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:

Building on Best Practices now available as eBook

Are you trying to:

  • Develop a meaningful law school mission statement?
  • Understand new accreditation requirements, learning goals, and outcomes assessment?
  •  Expand your experiential offerings?  Decide whether to use modules or courses?  An on-site clinic, an externship, or community partnership?
  •  Teach ALL of your students in the most effective ways, using a full range of teaching methods?
  • Add to your curriculum more of the professional identity, leadership, intercultural, inter-professional and other knowledge, skills, and values sought by 21st century legal employers?
  • Lead thoughtfully in the face of the challenges facing legal education today?

These and other topics are addressed in Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World,  now available in ebook format from LexisNexis at no charge.

The print version is not yet out.  LEXIS-NEXIS is taking advance orders for $50, plus shipping.  BUT we understand that they will make one copy available to every US legal educator for free upon on request.  Details on this and international availability still to come.

Thanks, and congratulations, to book project sponsor Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), the more than fifty legal educators who participated as authors, and the countless others who assisted as readers and in numerous other ways.

And, a huge shout-out to my wonderful and talented co-editors, Lisa Radke Bliss, Carrie Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

Five Problems to Avoid in Writing Student Learning Outcomes

As law faculty across the country strive to improve student learning and meet ABA standards of accreditation through the assessment process, it is perhaps appropriate to stop and assess our efforts in that regard.  Here are five common problems that occur when first writing learning outcomes for a course:

1. Don’t focus on you – focus on the students
Student learning outcomes are designed to give students an idea of what they will be learning.  Avoid learning outcomes that describe what or how your will teach and instead focus on what the students will be able to know, do, or believe.

NOT: UMKC457  Trees as Thought
Student learning outcome:  In this course, I will be exploring the philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  I will explain my book “Trees as Focal Points for Reality” and refute critics of the proposals presented therein.

BETTER: UMKC457  Thought Experiments
Student learning outcome:  At the end of this course, students will be able to think critically and communicate effectively the metaphysical theories regarding the existence of that which cannot be perceived. Students will be able to describe how the theory of subjective idealism has impacted religious and scientific philosophy.  Through discussion and written reflection, students will demonstrate clarification of their individual values.

2. Avoid Vague Verbs
Probably one of the most common verbs found in student learning outcomes is “understand,” as in “students will understand [course content].” The problem with this as a learning outcome is that it is difficult to know what evidence would demonstrate that understanding.  A student learning outcome that uses more active and concrete verbs can unpack the type and degree of “understanding” that a professor expects.

NOT:   LAW8000  Family Law
Student learning outcome:  Students will understand the law regarding marriage regulation and the constitutional constraints on that regulation and the law of divorce, including child custody.

BETTER:  LAW 8000 Family Law
Student learning outcome: At the end of this course, students will be able to:
• identify the legal issues raised by a fact pattern involving a marriage regulation, make critical and effective arguments regarding the meaning of that regulation and its constitutional validity, and confidently predict the outcome of a challenge to that regulation
• identify relevant facts necessary to gather from a client seeking a divorce and child custody with property including real estate and pensions; draft a complete and legally effective petition for that divorce and custody action, including a parenting plan; and identify legal issues and make critical and effective arguments, applying the statutory and case law, to determine the divorce, property division, child custody and economic support in the case.
To read more about it, see Chapter Two. Understanding Understanding, of GRANT WIGGINS & JAY MCTIGHE, UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN (2nd Ed. 2005).

3. Avoid “elementitis”
A student learning outcome should not merely summarize the syllabus or be a list of topics the course will cover.  Rather, the student learning outcomes should focus on thematic elements that tie these topics together or ways in which the students will be able to use this knowledge.  As David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education notes:
We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later….to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’
DAVID PERKINS, MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION (2010).  Avoid student learning outcomes that are plagues by “elementitis” and describe instead what it is students will be able to do with course coverage.

4. Don’t Always Expect Mastery
Student learning outcomes should indicate not only the content the students will learn but how well they will learn it.  We cannot aim for mastery of all aspects of the course.  Rather, learning outcomes in some courses are necessarily going to be at an introductory level (students will “recognize” or “describe” or “identify”) while other outcomes may be aimed at higher levels of mastery.  An effective tool to determine the proficiency level of your learning outcomes is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which provides a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated learning outcomes.  To read more about it and see a list of verbs associated with differing levels of learning, see Rex Heer, A Model of Learning Objectives from Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching (2012). To read an application of this model to law school, see Paul Callister, Time to Blossom: An Inquiry into Bloom’s Taxonomy as a Hierarchy and Means for Teaching Legal Research Skills 202:2 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL 191 (2010-12).

5. Don’t Avoid Outcomes that May be Difficult to Measure
Student learning outcomes for a classroom rarely will focus entirely on the acquisition of knowledge.  At a minimum, most classes expect students to develop their cognitive and communication skills in using the knowledge base of the course.  Courses may also help students to clarify values, reconsider beliefs, appreciate new perspectives, or develop greater self-awareness.  Some faculty recognize that these skills and values are some of the most important benefits that students take away from the courses, but are reluctant to state these as learning outcomes because they are unable to “test” these outcomes.  However, any important skill or value can be assessed – even if there is a good deal of subjectivity involved in that assessment.  By stating these objectives as learning outcomes, faculty members can challenge themselves and their students to more clearly describe the dimensions of this learning.  Measurements of this learning may be through written reflections, observations of performance, or surveys of opinions.  These are perfectly valid assessment tools.

Unlearning as Learning Outcome

As the newly revised ABA accreditation standards 301 and 302 now require law schools to clearly articulate and publish their learning outcomes for their students, so individual faculty members must do likewise. Yet it is not uncommon to see these learning outcomes statements that read like the table of contents of the textbook used to teach the course. To truly be effective in driving learning and teaching, learning outcomes must be targeted, concrete, measurable and active (not “learning about” but “learning how to”).

How do we most effectively choose and articulate these learning outcomes? In MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION 83-89 (2010)., educational specialist David Perkins emphasizes that learning is most effective if learners “work on the hard parts.” Similarly, the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN framework, originally developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, emphasizes beginning the search for course goals by looking for the “Big Idea” in the course. These are the ideas or themes that can be used throughout a legal career and that require a lot of work to master.

One of the most effective ways to uncover these “big ideas’ or ‘hard parts” is to focus first on unlearning outcomes – that is, preventing and addressing predictable misunderstandings in the course. Thus, for example, much of the first year of law school is devoted to “unlearning” the positivist philosophy of students who believe the law is resolutely determinate. These fundamental misunderstandings are persistent, difficult to overcome and block learning of new ideas. Students construct knowledge by building on prior understandings. If those prior understandings are incomplete or incorrect, new learning will be flawed as well. As summarized by NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, COMMITTEE ON DEVELOPMENTS IN THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING, HOW PEOPLE LEARN: BRAIN, MIND, EXPERIENCE, AND SCHOOL: EXPANDED EDITION 11 (2000), “teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject.”

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) ( 2014), Elizabeth Green reviews the research concluding that effective teachers (as measured by student learning gains) are those who are able to identify the reasons that students misunderstand and help them to unlearn those misunderstandings.

Some of the most fundamental misconceptions that students bring to a subject from their own experience (or from bad course outlines passed around from prior semesters) must be discovered in the classroom. Brief classroom assessment devices such as “minute papers” or statements for the students to complete can easily generate a range of incorrect or incomplete understandings for any given topic.  The mission to discover student errors leads faculty to many of the best practices in teaching: regular interaction with students, frequent and meaningful feedback, and active learning strategies.

The power of an “unlearning” perspective on assessment improves student learning, but also quickly leads faculty to a deeper understanding of what assessment of student learning oucomes means.  Assessment is not an end-point, a box to be checked, reported and forgotten, but is an iterative process of discovery and experiment that drives students and faculty learning alike. Assessment tools (such as quizzes, socratic dialogue, essays, simulations, and reflections) might be used to unearth student misconceptions.  These misconceptions then become the basis for the learning outcomes around which one can build a course and assessments then can be used to determine the extent to which one is successfully dislodging misunderstanding and misconception and replace it with a solid framework mastery.

The Baby Has Finally Been Birthed!

Comprehensive revisions passed

The ABA House of Delegates passed the comprehensve revisions with “minimal  fuss” according to the ABA Journal linked  above.  One area, however, garnered  significant attention and also resulted in  an odd, though perhaps meaningless ,  procedural move.  The House voted  to send back to the Section on Legal Education for further consideration the comment to standard 305 which prohibits payment to students for credit-based courses.

What does this mean? Law schools which have not already done so must start identifying, articulating publicly and assessing student learning out outcomes, providing every student six  credits of clinic or clinic-like experiential courses and requiring students to take two credit hours worth of professional responsibility coursework.

Well, it’s a start……

%d bloggers like this: