Conor Gómez, School of Law

Welcome to Law School. All your hard work wooing professors to write encouraging letters of recommendation and studying for a standardized test that supposedly predicts performance in the first year of law school is finally over. Now the really hard work begins. For those of you like me (who did not participate in Greek life during undergrad), law school’s hazing tactics to weed students out can be quite shocking. Law professors hide the ball and purposely try to trick you during an interrogative “cold-call” to show you you’re underprepared. To make matters worse, the way you successfully prepare for class is drastically different than how you successfully prepare for an exam, and no one teaches you how to do either.

Law School Pedagogy is Problematic

Law school fosters hyper-individualized, passive learning. Forcing students into mandatory curves,[1] assigning hundreds of pages of reading per week, and lecturing at students doesn’t actively engage students in their learning. Preparing for class means doing all the reading and memorizing every fact of the case to prepare for being cold-called. Professors quiz students on things not found in the reading and that do not help students successfully prepare for their final exam (which is 100% of their grade). Additionally, collaboration in law school is typically discouraged if not outrightly prohibited in the school’s student honor code.[2] Law is a collaborative profession, yet law schools prohibit collaboration on assignments and exams and enforce mandatory curves, forcing students to compete instead of collaborate.

So What Can Be Done?

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? I’ll give you the good news. There are teaching techniques that could better facilitate student learning and teach students skills necessary to succeed in the profession. The bad news? Law professors teach they way they do because that’s just the way it’s always been done. Law schools need to recognize that the old pedagogical techniques of yore are simply no longer applicable. Cold-calling doesn’t enhance performance. Rote memorization of cases does not teach the skills that students are tested on or expected to cultivate as an attorney.

Law schools should follow the IPD paradigm[3] where students (preferably) introduce the topics to themselves outside the classroom. Then the teacher utilizes class time to let students practice the skills they are learning before ultimately demonstrating it on some kind of summative assessment.[4] Even in classrooms designed for traditional lecture, this active learning environment increases student satisfaction (Hyun et al. 2017).[5] Law schools should facilitate group discussion so students can teach and learn from each other. This prepares them for group work as attorneys. Furthermore, formative assessment[6] should shift from cold-calling to other models, like Readiness Assessment Tests[7], which also provide immediate feedback and can be done individually or in groups to understand where the class is at with the material. These activities should also be designed to prepare students for summative assessments by giving them regular practice with the skills necessary to perform well. Formative and summative assessment work in conjunction; teachers can tailor their teaching based on the formative assessments to ensure the class reaches the stated outcomes by the summative assessments.[8]

Summative assessment should not be individual nor should it constitute 100% of the students’ grades.  Mandatory curves should also be eliminated. These practices do not prepare students for the collaborative legal profession wherein lawyers work together to solve complex legal issues, and draw on each other’s strengths. Summative assessment can be role playing group work trying to solve hypothetical legal issues or negotiating a contract for example. Legal practice does not happen in a vacuum and neither should legal learning.

References

Dixson and Worrell, 2016. Formative and Summative Assessment in the Classroom. 

Hyun et al., 2017. Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Willauer, Brigette LuAnn. (2005). The Law School Honor Code and Collaborative Learning: Can They Co-exist? University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Law Review. Accessed Through Hein Online. 

Footnotes

[1] Mandatory curves only permit x number of students to get As, Bs, Cs, etc.

[2] Willauer, Brigette LuAnn. (2005). The Law School Honor Code and Collaborative Learning: Can They Co-exist? University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Law Review. Accessed Through Hein Online.

[3] IPD stands for Introduce, Practice, Demonstrate.

[4] An assessment that allows students to showcase what they have learned; this is not necessarily always an exam. It can be a video or a speech or a role-playing activity.

[5] Research found students were more content with their learning/educational experience when activities that had students engage with the material were utilized. Hyun et al., 2017. Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

[6] Formative assessment is defined as “activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities.” Dixson and Worrell, 2016. Formative and Summative Assessment in the Classroom.

[7] See, IF-ATs. https://learntbl.ca/rap/

[8] Dixson and Worrell, 2016. Formative and Summative Assessment in the Classroom.  

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 5th, 2020.

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