What is a “Fact”? A “Story”?

In Washington D.C., on the GWU campus, there is a statue of a hippopotamus. A nearby sign explains that the statue was placed there because hippos once could be found in the Potomac. George and Martha Washington liked watching them from their Mount Vernon porch. They were also a favorite of children visiting the estate. George Washington even had a false set of teeth made of hippopotamus ivory.

As you have likely guessed, that sign offers readers what we might call mendacities, misrepresentations, falsehoods, alternative facts, untruths, lies, or bulls**t. To end any suspense, there really is a statue, the sign really does say most of these things, and George Washington really did have a false set of teeth made of hippo ivory. But the Washingtons never saw hippos frolicking in the Potomac and no one would have children anywhere near the Potomac if there were. To see hippopotami in the Potomac, someone would have had travel to Sub-Saharan Africa, capture a pod of hippos (they are social creatures) without being attacked (they are very dangerous, killing 3,000 people each year), carry them across land to seafaring boats, make the trek across the Atlantic, and then to the Potomac—all while keeping the animals’ skin moist at all times. The hippos might freeze in the winter if not recaptured and quartered somewhere warmer. Hippos are also very large, weighing in at 1.5 tons or more.

Nevertheless, these facts and falsehoods hang together as a story. When did you begin to question that story? When you began to question, did you then question the entirety of the facts or were you willing to believe any of the information as fact? As lawyers, you know that stories are composed of facts, but if asked for a definition of a fact or of a story, can you provide one?

More importantly, we want the next generation of lawyers to fully appreciate the answers to those questions. With the decentralization of information, I find that I need to be more deliberate in my approach to teaching different categories of facts: actual facts such as the sun rising in the east on our planet; verifiable facts, such as the natural habitat of hippopotami; and debatable facts, such as whether this sentence should have used “whether or not” instead of “whether.” I also spend a significant amount of time distinguishing facts from characterizations, which are essentially the opinions or judgments of the writer. Someone’s “lovely summer-preview week in April” is someone else’s “torturous week in April” if that second someone suffers from summer Seasonal Affect Disorder. And, now, sadly, I am spending more time teaching the difference between facts and misrepresentations or falsehoods, such as a statement that this blog post focuses primarily on hippopotami (a misrepresentation) or on cat memes (a falsehood).

For several years, I have also spent several class hours on the importance of story structure as the delivery vehicle for facts and story strategy as a driving force in persuasion. A story involves characters, a setting, and hurdles or challenges that a particular character or characters must overcome to reach a desired goal. Implicit in that definition is the passage of time, i.e. a beginning, middle, and end. It is easy to see how legal matters exist as stories. The nub is in the teaching of the re-telling, from the client’s perspective, using description and detail—that is, facts—rather than characterizations.

Facts must be presented as a narrative rather than as a list if the author wants the audience to interact with those facts and remember them. Facts by themselves don’t persuade. Stories persuade. That’s not my opinion, but has been demonstrated by science across a variety of fields. We think, act, make decisions in story. As those of us studying and writing on applied legal storytelling know, former Oceanographer at the Department of Energy, Kendall Haven has published books to help professionals digest the vast amount of science out there. For yourself, take the simple but germinal test in the study conducted in 1944 by Drs, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Look at the video and see if you can answer a few of the questions. If you can, you have demonstrated that you think in story. To demonstrate this to my students, before showing the video I divide the class in thirds and assign each group a client to represent. After showing the video twice I ask each group to tell a story from that client’s perspective.

Contrary to what we may call our lawyer’s sense of justice when the verifiable facts disprove falsehoods, citing just the facts by themselves may actually backfire–here’s a great Harvard Business Review article with links to the original studies that will help explain why. In law, there are several studies of jurors that demonstrate the power of story, but only a handful of studies testing legal audiences. In a 2010 article Ken Chestek wrote about a study that used carefully constructed briefs to study the preferences of judges, court staff attorneys, newer attorneys serving as law clerks, appellate attorneys, and law professors. From the data, he concluded that stories are more persuasive to decision makers than syllogistic reasoning by itself. Attorneys and judges with more than five years of practice overwhelmingly chose a storied version of an advocacy document over a straight-up law/application version. Only the attorneys newly out of law school deviated from this pattern—begging the question, are we doing something in law school that skews this number so much from what judges and seasoned attorneys believe to be effective lawyering?

Assuming you are on board that our students should graduate knowing what facts are and knowing that representing clients means being able to appreciate and tell their clients’ stories, the last question to answer is the curricular locale for teaching these things. Historically, the clinic and externship programs at law schools have been celebrated for focusing students on facts and narrative in a capstone experience. I am a true believer that those programs will continue to be the locales in which students will most strongly make the connections between legal and narrative reasoning. But we do students a stronger service if they enter the capstone experiences with a strong foundation. The casebook authors can include more story so that teaching professors can reinforce the ideas of facts and narrative. The skills professors of the trial advocacy and practicum courses include some training, but the first and heavy lift most appropriately belongs in the required first-year legal research, analysis & communication course series. Gone are the days when we can teach those courses by indulging in the pedagogy of a legal document’s traditional text-based sections or on a singular paradigm for organizing legal reasoning. In 2017 we must focus on making students client-ready. Written and verbal communication in law occurs in a variety of mediums, to a variety of audiences, and in a variety of different rhetorical situations. The connecting universals across law and legal communications will always include law, facts, and story.

*Thank you to Courtney Knight, Class of 2017, Rutgers Law School, for the story idea.

DO LAW SCHOOLS ADEQUATELY PREPARE STUDENTS FOR PRACTICE? SURVEYS SAY . . . NO! – Robert Kuehn, Washington University School of Law

Under ABA Accreditation Standard 301, law schools have two educational objectives: prepare their students “for admission to the bar and for effective, ethical, and responsible participation as members of the legal profession.” There has been much concern lately over declining bar passage rates, focusing attention on whether some schools are admitting students who may not be capable of passing the bar exam and whether a school’s program of legal education adequately prepares its graduates for the exam.

In focusing on the bar exam, it’s important not to lose sight of legal education’s primary duty of ensuring that law school prepares students for entry into the legal profession and a successful career. If studies of practicing lawyers and recent law graduates matter, it is clear that law schools are failing, even worse than in preparation for bar admission, to adequately prepare their students for legal practice.

A 2012 study by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) analyzed the job activities of newly-licensed lawyers to determine which knowledge domains and professional skills and abilities are most significant to their job. Acquisition of professional skills and abilities were deemed significantly more important to newly-licensed lawyers than legal knowledge — 25 skills and abilities were deemed more important than the highest rated knowledge domain. The percentages of lawyers using these 25 skills in their work (all rated between 89% to 100%) also were all greater than the percentage using the highest rated knowledge domain (86%). Yet these skills and abilities generally are not developed in traditional doctrinal law classes but in the experiential and first-year legal writing courses that, under the ABA standards, need only account for ten percent of a student’s legal education.

These important skills and abilities are also a small part of the bar exam, which purports to measure competence to begin the practice of law. Although the NCBE study was promoted as the basis for further development of the exam, since the study’s completion the portion of the exam devoted to testing skills remains the same (the 3-hour Multistate Performance Test). The NCBE’s only apparent response to the study’s dramatic finding that professional skills and abilities are what new lawyers need most for competent practice was to add civil procedure (the study’s highest rated knowledge domain) to the Multistate Bar Exam.

A report released this year by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers reinforces the disconnect between legal education’s overwhelming focus on legal knowledge and the competencies new lawyers need. A study of more than 24,000 lawyers in 50 states sought to determine the foundations entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession. The study found “that characteristics (such as integrity and trustworthiness, conscientiousness, and comment sense), as well as professional competencies (such as listening attentively, speaking and writing, and arriving on time), were far more important in brand new lawyers than legal skills.” Yet, again, only in clinical and first-year legal writing courses are there efforts in the law school curriculum to address the “soft skills” so necessary for the success of new lawyers.

These two studies mirror the findings of decades of earlier studies. In a 1978 study, mid-career lawyers rated the importance of 21 types of legal knowledge and skills in their daily work and the role of their law school training in attaining that knowledge or skill. With the exception of knowledge of statutory law, none of the eight areas of legal knowledge was considered very important for their work. In contrast, six of the methodology and skills areas were deemed of great importance.  When then asked to rate their law schools’ role in developing skills, two-thirds said their school had been “not helpful” or “played no role” in their ability to develop essential practice skills like interviewing, counseling clients, and negotiating; more than 40% said law school failed to train them to draft legal documents or effectively communicate orally.

A later study of Montana lawyers came to similar conclusions. It asked what level of competence a lawyer should have to perform in a professionally competent manner and what level of competence they observed first-year lawyers to have. The results indicated the need for greater emphasis in law school on the development of professional skills and the importance of character traits to a new lawyer’s successful transition to practice. A 1993 study of Chicago and Missouri lawyers found large gaps between the skills lawyers deemed most important to their practice and the attention law school paid to those skills, especially in the areas of oral and written communication, drafting legal documents, problem solving, negotiation, fact finding, counseling, and litigation. The lawyers believed that a majority of these practice skills could be learned in law school, if the focus of legal education were changed. A similar study of Minnesota lawyers found most did not believe they were well prepared immediately following law school on nine of seventeen important practice skills. Like respondents in other studies, those lawyers believed these skills can be effectively taught in law school.

More recent studies have not reflected any improvement in the role of legal education in preparing graduates for practice. The American Bar Foundation’s After the JD study tracks the careers of a sample of lawyers who passed the bar in 2000. It asked lawyers three and seven years of out of school if “law school prepared me well for my legal career.” On this fundamental objective of legal education, law schools failed miserably — 40% of lawyers after three years of practice and 50% after seven years said that law school did not adequately prepare them. Both groups overwhelmingly agreed that law school was too theoretical and unconcerned with real life practice. In another study of early-career lawyers, only 28% believed that law school prepared them to practice law.

Two studies by LexisNexis reinforce this view. In a 2009 survey, 90% of attorneys in private practice and corporate law offices said that law school does not teach the practical skills needed to practice law today. A similar study six years later found that legal education has not improved, contrary to the claims of some legal educators and regulators. In the 2015 survey, 95% of hiring partners and senior associates who supervise new attorneys responded that recently graduated students lack key practical skills at the time of hiring. The lawyers also believe its not a matter that law schools cannot teach these skills but that they simply refuse to do so: “Most attorneys involved with hiring and management of new lawyers agree practical skills can be effectively honed through clinics, internships, clerkships, and experience in actual or simulated application to a case.”

Law students who just graduated realize their need for more practical training — 87% say legal education needs to undergo significant changes to better prepare future attorneys; 97% favor a law school model that incorporates clinical experience. Judges agree. When asked what change would most benefit law schools, judges of all types of court (federal and state, appellate and trial) rated more coursework on practice-oriented skills the highest, far exceeding support for expanding the core curriculum.

Fifty years ago the dean of the University of Chicago School of Law stated that the aim of law school “is not to train lawyers, but to educate men [and women] for becoming lawyers.” If the attitude of the ABA and law school deans has changed since then, it isn’t reflected in the readiness of law school graduates for practice when over 90% of lawyers give legal education a failing grade. So while educators worry about declining grades on the bar exam, isn’t it also time to fix legal education’s longstanding failure to meet its duty to adequately prepare it students “for effective, ethical, and responsible participation as members of the legal profession”?

Let Me Introduce Myself

My name is John Lande and I just became a blogger with BPLE.  I want to tell you about my background and interests and the kinds of things I expect to write about in this blog.  This post also includes links to some resources you might be interested in.

I taught at the University of Missouri starting in 2000 and I retired a year ago, beginning what I call “unbundled retirement.”  I don’t teach or attend faculty meetings anymore, but I still want to stay involved in things that I care about.

Two years ago, I started blogging on Indisputably, a blog of law professors who focus on dispute resolution.  I love blogging, which I will continue in retirement.

Here’s a link to my website, which includes more information about me and links to my publications, some of which are not on ssrn.

Focus on Dispute Resolution

My career has focused on dispute resolution.  I graduated from law school in 1980 and practiced law for a while.  I felt uncomfortable with the adversarial dynamics of legal practice and I took my first mediation training in 1982 and then practiced law and mediation for several years.

In 1989, I went to grad school in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, studying sociology of law and dispute resolution.  For my masters thesis, I interviewed people who handled employment discrimination disputes within their organizations.  For my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed business lawyers and executives about their attitudes about litigation and ADR.

Most people in the “ADR” field, including me, think that it is misleading to refer to it as “alternative dispute resolution,” but the label has stuck.  I don’t think that there’s an ideal alternative and many of us simply use the term “dispute resolution” or “DR,” even though that’s problematic too.

Many people in the DR world think of “ADR” as involving neutrals (other than judges).  But focusing only on neutrals doesn’t fit because unmediated negotiation is recognized as a major sub-field.  Indeed, much of what we teach and do is advocacy in processes like mediation and arbitration.  Here’s one post I wrote musing about what ADR is and isn’t and here’s another one.  They reflect my view that lawyers and judges are dispute resolution professionals, not just mediators and arbitrators.

In the last decade, I wrote a series of articles about collaborative law and cooperative law, which are processes in which lawyers and clients start by trying to negotiate instead of starting in litigation and negotiating at the end of a case, after most discovery has been completed.

I think that these processes have real value though they are used almost exclusively in family law cases and only by agreement of both sides.  Collaborative law involves a “disqualification agreement,” which precludes the collaborative lawyers from representing the clients in litigation if needed.  This makes the process a non-starter for many lawyers and parties, especially in cases other than family law.

I wrote a book, Lawyering with Planned Early Negotiation: How You Can Get Good Results for Clients and Make Money, in which I applied some concepts from collaborative and cooperative law to describe an approach that lawyers can use unilaterally in any type of case.  This book was based, in part, on interviews with lawyers who actually use this general approach as opposed to lawyering with unplanned late negotiation.  I later did another study along the same lines based on more interviews with lawyers, Good Pretrial Lawyering: Planning to Get to Yes Sooner, Cheaper, and Better.

Focus on Legal Education

I developed and maintain a website, Dispute Resolution Resources for Legal Education (DRLE), which includes syllabi, teaching materials, and a list of DR programs and links.  It also includes instructions for subscribing to a listserv promoting discussion of issues relevant to DR in legal education.

In 2010, I wrote my first article on legal education, co-authored with Jean Sternlight, The Potential Contribution of ADR to an Integrated Curriculum: Preparing Law Students for Real World Lawyering.  This piece describes how ADR concepts and skills are integrated into other courses and suggests ways that this could be done more.

This article inspired the development of the Legal Education, ADR, and Problem-Solving (LEAPS) Project of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution.  LEAPS developed a great website with lots of resources about how to increasingly incorporate “practical problem solving” into law school curricula.  Perhaps of particular interest to BPLE readers, this website has a list of textbooks in a wide variety of subjects which include a problem-solving approach as well as a list of colleagues who would be happy to help you incorporate problem-solving techniques in your courses in particular subjects (e.g., civ pro, contracts, etc.).

In 2012, I organized a symposium at Missouri entitled, “Overcoming Barriers in Preparing Law Students for Real-World Practice.”   For the symposium, I wrote an article, Reforming Legal Education to Prepare Law Students Optimally for Real-World Practice, which incorporated major themes in the symposium and included my ideas about legal education reform.

That year I also started teaching negotiation and I experimented with lots of techniques in that course.  In Teaching Students to Negotiate Like a Lawyer, which I wrote as I embarked on this experiment, I described these techniques.  In Lessons from Teaching Students to Negotiate Like a Lawyer, I described what worked and what didn’t work so well the first time I taught it.

One of my major insights from this experience was the great value of using multi-stage simulations in addition to one-stage simulations.  Most DR courses rely primarily or exclusively on one-stage simulations in which students are given fact patterns to enact for perhaps 10-60 minutes.  While these simulations are useful in prompting students to get into roles of lawyers, clients, and others, students don’t get into their roles in single-stage simulations as much as multi-stage simulations.

I described my use of multi-stage simulations in the two articles I just mentioned about teaching negotiation.  I prepared an eight-page document with suggestions for instructors who want to use multi-stage simulations in their courses.  And I solicited descriptions from colleagues about how they use multi-stage simulations in a wide range of courses, which are posted on the DRLE website.

I recently wrote my “Last Lecture” article, summarizing advice for law students based on my teaching and scholarship.

Blogging for BPLE

As a blogger on Indisputably, I have written various posts about legal education, generally tagged “for teachers and students.”  I have written some on particular topics that BPLE readers might be interested, including simulations, legal skills and techniques, and student assessment and grading.

I have occasionally passed along some posts to Mary Lynch that I thought BPLE readers would be interested in.  After I wrote one recently, I thought it would make sense for me to post some myself from time to time.

For example, you might be interested in my posts Non-Apology Apologies, Ethics, and Lawyers and Training Law Students to be Leaders.

By joining BPLE, I hope that I can serve as a bridge between faculty particularly interested in dispute resolution and those particularly interested in legal education issues.  If you have some interest in DR, you might check out or subscribe to Indisputably.  Conversely, I am encouraging my friends on Indisputably to check out or subscribe to BPLE.

I hope that you enjoy my posts.  I welcome your comments online or off.

 

 

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:

Competencies-Based Legal Education

[This was originally posted by the Clayton Christensen Institute on Disruptive Innovation]

 Last week, I discussed why law schools need to respond to the changing marketplace for legal services and legal education.  In thinking about how best to prepare for that changing world, law schools need to consider how competency-based educational models can be employed to advance educational objectives for students seeking to enter the market for legal services.  As Michael Horn and I explain in our new whitepaper, Disrupting Law School, regulatory protections that have sheltered law schools from competition will continue to subside.  In this new environment, law schools need to reimagine themselves as educators for students interested in learning about the legal services sector, not simply those seeking a JD.

One way to do this is to think about legal education from a blank slate.  Rather that try to retrofit our current pedagogy to address 21st century needs, instead we need to think about it from its inception — if one were to start a school today to educate those who want a career in the legal services field, what would that school look like?

Upstart competency-based education programs have done just that in other parts of higher education.  They provide at least three new considerations for traditional law school as they begin to think about and prepare for the future.

1. Time is no longer the measure of accomplishment

Online competency-based learning reverses the traditional relationship in education between time and student learning. In the traditional educational model, time is fixed while each student’s learning is variable. With online competency-based learning, the relationship between time and learning is reversed — time becomes the variable and each student’s learning becomes essentially fixed. Students process at their own pace, moving from topic to topic upon mastery of each. Those who need more time to master a concept before moving on to the next take the time they need, while others move ahead to the next set of material and learning objectives.

2. Centrality of competencies, learning outcomes, and assessments

Online competency-based programs shift the teaching pedagogy toward student-centered learning. In an online, competency-based program, faculty and instructional designers start by identifying the competencies students must master to achieve the desired learning outcomes and then work through each to understand how a student would demonstrate mastery of those objectives. Through constant feedback, students know how they are doing and what they need to do next and teachers can determine when students have mastered competencies and are ready to move forward. The assessments in other words are both forward looking—assessments that help determine what a student studies nextand backward looking —assessments that indicate whether a student has mastered the material.

3.  Modularization of course material provides more flexibility and different business models

Online competency-based learning is also changing key elements of the traditional higher education business model. Online technologies make it possible to modularize the learning process—that is, to break usual semester-long courses into shorter learning units or modules, which can be studied in sequence or separately. When material is packaged in online modules, it is easier to use for multiple educational purposes and multiple audiences in different combinations.

Stackable modules allow students to create individualized curricula based on their own learning goals and objectives. For students who attend law school knowing the area of law in which they want to practice—a segment of the student body currently underserved due to limited course offerings in any one topic at any one law school—modules open up opportunities to stack credentials from multiple sources. The long tail of the Internet opens up these opportunities; there may be sufficient student demand if online courses can aggregate demand and serve students from around the country or even the world.

Modules also eliminate duplication and optimize teaching resources. This flexible architecture can create an entirely new business model for law-related education. When learning is broken down into competencies—rather than semester-long courses—modules of learning can be packaged into different scalable programs for very different audiences—for example, paralegals, legal technicians, law students, lawyers (CLE), judges, administrative agencies, non-JDs working in law-related fields, foreign students, high school/college moot court teams, undergraduate students, journalists, clients, life-long learners, and so forth.  The possibilities abound.

This exercise can take us in a lot of different directions.  Every direction, though, will ask us to change and move beyond the status quo.  While change is hard, it is also necessary.  I hope our whitepaper provides sufficient impetus to get started.

Teaching Tips to Think about Early in the New Semester- By Steven Friedland

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….

 

Note-Taking Breaks

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.

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