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3 Classroom Teaching

Students in law school are adult learners and have generally been successful in school throughout their lives.  Treating them with respect and giving them the freedom to make their own decisions and become comfortable with their writing process is important.  At the same time, many of them have never struggled with writing or legal analysis and they may feel uncomfortable or lose confidence in themselves throughout the semester.  Therefore, try to recognize and understand your students’ struggles during their first-year in law school and during the course.


Many teachers focus on the substance of the course but not the pedagogy.  However, the teaching goals and techniques are just as important as the substance, and thus in planning out the course, teachers need to take a conscious, thoughtful approach to the teaching methodology that they will use.  As part of the overall pedagogy, professors should consider their students’ various learning styles, the professor’s role, the overall teaching goals for each aspect of the course, and the specific techniques in the classroom for reaching each of the teaching goals.

A. Learning Styles

Educators have long recognized that students have different types of preferred learning styles, and this section provides a cursory overview of a few ways that different learning styles have been characterized and how teachers can design their lesson plans to meet the needs of the variety of learning styles that they will find among their students.[1]  One of the challenges in law school education is that most professors are inclined to teach to their own learning style because it worked for them.  For example, those professors who were successful in classrooms that relied primarily on the Socratic method are more likely to design most of their classes to rely on the Socratic method as the primary teaching method, and in doing so will be ignoring the needs of students who are primarily visual learners, or collaborative learners, or kinesthetic learners, for example.  Particularly in the legal writing classroom with today’s varied and digital students, the professor should look beyond traditional law school pedagogy to a variety of teaching methods designed to engage multiple learning styles.

Most of today’s law students are digital natives, having grown up on computers and iPads, so they are comfortable learning through collaborative exercises and engaging with the material through self-discovery and discussion.  Technology is useful for these students in the learning process, inside the classroom as well as outside of it, as they can use social media, blogs, wikis, and other sources on the Internet to work together to learn through discovering the information and sharing it with each other.  They like immediate feedback and engaging with materials instead of passively reading linear text.  Forcing them to turn off their laptops is like tying their hands together when asking them to write and does not treat them as adult learners.  Instead, the laptop can be an excellent tool to engage them in the classroom and make them responsible for their learning.  The digital revolution has created new opportunities for teachers to engage students by incorporating teaching methods that are designed to engage a variety of learning styles in every class.

Below are characterizations of several different learning styles that students might display at various points in their learning process.  Note that some students’ preferred learning styles shift with their knowledge and experience in the field or with different subjects of study, and that the general characterizations below err on the side of simplicity regarding what have been complex areas of study and inquiry over many decades.[2]  The categories below are by no means exclusive, but they can be helpful tools in starting to think about course design and classroom teaching because they suggest a range of methods for engaging different types of learners.

  • Dependent Learners: A dependent learning style is most often seen in new situations:  an introductory course in a new subject matter or a new work environment, for example. Dependent learners typically prefer to learn through structured classes, reinforcement, encouragement, and positive feedback.  Some will raise their hands often to participate in class; others will come to office hours often, with questions written out ahead of time.  They will typically complete all readings, take copious notes before and during class, and rely on checklists and tutorials provided by the teacher.  They are often upset if the use of laptops is prohibited in class because then they cannot write their own notes and have to spend extra money and time printing out the notes they wrote to prepare for class.  Typically, the dependent learner will rely on the teacher to provide the answers and will hesitate to offer her own answers.
  • Collaborative Learners: These students learn best from discussing issues and exchanging ideas with other students.  Working in groups on assignments helps them think through the problems and challenges them to participate to the best of their ability.  They learn through observation, participation, experimentation, and interaction.  Wikis and blogs are useful to this group as they can have virtual discussions at any time and not just in class or in a study group.  They do not rely solely on the teacher for guidance, but also look to their peers to stimulate their thinking and to enhance their understanding.
  • Independent Learners:  Students with an independent learning style seek to discover information through their own efforts and to internalize the information taught through experimentation and exploration. These students tend to sit quietly in class, listening intently, and then go home and make sure they understand the material by writing outlines, re-reading material, seeking out additional information from experts other than the teacher, and independently learning as much as possible.  They are more likely to purchase extra books such as outlines or treatises to understand the material than to ask questions in class or come to office hours.  They will use the Internet to do further research on issues presented in class.  They are less likely to rely on the teacher or other students as the source of their knowledge, preferring to develop and rely on their own understanding independently, and they respond well to clearly defined assignments that allow them to solve problems on their own timetable.
  • Visual Learners: These students do not learn as well through lecture or the Socratic method as they do through graphic depictions of the connections between concepts.  They appreciate videos, slides, and other imagery that connect and organize ideas in active ways.  Ebooks that integrate videos, images, maps, charts, and graphs are very helpful to these students, as the visual representations of the key concepts covered in the material can help them to better learn the material both in written and digital formats.
  • Auditory Learners: Students with a preference for auditory learning prefer to listen intently to the teacher and to others to process information; they also learn from talking about the material and hearing themselves express it in their own words.  Reading dense linear material is not as helpful for them as listening to discussions or listening to text.  They may prefer to use software applications that allow them to listen to ebooks and to dictate their first drafts of writing projects.
  • Read/Write Learners:  This style of learner prefers to have information presented in a textual format, whether it be textbooks, ebooks, powerpoint slides, outlines, case briefs, or classroom notes — anything that relies primarily on the written word.  Many teachers and students in law school have a strong preference for this style, because excellent reading comprehension and writing skills have typically been a factor in their success in undergraduate school.
  • Kinesthetic Learners:  Students who prefer this learning style will learn best when classwork is closely connected to reality, when they can learn from experience, and when learning involves moving, touching, grasping, holding, or otherwise manipulating something concrete.  Trial advocacy exercises, in which students have exhibits to present to witnesses or photographs to display to a jury, can be powerful learning experiences for kinesthetic learners.  Although less powerful than personal experience, viewing simulations and role plays by others can be effective for kinesthetic learners as well, because they are able to connect abstract ideas to the actions observed in the simulation.

Learning Styles and Teaching Methods

(Click to Enlarge)

 

Some students will have strong preferences for a particular learning style and will not be engaged by teaching techniques that are aimed toward other learning styles.  Many students will have a range of preferred learning styles that will vary in different contexts.  Of course, simply because a particular teaching methodology does not favor an individual student’s preferred learning style does not mean that the student will not be able to learn anything in the classroom. However, the best classes will be designed to include teaching techniques for all the different learners to keep them actively engaged and so that they all learn the material through various methods.  As the professor designs the course and individual lesson plans for classes, she should be wary of teaching to just one learning style; doing so may only reach a subset of students, and the others will disengage.

 

B. Professor’s Roles

Many professors think of their role as the repository of knowledge or the expert who stands at the podium and pours knowledge into the students’ minds.  By using the Socratic Method, may law school professors force students to think critically, analyze the law, and consider hypothetical situations – all the while trying to figure out what is inside the head of the professor. What is the correct answer? As a result, in the stereotypical Socratic classroom, students are passive learners (except for the one student who is being questioned).  Classes are spent sitting and listening (and once in a while speaking), while taking notes on salient points from the professor.  Instead of or in addition to relying on the Socratic method as their primary teaching technique, professors should reconsider their roles to try to engage the students in the classroom.  Those who teach legal writing, in particular, should take advantage of the many opportunities to allow students to learn experientially and collaboratively in the classroom by stepping away from the podium and designing lesson plans that allow the students to drive their learning.  Some possible roles:

  • Facilitator or Mentor: Instead of standing at the podium throughout class, a facilitator can help students work through specific problems.  Most clinic professors are facilitators, where the student represents a client and then works to solve the client’s problems, asking the professor for help along the way.  Problem-based classes work the same way, except that the client might be a hypothetical situation.  In addition, professors in traditional podium classes can act as facilitators by providing group projects in class.  Once the assignment is described, along with its goals, the students do the work and learn together. The professor can mingle among groups to help facilitate the learning and then bring the class together to facilitate an enriching class discussion with all the groups.
  • Navigator: With the students driving their learning, the professor can be the navigator, making sure that the students do not stray off course.  In such a role, students can choose their topics, present them for the class, and ask the professor for guidance along the way.  Classes can be spent with the professor providing guidelines and “maps” to success, but the focus is on student presentations.
  • Collaborator: Professors can also act as part of the collaboration, professing not to know a particular answer, and learning alongside the students.  The professors’ experience can help guide the collaboration, but all working together have equal roles and opportunities to discuss and critique each others’ ideas and work product.  Peer review is helpful in these situations because the professor will help students critique each other, but will not be the one providing the feedback.
  • Project-Manager:  In problem-based courses or classes with small group projects, the professor can act as the project manager.  Students can do the research, write the analysis, and report back to the professor. The professor can then require further avenues of discussion or reworking of the project.
  • Supervising Attorney: Similar to the project manager, the professor can take on the role of the supervising attorney and act as if the class is a legal office. This type of role playing, relying on social constructivist theory,[3] is helpful in problem-based classes that teach practical skills. Here, the professor can be the partner at a law firm working with an associate, the judge on the bench working with a clerk, or the head of an agency working with a new attorney.  Writing skills as well as other practical skills such as negotiation, oral argument, interviewing take on more realistic, practice-oriented learning in these situations.

In addition to taking a conscious approach to the teacher’s role, which might change from day to day or even within the same class, each professor should also think about his or her teaching persona. The teacher’s stance should fit her personality, but it should also be deliberate, with express consideration of how the teacher wants to approach the classroom on the first day of class and thereafter.  The choices about what to wear to where to stand and how to speak should all be deliberate.  For example, the teacher as “expert” often wears a suit, stands at the podium, and lectures, whereas a teacher taking on the role of “collaborator” might wear something more casual, walk around throughout the classroom or sit at a conference table with students and ask students for their recommendations about a hypothetical client problem.  Set your role in the beginning of the semester by articulating your goals and expectations, both in writing (policies and procedures) and orally.

C. Overall Pedagogical Goals

Although individual professors may have a variety of pedagogical goals that are unique to that professor or institution, some goals are common to all courses that teach writing in one way or another.  By the end of the course, students should be ready to write in practice (or in a scholarly forum), be effective in their writing process, be able to both think and write like a lawyer, and understand the impact that their written work will have on their credibility and professional reputation in practice.

1. Practice-Ready Writing

The purpose of the first-year legal research and writing course is usually to introduce students to the skills of the practicing attorney so that they will comfortable and confident in the analytical writing that they will be asked to do in their various legal jobs.  In his article, On the Maturing of Legal Writers: Two Models of Growth and Development,  Joseph Williams frames this goal as socializing students into the legal discourse community.[4]  Williams considers it to be three-step process.  When they enter the course, the students are pre-socialized; they know very little about the writing community they are about to enter. Even if they were paralegals and exposed to the language and citation formats, they have probably never tried to write a legal document on their own.  As they begin to write, they become “socialized” into the community; however, that process is frustrating because the students seem to bounce in and out of the community – at first “getting it” and then “not getting it” as the law becomes more complex.  The goal for most law school writing teachers is to socialize the students so that they understand the discourse community and then ultimately, according to Williams, to help the students to become post-socialized so that they can write legal documents for clients with no legal background.[5] The purpose of an upper class writing course or seminar is to make sure that the students are either socialized or post-socialized in the discourse community.  They need to be able to write to lawyers in a fashion that is simple enough for a lay person to understand yet complex enough to fully analyze the law.  In scholarly writing, the students need to take this socialization one step further and create novel ideas for both the legal audience and the lay person to understand.

This process, whether one calls it socializing into the discourse community or becoming comfortable and confident with the process, will be frustrating for first year law students.  They are entering a new discourse community and many of them compare it to learning a new language. Think about the initiation and process of learning legal writing.  Most students go through different stages of writing competence.[6]   Initially, they may be “unconsciously incompetent” – they were good writers in their undergraduate work or in their professions so they expect to be expert legal writers right away.  After they receive extensive feedback on their first attempt at writing a legal document, the students will often become conscious of their incompetence.  This is an uncomfortable, and often unusual, feeling for most of them. As students learn the components of effective legal writing, they then become consciously competent; they are able to accurately evaluate their own writing as effective and to understand why it is effective.  As they become experts in their field (usually after having practiced for some time), they may become unconsciously competent, producing strong written work without having to think about what makes it effective or how they produce it.

These varying states of competence and awareness (or lack thereof) of one’s competence can be viewed as a hierarchy, where there is a logical progression through the stages:

Competence and Awareness of Competence as a Hierarchy

UNCONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT

CONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT

CONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT

UNCONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT

 

Many learners do not follow a the above hierarchical progression, but may in fact both start out at different states and move back and forth between them depending on the nature of the task and their past experience.  The hierarchy model also presumes that it is better to be unconsciously competent than consciously competent.  Instead, these states can also be viewed as a matrix of possible states of competence and awareness:

Competence and Awareness of Competence as a Matrix

Competence

Consciousness

Unconscious Incompetence Unconscious Competence
Conscious Incompetence Conscious Competence

 

Some students might move from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence simply by modeling samples of strong work on a given project, without ever understanding why their writing has improved.  Similarly, some students may begin the year very conscious of their incompetence in legal analysis and writing, eager to learn and nervous about their lack of expertise.

The goal for the year is to help the students to become competent writers; however, it is better if the teacher can help them to become conscious of their competence, so that a student who does well at the end of the semester will understand why and how she did well. The teacher’s goal then is to help the student become competent and conscious of her competence.  That way, a student can transfer her abilities from one project to the next. In addition, the student can recognize good (and bad) legal writing even when it is somewhat different from her own, making that student a better collaborator and colleague in practice.

2. Product vs. Process

A good writing course will teach not only product (i.e., the conventions within the legal community for memoranda, briefs, emails, etc.), but also force the students to think critically about their writing process.  The students should become effective and efficient writers and know how to translate what they have learned in the course regarding the writing process for a particular legal document to any legal document.  As discussed in Chapter 1 above, they need to become adept at each stage of the writing process, knowing where in their own process they are most likely to need to allocate more time:

Writing Process

Prewriting – researching, outlining, organizing the law
Writing – getting a rough draft written
Rewriting – writing draft after draft, focusing on one element of legal writing at a time,                     such as organization, analysis, or conciseness
Revising – reworking at the sentence structure and word choice level
Polishing – editing for typos, spelling, and citation

In addition, the teacher might need to help students overcome writers block; tackle complex legal issues by breaking them up into smaller, more manageable tasks; and manage their time to be able to create a multitude of drafts before filing a document with a court or delivering it to a supervising attorney.

3. Thinking like a Lawyer and Writing like a Lawyer

Most courses in law school teach students how to think like a lawyer.  Writing courses need to teach students both how to think and how to write like a lawyer.  Most students become comfortable with the former relatively quickly in law school but take much longer to master the latter.  Verbalizing arguments, discussing both sides of an issue, and dissecting it into its component parts through discussion with colleagues are all important thinking skills of a lawyer.  However, when asked to put these skills on paper in written documents, students are often much more challenged. They often think that writing like a lawyer means using legalese.  Instead, it means writing complex analysis in an organized and concise fashion, so that the reader is able to understand and, typically, to apply that analysis in practical situations.  Ultimately, practicing lawyers are paid by clients not simply to think about and talk about the law; they must also be able to express those ideas in writing in a way that makes it impossible for their audience to misunderstand their analysis.

Clear thinking is often a predicate for clear writing; students cannot effectively explain or analyze a legal issue to their reader if their own thinking about the issue is muddy. But in the legal writing classroom, students often discover that the writing process itself helps them to better understand and more clearly think about the law; in rewriting a piece of legal analysis, they are able to identify flaws in the reasoning, potential counterarguments that need to be addressed, and gaps in supporting authority that need to be filled through additional research.  By reworking their own drafts of legal analysis, they are also training themselves to think more clearly about the legal issues.

4. Credibility and Reputation

Many lawyers build their reputation on their writing skills.  Turn in a well-organized and thoroughly analyzed document to the court, and the bench will trust your writing and respect your lawyering abilities. On the other hand, turn in a document peppered with poor analysis, typos, citation errors, and missing case law, and your credibility will be scarred with the court forever.  For the same reasons, anything provided to a supervising attorney should be the young associate’s best work possible. If the student turns in a document and warns the professor that it is “just a draft,” then the student has not learned the importance of his reputation as a writer.

Through their work in their legal writing course, the students must learn the potential implications of their written work  on their professional reputations. What they write for the first year writing course will likely serve as their writing sample when they apply for summer jobs in law-related fields, and what they submit to their supervisors during those summer jobs will have an impact on whether they are offered full-time employment by those employers after law school or receive recommendations from those employers during the search for post-graduate employment.  One of every writing teacher’s goals should be for students to be able to produce written work that reinforces and strengthens their credibility and professional reputations with their reader.  And if students know from the start of the course that this is a primary goal of their teacher, they are more likely to be active participants in the course.

D. Course and Classroom Techniques to Engage the Students

To meet the overall goals of the course and to ensure that the students understand the material and retain it for future use (beyond the exam or final paper), the students need to be engaged in their learning process.  Passive learning might allow them to memorize crucial information and regurgitate it for an exam evaluating knowledge of substantive legal issues, but it usually does not lead to long term retention of material nor does it translate to self-learning in the future.  In a writing course, much of what the students need to learn to become effective legal writers cannot be mastered through passive learning; students must be active participants in the course.  This section introduces some general classroom techniques that encourage active student engagement, discusses practical components of course design and teaching practices that help to engage students, and identifies specific techniques for engaging students both inside and outside of the classroom.

1. General Classroom Techniques to Set up an Engaging Environment

Writing teachers can use a number of course design components and pedagogical techniques to engage the students so that they retain the information and enjoy the process of learning to be a lawyer:

  • Flipping the Classroom: This technique is being employed in primary and secondary schools across the country and translates well to law school learning.[7] In this environment, the teacher provides lecture or tutorial material via videos to be watched as homework.  Then, the traditional homework (such as working on problems, researching, or writing) is done in the classroom under the supervision of the teacher.  Using this technique, the professor is the “expert” for homework purposes, but a “facilitator” or “mentor” in the classroom.  For example, in a research and writing class, the professor may assign a video tutorial on researching administrative law as homework.  This video takes the form of a lecture with sample pages describing the process for finding and updating regulations.  Then, in class, the professor provides a research project with specific questions. The students work on the questions, typically in groups, with the professor helping the students work through the process.
  • Use PowerPoint Presentations as Gateways to Classroom Exercises, Not for Static Content that Repeats Lecture Material or Readings:  PowerPoint presentations can be a helpful teaching tool, but not if they are used solely as vehicles for conveying static information.  When slides merely convey content that the professor reads aloud, the classroom becomes a passive learning experience.  Professors click from one slide to the next to cover written material that mirrors their notes.  Students read the text on the slides, often missing the professor’s oral communication.  They wait passively for the next slide to provide “answers” instead of thinking critically.  They count off the slides, praying the last one will come soon, so they can go home and learn the material for themselves. These are the classes where professors complain that students surf the web or check email.  Instead, professors should use PowerPoint or other presentation software as a gateway to material that will actively engage students in the classroom.  For example, an opening slide in the presentation could include the class agenda, with hyperlinks to materials that will be discussed in the class, such as samples for revision or concrete illustrations of abstract ideas that will be covered in the class discussion.  The presentation could be posted to a courseware site using Blackboard, TWEN, or Lexis Classroom, so that students could download their own copy during class and use it to organize their notes. For those professors who use tablets with pen technology in the classroom, slides could include text, charts, samples, and illustrations that will be discussed in class and the professor could use the pen to annotate the display on each slide instead of using a chalk board or white board to highlight key points of the discussion.  Slides can be used to organize the lesson plan for both teacher and students, with topics and questions that outline the intended substance of the discussion without replicating the content of that intended discussion.  If used effectively, presentation software can enhance the classroom by serving as an interactive tool that organizes and supplements the material presented in a lecture or classroom discussion.
  • Problem-Based Learning: If the overall course is designed for problem-based learning, the students will be motivated to take on their role as lawyers and solve problems on behalf of the client.  Legal writing courses have been doing this for years, employing the social constructivist model of teaching where the student acts as the young associate solving a client’s problem and reporting to the professor, who acts as the supervising attorney.[8]  This technique can be employed in upper class writing courses as well as any law school course.  An employment law class can set up the class so that half the class represents a union and the other half represents an employer; the whole semester could revolve around solving problems that come up between the two.  With a little creativity, any law school class can take a problem-based learning approach. In the context of the legal writing classroom, this approach allows students to gain greater understanding of their professional role and the ways that the lawyer’s purpose and intended audience for a document will affect the choices made in the writing process.  Because law students typically arrive at law school eager to become practicing attorneys, they will be more engaged in classroom exercises that ask them to take on that role and will more thoroughly master substantive materials that they have been require to apply in a practical situation.

2. Course and Classroom Expectations

Students will be more active participants in the learning process if they understand the professor’s expectations from the beginning of the course, throughout each class, and through the end of the semester and if they know that the professor respects the students and their time.  The following practices are helpful in establishing these expectations:

  • Clear Syllabus: Provide a clear syllabus for the students that includes subjects covered, reading materials, and due dates.  Stick to the syllabus throughout the year; if you cannot keep up with your own deadlines, you cannot expect your students to meet them, either.
  • Clear Policies and Procedures: Provide written policies and procedures and be explicit with your expectations in the class on the first day of class.  It is always a good idea to start off more stringently and ease off a bit as the year goes on; it is impossible to do the opposite.
  • Clear Outline or Agenda for Each Class: Provide an outline or class agenda for each class.  You can do this on the board or project it on the screen and provide it for the students on a courseware site.  If you post it online, you can add links to sample documents, videos, reading materials, group exercises, or other items so that the students can toggle back and forth with you in class.  This technique provides a roadmap for the class and allows the students to understand the goals of the class.  It also helps you break up the class into discrete segments and to manage your time so that all key components of the agenda are addressed in the time that you have with the students.  In addition, as you introduce your agenda at the start of class, try to connect the plan for this class with what you did in the preceding class and/or with the students’ ongoing research and writing projects, so that the students know from the start how the class fits into the course as a whole.
  • Know Your Students’  Names:  There is no better way to show respect for your students than to learn your students names as quickly as possible.  Review their pictures before each class and take notes to help you remember each of them.  If you forget a student’s name when calling on him, ask him to remind you of his name (and then remember it next time).  If necessary, use a seating chart or name placards to help you learn their names.
  • Pregnant Pause: Expect students to participate in each class.  When you ask a question, do not be afraid to wait for some silent period before a hand shoots up.  Seconds can seem like forever to the professor, but the students are processing your question and thinking about it.  Give them time instead of rushing to give the answer yourself for fear of silence in the classroom.  If you answer too quickly, they will no longer raise their hands as it would be easier to just wait for your answer.
  • Active Listening: Students should know you are listening and you should respect their views.  When a student provides an answer (or asks a question), repeat it back to the student. This technique will validate the student’s participation (and help those in the back of the room hear it as well). In addition, by verbalizing their answer or question, you are making sure that you understand it before you react to it.  Listen carefully (as opposed to thinking about your next question or how you would respond.)  Ask other students what they think – “Does everyone agree with Peter?”  Refer to previous answers by students to draw them back into the conversation – “That is similar to what Emily mentioned earlier; Emily do you want to expand on Peter’s idea?”  When you use a chalk board, white board, or tablet to write student answers on the board/screen, use the student’s own words instead of putting the answer in your own words; if the student’s answer is imprecise, discuss that imprecision with the student and have him rephrase his answer before you write it down, so that the class as a whole understands the difference between the two ways of expressing the answer and why the version that you wrote down is more precise.
  • Class Summary and Expectations: At the end of class, refer back to your outline and inform the students of the items covered and the expectations for the homework before the next class.  Try to connect each class to the one before and the next one, so that the students can see how the activities in each class work together or build on one another to help them with their writing projects and other assignments.
  • Class Announcements:  In between classes, send out class announcements. (Most course ware programs have such a feature.) That way, you do not take up precious class time on administrative items and all information is in writing and documented.

3. Specific Classroom Techniques to Engage the Students

Each class should have multiple goals and a variety of techniques to address all the different learning types in the classroom.  A few quick techniques:

  • Sample documents: Give the students sample documents to critique. These can take the form of peer review or review of their own documents.
  • Students as presenters: Have the students present on particular issues.  You can either assign these ahead of time or have them work on a project during class and then present.
  • Group projects: Many students love to collaborate and thrive on competition. A group project in class allows them to do both.  Give them sides to argue on a particular issue and have them research the law and present their arguments.
  • Role Play:  Assign students to roles as lawyers for various parties to a dispute relating to the substance of the legal problem that they are researching or writing about, and have them debate the issues and discuss the relative strength of authorities.  Instead of handing the facts of a hypothetical problem to the students, play the role of the client and ask students to take turns interviewing you, prepping them with readings about effective interview techniques.  After students have handed in a memorandum analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular legal claim, divide them up into teams to try to negotiate a settlement, prepping them with readings about effective negotiation strategies and “confidential” information from their clients about risk tolerance, interests, and acceptable alternatives.  After students have handed in an appellate brief, have them engage in oral arguments before a panel of judges, or ask upper-class students who participate in the Moot Court program to demonstrate an oral argument for them, so that they can see how the arguments made in the briefs play out in the courtroom.
  • Five-Minute Lecture: If you decide to lecture, explain the main goals you are trying to teach. Then after the quick lecture, give them a project to see if they understood those goals.
  • Make it Real – Tie the Course Substance In with Current Events in the Law: Have the students read real briefs submitted in cases that address similar issues to those the students are analyzing for their writing projects and discuss in class the strengths and weaknesses of the writing and the substance of the arguments, and then look at the ruling and discuss the court’s response to the briefs submitted by the parties.  Invite practitioners who handle cases similar to those that you have your students working on to come to class and answer students’ questions, and have these practicing lawyers explain their own preferred processes in researching and writing about a legal issue for a client.  Require the students to research, write, and submit comments on an agency’s proposed rule when you are teaching them research into administrative law, so that they can experience the administrative law process first-hand.  Ask the clinical faculty or local non-profit legal services organizations if they have small research projects that your class can take on, so that the students know that the research that they do will be immediately useful and important in the real world.
  • Ten-Minute Segments:  If you are using multiple techniques to teach a single substantive point or specific lawyering skill, consider using ten-minute segments for each technique. For example, you might first lecture about the subject matter, then have the students discuss a sample and its strengths and weaknesses with respect to the particular issue that you are covering, then break the students into small groups to write short pieces that apply the material covered, then have the student groups present their drafts for class discussion, and finally end by tying what the students did in class to the general material covered in the initial lecture.
  • Quick Socratic Method: The Socratic Method can be useful to force the students to think analytically about the law.  Use this dialogue as a starting point and then ask them to convert their arguments into writing, showing both sides and organizing the arguments in a way that both a lawyer and lay person will understand.

4. Specific Techniques Outside of Class to Engage Students

 Professors can engage their students outside of the classroom, where much of the learning can take place. Some techniques:

  • Blogs: Blogs can be used to get a sense of the students’ thought processes or to find out what they know and don’t know. For example, if you ask the students to do preliminary research and post it on a blog, they can learn from each other and you can make sure that they are all on track.  Have them post the research they find as well as their strategies for finding it.  Review the blogs before the class so that you understand the needs of the students and can address them immediately.
  • Wikis: Students can use wikis to create documents collaboratively – either outlines for class or for research on a specific project. This technique can be very helpful in problem-based classes as students can add different pieces to the wiki at the same time.
  • Office Hours: Post your office hours and suggest that students come by with specific questions.  You can ask them to email you ahead of time or sign up (course ware sites have sign up features) to encourage students to come by but not waste time waiting outside your office for other students to finish.
  • Short Assignments: Short written or research assignments can help you understand where the students are in their learning process.  If there is insufficient time to comment individually on these short assignments, using samples from the students’ writing to give group feedback on the short assignments can help all the students discover how to improve upon different pieces of written analysis.
  • Reflective Pieces: After students accomplish a task, such as oral argument or going to the courthouse, have them reflect upon what they have learned and how it will affect them. For example, have them view a live oral argument before they have to do their own oral argument.  Have them write about what they learned, what techniques were effective, and how they will adjust their preparation as a result of this experience.  This techniques will also help you better understand your students’ needs, fears, and learning styles.
  • Courtroom Visits: Experiential learning techniques are helpful to engage students in the legal process. Send them to a courthouse to watch a trial, arraignment, or oral argument, and then use class time to discuss those experiences and tie them to the assignments that the students are working on in the course.  After seeing lawyers in action in the courtroom, the students will have a new perspective on their own learning and how the classroom material connects to their future roles as lawyers.

 

 


  1. Note, however, that recent literature has called into question the long-accepted premise that students learn better if material is presented through their preferred learning style. See Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 131-146 (2014) (noting that research does not yet validate learning style theories). This does not mean that learning style theory has no utility in the classroom, but teachers should also consider what vehicle(s) are best for conveying particular information in a way that will lead to long-term retention by students .
  2. Too many excellent books and articles in this area have been published to provide a full list here, but those readers interested in reading more on learning styles and effective teaching might start with some of the following: Brookfield, S. (2006), The Skillful Teacher:  On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom,  2nd ed.  Jossey-Bass, 153-172; Svinicki, M. (2004), Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom, Anker Publ. Co., 177-220; Fleming, N.D. & Mills, C. (1992), Helping Students Understand How They Learn, The Teaching Professor, Vol. 7 No. 4, Magma Publications, Madison, Wisconsin; Dunn, R., Beaudry, J.S. and Klavas, A. (1989), Survey of research on Learning Styles, Educational Leadership, Vol. 46, 6 pp46-54; Gardner, H., & Hatch, T. (1989), Multiple intelligences go to school: Educational implications of the theory of multiple intelligences, Educational Researcher, 18(8), 4-9; Claxton, C. S. & Smith, W.F. (1984), Learning styles: Implications for improving educational practices, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development; Gardner, H. (1983), Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences, New York: Basic Books.
  3. For a summary of the various schools of thought that have developed regarding the teaching of writing, see Susan DeJarnatt, Law Talk: Speaking, Writing and Entering the Discourse of Law, 40 Duq. L. Rev. 489 (2002) and Christopher Rideout & Jill Ramsfield, Legal Writing: A Revised View, 69 WASH. L. REV. 35, 56–58, 61, 67 (1994).
  4. Joseph M. Williams, On the Maturing of Legal Writers; Two Models of Growth and Development, 1 L. WRITING 1, 9 (1991).
  5. Id.
  6. See Linda Adams, Learning a New Skill Is Easier Said than Done, Gordon Training International, available at http://www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/learning-a-new-skill-is-easier-said-than-done/ (last visited August 17, 2013).
  7. For a review of literature discussing the flipped classroom concept, see Noora Hamdan and Patrick McKnight et al., A Review of Flipped Learning, Flipped Learning Network™, with research conducted by George Mason University and support from Pearson, available at http://www.flippedlearning.org/cms/lib07/VA01923112/Centricity/Domain/41/LitReview_FlippedLearning.pdf
  8. See Susan DeJarnatt, Law Talk: Speaking, Writing and Entering the Discourse of Law, 40 Duq. L. Rev. 489 (2002); Christopher Rideout & Jill Ramsfield, Legal Writing: A Revised View, 69 WASH. L. REV. 35 (1994).

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Classroom Teaching Copyright © 2013 by Diana Donahoe and Julie Ross. All Rights Reserved.