Less Lecture, More Learning

I recently read an article in the Boston Globe about a professional school that is pioneering a nationwide movement to ensure students are ready to meet the needs of the 21st century by pledging to eliminate all lectures in favor of interactive learning by 2019. Specifically, the school seeks to improve students’ listening, fact-finding, critical thinking, and collaborating skills. You might think the article was about a law school, since these are the skills often cited as crucial to law students’ future success, but the article was about the University of Vermont Medical School.

Lecture format is difficult to move away from. Students are comfortable as they feel they get a guide to what will be tested. Professors are comfortable with lectures because they learned by lecture and likely have already prepared and lectured on the material before. However, experts agree that much of what is taught by lecture is forgotten within weeks. Learning requires more than just listening to take hold.

Medical school has typically been divided into half lecture, half clinical clerkship. In this way, medical students already received more on the job training than most law students. Law schools, prompted by the new ABA guidelines, are striving for ways to introduce more active learning through experiential classes, skills requirements, and clinics. Maybe a close look at this movement in medical schools would serve us well. A 2014 review of 225 studies of science, engineering, and mathematics instruction, as well as Vermont Medical School’s own review, showed that test scores increased after team-based learning was introduced. Law schools have traditionally lagged behind curricular development in other professional schools. For example, in 2007, the Carnegie Report criticized the law school lecture format, saying “…unlike other professional education, most notably medical school, legal education typically pays relatively little attention to direct training in professional practice. The result is to prolong and reinforce the habits of thinking like a student rather than an apprentice practitioner.” Maybe it’s time for law schools to again follow these other professional schools and move further away from the lecture format.

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4 Responses

  1. This is an exciting development, and I do hope law schools take notice. While there is a movement towards increased experiential learning in law schools, it is taking hold slower than many of us hoped, as lecture and the Socratic dialogue are still relied on more heavily, and financial concerns continue to favor a high faculty to student ratio. Though increasingly students are flocking towards clinics and externships, the practical skills teaching continues to be largely on a parallel, rather than integrated, track with doctrinal courses.

    • The financial concerns are real and can sometimes feel insurmountable. I would love to see the skills classes more integrated– we could accomplish a lot just by avoiding the unnatural separation.

  2. Here at Penn State Law, I’ve been very pleased to see more and more integration of non-lecture teaching techniques into doctrinal courses, and more collaboration among faculty. We have writing faculty co-teaching courses with adjunct federal judges, junior doctrinal faculty assigning mock settlement agreements to small groups to teaching collaboration as well as legal drafting and analysis. Our new Dean is a pro at this, currently teaching a course in her last semester at the University of Minnesota that requires the students to research legal projects that cultivate social change, and develop their own real projects as well. Osofsky has worked on numerous projects integrating clinical work with other types of legal education, and I’m certain our students will benefit from the enthusiasm she has already generated about these types of curricular offerings. It is so exciting to have online dialogues like this to share ideas and motivate each other. Thanks for writing about this!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Sounds like there are a lot of exciting things happening at your school!

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