN in a way that communicates to students something important about the drafting process. While I used to organize these materials in folders on TWEN by type (i.e. putting all the sample case narratives together in one folder, ditto the sample IRACs, etc.), I’ve now created a series of vertical, nesting folders that require students to open and read them in the order that mirrors steps in the drafting process beginning with the briefing of cases, followed by case narratives, then examples of IRAC, and ending with a folder containing examples of a final office memo. Consequently, students are now required to access these examples in a way that is supposed to teach them something about the writing process itself.

This may be only a small change, but the devil is in the details. Given the challenges of teaching legal research and writing by Zoom, particularly the importance of keeping things simple and clear, re-organizing my materials on TWEN in a way that is intended to tell a story or communicate a lesson just like a well-designed syllabus should, is going to be more helpful to my students. I confess to not liking teaching by Zoom very much nor thinking it's very compatible with a skills course like legal writing. But insofar as it’s forcing me to be more thoughtful and deliberate about everything I do, even on my course homepage, it’s making me a better teacher this semester and for when this Covid mess is finally over.


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