Experience with Peer Support, Peer Review and Feedback on Teaching?  

We are all familiar with engagement in peer review of scholarship. Law faculty culture prioritizes peer input and review of scholarly ideas and articles. Sending drafts of articles to colleagues for feedback, “workshopping” preliminary ideas, and vetting scholarship is part and parcel of the work we do. We visit other schools, make presentations and attend conferences because we value peer discussion and  input. It is the basis by which we create and communicate knowledge.

I don’t believe, however, we have a similarly pervasive culture for formative peer review when it comes to teaching in law schools, although such culture exists at other higher education institutions. According to The University of Texas Faculty Innovation Center, an academic culture which prioritizes informed peer collaboration, review and input on teaching benefits everyone,

Good teachers continually learn and develop. Peer Review, which combines the examination of course materials with in-class observations and collegial discussion, helps prompt this learning among faculty. Ideally, these interactions and conversations can create opportunities for us as colleagues to reflect on and adapt our teaching practices in order to become better teachers and increase student learning.

Northeastern University Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research recommends a four step process:

  • Initial conversation between the observer and the observed
  • The observation itself as an informal data collection and distillation process
  • Follow-up conversation in which the observer shares the observations and collaborates with the observed teacher in any kind of brainstorming or troubleshooting that the observations invite.
  • Reflective summary written by the observed instructor, integrating what was learned from the process and how this will influence future teaching.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching includes the goal of “enabling more intentional and mutually supportive communities of scholar teachers.”

It is true that we have made some progress in elevating the role of teaching in law schools in the past decade. Legal Education certainly woke up to the need for a culture change around curriculum and teaching following the publication of Best Practices for Legal Education  and Educating Lawyers.  The economic downturn heavily affected the admission process and the need to focus on student learning. ABA requirements regarding student learning outcomes also redirected attention and resources towards what students actually learn while in law school. Moreover, organized efforts such as the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning  and the AALS Section on Teaching Methods  have converted many to the idea that teaching and learning are matters worthy of scholarship, innovation and peer discussion.  Places like this blog and others support exchange of ideas, methods and innovations.

It is also true that as far back as 2008, pioneering legal scholars Gerry Hess and Sophie Sparrow studied factors which encourage or assist the professional development of law teachers including peer observation. So there are many resources available to improve teaching in law schools. Yet, across the academy, are we truly immersed in a continual process of formative feedback for law teachers? If so, the web shows little evidence of it.

I think some of the culture gap is explained by the fact that historically peer review of teaching only happened during a promotion and tenure process that resulted in an up or out decision by the faculty — hardly a formative approach. A voluntary formative program of peer support and review – not used for personnel decisions – should allay those fears.  Appropriate concerns about interference with academic freedom in the classroom might explain some of the culture gap. Except that, even more concerns about academic freedom arise with respect to peer input into “controversial scholarship,” since draft writings can be more easily captured and reproduced than can observations of a single class session. What I think explains the gap, instead, is that we have not properly trained or equipped law faculty with the tools and methods for conducting and receiving helpful peer observations.

At Albany Law, we have promoted a culture of inquiry around teaching and learning for many years now — colleagues sit in each others classrooms from time to time, our Academic Dean prioritizes teaching support, our Center for Excellence in Law Teaching showcases teaching ideas and invites collegial discussion through teaching workshops, and our Director of Online Learning and Instructional Technology facilitates flipped classrooms and other innovations. What we haven’t done is formalize a voluntary peer support and review program. This year, we are planning to revisit our very loose approach and learn from the ever evolving resources and experimentation of others.

So readers, contributors and chance internet searchers, please post here what if any processes have you implemented to support peer observation of law teaching? Is it a voluntary program as we envision at Albany? How has it worked? Or, if you have an opinion about faculty peer review programs, let us know what you think!

I hope to compile the results and report back later in the year!

P.S. If you are more comfortable with e-mail than a blog comment, feel free to contact me at mlync@albanylaw.edu. 

Advertisements

Dealing with Causes as Well as Symptoms of Law Students’ and Lawyers’ Lack of Well-Being

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being just issued its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being:  Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.

It’s a thoughtful, constructive effort to address problems that lawyers face in practice and to promote their well-being.  It deals with serious issues including substance abuse, mental health problems, and suicide.  It includes recommendations for better education, fostering collegiality and civility, enhancing lawyers’ sense of control, mentoring, and systematic monitoring colleagues’ well-being, among many others.  It addresses legal education, recommending adjustment of the admissions process to promote well-being, detection and assistance of students experiencing problems, addressing of issues of well-being in professional responsibility courses, and provision of onsite counselors, among other things.

An appendix suggests topics for educational programs, including conflict management.  This section reads, “Our legal system is adversarial—it’s rooted in conflict.  Even so, lawyers generally are not trained on how to constructively handle conflict and to adapt tactics based on context—from necessary work-related conflicts to inter-personal conflicts with clients, opposing counsel, colleagues, or loved ones.  Conflict is inevitable and can be both positive and negative.  But chronic, unmanaged conflict creates physical, psychological, and behavioral stress.  Research suggests that conflict management training can reduce the negative stressful effects of conflict and possibly produce better, more productive lawyers.” [Footnotes omitted in this and subsequent quotations.]

Dealing with Causes of Law Students’ Problems

I believe that many students’ and lawyers’ problems are caused by law school and legal practice.  To the extent that’s so, treating the symptoms will not fundamentally deal with the systemic causes of the problems.  Rather, significant changes in the nature of legal education and practice – not merely dealing with the symptoms – would be necessary to prevent many of these problems from arising.

I recently wrote a piece, Escaping from Lawyers’ Prison of Fear, in which I examined lawyers’ fears about negotiation and a long list of other things.  I summarized evidence that “the law school experience often is highly stressful and stimulates fear-related responses.  Patterns of fear initiated in law school can persist and grow as students move into legal practice. … Several studies have found that law students ‘consistently report more anxiety than the general population. … Although some students obviously thrive in law school, for others, law school is an experience of ‘fear and loathing.’ … During law school, [] symptom levels are elevated significantly when compared with the normal population.  These symptoms include obsessive-compulsive behavior, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism (social alienation and isolation).  Elevations of symptom levels significantly increase for law students during the first to third years of law school.   Depending on the symptom, 20-40% of any given class reports significant symptom elevations.  Finally, further longitudinal analysis showed that the symptom elevations do not significantly decrease between the spring of the third year and the next two years of law practice as alumni.”

“It is not clear what causes law students’ distress. Theorists have suggested various features of legal education may be causal factors including ‘overvaluing theoretical scholarship and undervaluing the teaching function, employing generally unsound teaching and testing methods, and emphasizing abstract theory rather than providing practical training.’  In particular, some things causing distress may include an intimidating Socratic teaching method, novelty of the subject matter, ambiguity of the law, heavy work load, competition, lack of grades in most courses until the end of the semester, feelings of isolation, de-emphasizing personal relationships, ignoring emotional reactions, and reluctance to get help.  Some have compared the first year of law school to ‘military indoctrination’ in which instructors intimidate students, who are ‘stripped naked, so to speak, so that [they] may be remade’ as lawyers and, as a result, become passive and fearful.  Some scholars argue that legal education trains students to ignore their own values, which undermines their self-confidence.  For example, Dean Edward Rubin argues that lawyers experience ‘ethical stress’ where ‘lawyers [and law students] are required to be insincere, to speak words they themselves do not necessarily believe.’”

The Task Force Report recommends that faculty “assess law school practices and offer faculty education on promoting well-being in the classroom.”  It cites Larry Kreiger and Kennon Sheldon’s research suggesting that “potential culprits that undercut student well-being includ[e] hierarchical markers of worth such as comparative grading, mandatory curves, status seeking placement practices, lack of clear and timely feedback, and teaching practices that are isolating and intimidating.”

The Report recommends “that law schools assess their classroom and organizational practices, make modifications where possible, and offer faculty programming on supporting student well-being while continuing to uphold high standards of excellence.”

If law school faculty and administrators want to take serious action to prevent law students’ mental health problems and lack of well-being, they should conduct a careful examination of features of their programs that unnecessarily contribute to these problems.  Students with manifest problems are like canaries in the coal mine for a much larger group of students who experience great stress but whose problems do not manifest outwardly.  Thus dealing with fundamental causes of students’ problems could benefit a large portion of the student population.

As I wrote in connection with the Stone Soup Project, students may do better if they feel that their studies are relevant to professional goals — and fun.

Obviously, no set of measures dealing with causes or symptoms would completely prevent students’ problems.  And there is a long list of pressures inhibiting law schools from making substantial changes in their educational practices, so change would be hard.  But changing the law school environment – and not only addressing individual students’ issues – might be necessary to effectively address the cause of many students’ problems.

Dealing with Causes of Lawyers’ Problems

Most lawyers’ work is stressful.  Litigation is inherently adversarial and transactional work involves efforts to gain competitive advantage.  So the stress of constantly being immersed in conflict is unavoidable to some extent.  But not completely unavoidable.

Some lawyers view their roles as problem-solvers and, as such, seek to de-escalate conflict whenever appropriate while always providing diligent representation.  Even these lawyers need to fight hard when dealing with untrustworthy adversaries.  But they do so only when needed.

The culture in some practice communities is generally adversarial.  Acting tough is the default and the norm, not something that lawyers do to deal with a few exceptionally problematic cases.

This culture seems unnecessary and counterproductive both for clients and lawyers.  I believe that changing this culture would substantially improve lawyers’ well-being.  This is not merely being civil, which is good but doesn’t fundamentally change lawyers’ approach to their work.  Rather, this involves a legal culture where problem-solving is the norm for the way that lawyers serve their clients.  My book on lawyering with planned early negotiation is one of many efforts encouraging this approach.

As with changes in legal education, changing legal practice culture is not easy nor a complete solution to the problems.  But I think that seeking such changes is worth the effort.  Hopefully, such changes would produce better education and client service – with the side-effects of improving law students’ and lawyers’ well-being.

Looking Beyond the Trends: Who’s Our Curriculum Really For?

Just catching up on my summer reading and I came across a short piece titled, “My Best Marketing Advice for Lawyers,” by John H. Fisher, Esq.  In the article, Attorney Fisher responds to an inquiry for his best marketing advice by saying: “Identify your ‘Ideal Client’ and nurture and cultivate the relationship with your Ideal Client through a series of educational and informative newsletters, speaking events, books, and social events.” 1  This three-step plan: paint a picture of your ideal client, attract your ideal client, and nurture the relationship with your ideal client was clear, linear, and supported with some truly clever and constructive examples of providing best tips and advice – for your referral partners. The article concludes that this plan has the power to change law practices, create goodwill, and perhaps make the actor a “mini-celebrity among peers.”  Apropos of the previous blog, such advice seems consistent.  And, to be fair to Mr. Fisher given what follows, he was posed the question, and we are still in the post “failing” law school phase.

 

Two of several things that give me pause here, are in who is assumed to be the “ideal” client and how we are affecting our students’ priorities when we offer and even encourage them to take “law” school courses in economic trends in the legal profession and personal finance.  The apparent underlying assumption of both articles is that the “ideal” client is someone who will financially advantage the lawyer, and/or that the wealth of our profession and ourselves is worthy of credit in a school devoted to the study of law. Understanding that making a living is important, I’d note that there are no major stories about whether lawyers make a “living wage” either here2 or in other nations, or of lawyers who cobble together several jobs over the long-term to support themselves or a family.  But I did, however, recently listen at a ceremony where the head of a non-law institute spoke eloquently about the goal of that educational institution as doing justice and having their faculty involved in field-work toward helping others establish workable justice systems.  Non-lawyers.

 

Whenever students struggle with understanding a statute or regulation and where I sense a disconnect, I encourage asking who benefits from a policy or something being advocated.  Then, recognizing how easy it is to go along with an idea that is being advocated when it is self-benefitting, I encourage students to ask who is left out and, if appropriate, why we continue to allow others’ priorities to be that determinative.

Learning and Teaching – the Progression

I have become interested in progression and ordering lately.  Not so much with chickens and eggs, but more with respect to progressions used in the classroom.  Traditionally, I would start a class with a case and deploy it to open up an area of substantive law, utilizing questions, problems, canons of interpretation, and other cases to explore the meaning of concepts presented in the initial case or topic. The substantive areas depended on the course and ran from appurtenant easements (Property Law), to impeachment by prior untruthful acts (Evidence), to searches incident to lawful arrests (Criminal Procedure). My interest in ordering made me aware of the fact that I approached each class with a duality of teaching and learning.  Teaching usually was first in my progression.  The spotlight was on me as the teacher; I opened and conducted the class and then ended it when time ran out. I had many assumptions.  I assumed student motivation existed; that students started, followed, and ended the class with me; that students had effective practices of adding information to their understanding; and that students readily retrieved the information when needed.

But I wondered what would happen if I reversed the norm of ordering?  What if I placed learning first in the progression, especially in reference to motivation?  Motivation in law school is a lot like a roller coaster (at least it was for me) – it ebbs and flows quite a bit, sometimes within the same day. Motivation is often invisible to the classroom, but weighs heavily on learning.  Early in the first year there is a surfeit of it, and by the third year, well, lets just say there is not as much of it.

This reversal of progression, with learning first, changed a lot for me in the classroom.  In the past year or two, it has allowed for more variation, for greater focus on student improvement, for more experiential “doing” as part of basic courses, and for more direct consideration of student motivation.  For example, in this new progression, students fill out cards explaining what motivates them to learn the most and the least. Students also start each class by indicating where we are in the tapestry of subject matter – something they were used to me doing.  Since experiences often are helpful motivators, many more experiences are blended into the course — students now interview real world participants in law (e.g., police officers in a Criminal Procedure course) or Evidence (trial lawyers) and create short but deep PowerPoint presentations or videos in all courses about a point in the course that was worth further exploration.  These presentations served to recap what people had learned and to offer a combined “outline” of sorts for exam preparation.  Further, classes now end (at the students’ request) with a brief synopsis of what we did, to see if everyone finished around the same place.

In all, I found that focusing on learning generally, and motivation in particular, were very worthwhile.  I enjoyed the new way of guiding the course even more than I did the old.   There were different assumptions made, but I think they were more accurate.  Priorities can inform progression.

AALS Video Series on Law Teaching

Recently, a fellow blogger sent us a very helpful tool, that we wanted to share with our readers.  Last year, during the 2015 AALS Clinical Conference, a series of informative videos was created for law professors about the complications associated with law teaching.  The entire series is about an hour long, with each individual video being only about 5 minutes long.  These videos address some of the important pedagogical issues that law professors are currently grappling with, such as assessment, adding experiential learning to doctrinal courses, reflection, and technology.

This in the link to the entire series:

Valuing Faculty Committee Work

In “Incentivizing and Assessing Committee Work Contributions, Why Now? Professors Andi Curcio & Mary Lynch suggest that changes in legal education models necessitate re-thinking law school committee work responsibilities and rewards.  Their article  is a worthwhile read for anyone who believes the current system of committee workload allocations needs to change. Below is their abstract.

Faculty scholarly productivity reaps tangible internal and external rewards while the “reward” for excellent faculty committee work performance often is additional committee work. Some faculty members perform substantial committee work while others spend little time on institutional service, leaving them more time for scholarship. Despite equity issues, this system maintains the faculty self-governance model integral to academic freedom, and the necessary service work gets done. This article suggests that this traditional workload distribution model may be unsustainable. Innovations in legal education brought about by financial pressures, declining enrollments, and new accreditation standard requirements will result in increased committee workloads while reductions in full-time faculty at many schools leave fewer faculty members available to do that work. Those currently doing the lion’s share of the work may be unable, or unwilling, to take on more committee work. This article examines methods for avoiding an institutional governance crisis.

Grounding the discussion in social science literature, it explores ways to more fully engage all faculty members in committee work by creating accountability structures via smaller committees, peer evaluation of committee work contributions, and rewards for extraordinary service work. It posits that peer evaluations of committee work set normative standards and provide tangible evaluative tools, potentially changing cultural expectations about committee work participation. The article discusses the benefits and potential pitfalls of faculty committee work peer evaluations, provides a sample evaluation rubric, and sets forth a roadmap for implementing a committee work peer evaluation program. It also examines ways to encourage committee work stalwarts to continue their extraordinary service via a reward system. Amongst the rewards discussed is a year’s release from committee work responsibilities to allow for more time for scholarly pursuits. Throughout, the article suggests ways to engage more faculty in the work necessary to maintain thriving self-governing educational institutions in today’s changing legal environment.

Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Volunteering

As a follow-up to my previous post on “-crastination”, Creativity and the Importance of Downtime, I’m sharing a copy of my favorite handout for helping all of us, students and faculty alike, learn to engage in discernment around saying no, and yes.

TEN QUESTIONS
Ask yourself these questions

Before volunteering your time, skills & energy to ANYTHING!

  • Is there a chance I will find myself changed by this work?
  • Does this work express my values, the things I say are important to me?
  • Will this put me with people I want to know better?
  • Will doing this help me know myself better?
  • Do I enjoy thinking of myself as a person who would do this?
  • Do I have a special gift to share?
  • When I look back in a year or ten years, will I remember doing this?
  • Will this make me feel more connected or more disjointed?
  • What will I need to say NO to in order to say YES to this?
  • Will it be FUN!

 

Thanks for Maylin Harndon for sharing her version of this with me.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: