With the beginning of a new semester upon us, these thoughts and tips are a great thing to keep in the back of everyone’s mind whether you are a student or a professor. This great post was done by Steven Friedland.
Flexibility and Mobility in Law School Learning
As a professor who has been teaching for more than two decades, it is easy to feel like a dinosaur in classes populated by students mostly in their 20s. But within that notion lies the fact that not only do ages change, but cultures as well. It is evident that within the born-digital generation, cultural understandings, particularly involving learning, are different than mine.
While I think cross-cultural competency is more important than ever in this global era, it also applies to us teaching dinosaurs. I learned in law school in a linear and fixed fashion – go to class, take notes, go to the library, study and prepare for the next class. Based on studies and my own anecdotal evidence, there is an increasing preference for mobility and flexibility in learning. I am becoming a believer in both — using Web platforms like TWEN, Blackboard or Moodle as integral parts of a course, and allowing students to have flexibility in where and when they learn.
I am now experimenting in doctrinal courses to include several flex classes — audiotaped, with an option to take each over a 24 hour period in a self-paced fashion. These self-paced classes are combined with deliverables — writing an answer to a problem based on the class material and then posting it on the Web platform, or doing some other relevant task based on the material to ensure that some form of learning has occurred. So far, these classes have been well-received; to my surprise, students like the flexibility about when they take class as much as the remote opportunity. I am enjoying shaking it up in this way. What is the saying? Even an old dinosaur can learn….
In a law school class, there are a variety of note-takers. Some are the “court reporters,” taking down every word. Some take far fewer notes, within their own organizational schemes. Many students are using computers, with note-taking programs. I also have had some “deep observers,” who appear to take no notes at all.
But all students seem to rely on the notes they take in putting a course together for deep understanding, especially in the first year of school. Interestingly, teachers do not generally know how students are taking notes and whether those notes taken are even accurate. This is why I have started using a colleague’s technique (yes, I like borrowing good ideas from others, no hiding there), of taking “note breaks” in the middle of a doctrinal class — allowing students to check their notes with other students, particularly about important rules, principles or insights. I usually prompt the break by asking, “What were the most important points in class so far?” This has several effects. Everyone perks up and the students appear present and engaged. Students also are more likely to ask questions about what has occurred thus far. I get useful feedback on what I have communicated well and what I have done poorly. So all the way around, I find it to be a helpful technique. When students walk out of class, they should be able to rely on and have ready access to useful notes.
Retention and Retrieval
Lots of studies have been done that show experts learn differently than novices. In any educational process, the goal is to move up the scale, from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to the highest level, unconscious competence. I know about the lowest level, having been there in law school and many other contexts (just thinking back on the longest years of my life taking piano lessons). The highest level of competence is epitomized by Captain Sully, the U.S. Air pilot who landed his commercial plane without engines in the Hudson River.
So what learning features are associated with experts? Experts recognize patterns of information, have deep understanding of material within a domain, organize their information well for ready access, and constantly self-monitor. We can learn from these characteristics in law school. It is traditional for law school professors to evaluate student performance through a single final examination, (although sometimes mid-terms are also offered). The traditional summative evaluation framework promotes a particular type of studying. Students study like crazy just before an exam, and then dump all of their knowledge on the test. (This approach was a familiar one for me when I was in school.) To help students progress from novice to expert, though, we should teach for long-term retention and retrieval. This can occur through the use of numerous problems and opportunities throughout a course by which to practice organizing and storing material before a final exam, the use of structures or outlines by which to approach topics, and a greater emphasis on mnemonics, anchor words and other learning devices. Sometimes, in our desire to cover great swaths of material, we don’t drill as deeply as we could or should.