Reaching Today’s Law Students: Tips for Starting the New School Year

By Sara Berman and Andrea[Andi] Curcio

Today’s students are more diverse, raised on the Internet and social media, used to skimming rather than reading closely, communicate via texts, tweets and gifs, and often learn from youtube videos. Many students grew up with helicopter parents who continue to make decisions for and intervene on behalf of their adult children. So, how do we reach these students and help them become professional, responsible, ethical, good lawyers?

Below, we provide three teaching tips for the new academic year. These are not global solutions. Instead, they are simple, easily implementable suggestions that may help address certain aspects of the significant, complex, and nuanced challenges the academy faces in effectively educating today’s students.

I. Belonging/community creates success

Claude Steele and Josh Aronson educated us about stereotype threat and its negative affects on student performance. As one group of researchers notes, “one consequence of negative stereotypes is to cause people to wonder if they will be fully included and valued in an academic environment.”

The literature suggests that feeling one does not belong triggers a series of stress reactions that may affect motivation and academic success, as well as physical health and psychological well being.

While schools need to develop structures that create a sense of community and belonging for all students, faculty can take some simple steps to create a sense of belonging in our classrooms. As researchers note, one of the first steps is to correctly pronounce all students’ names.

The Importance of Learning to Pronounce Names

Correctly pronouncing a person’s name indicates a respect for that person and provides a clear signal that the person “belongs” in your classroom. Consistently mispronouncing names sends the opposite message.

Some faculty members may avoid calling on students with names they find difficult to pronounce because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or the student. While students may fear being called on, they also expect it. Not calling on students sends a message that those students do not belong in your classroom or in law school.

Finally, students get to know one another when they hear each other called on by name. When you correctly pronounce a student’s name, his or her colleagues will do the same. This facilitates out-of-class socialization, including forming study groups.

Tip: Pass out index cards and ask each student to phonetically spell his or her name.

On the first day of class, distribute index cards and ask each student to phonetically spell his or her name. Use the cards to practice pronouncing students’ names in your office, and use them when calling on students until you feel comfortable pronouncing their names. Invite students to let you know if you mispronounce their names and make notes on the card to help you get it right next time.

Making an effort to correctly pronounce all students’ names sends a message to your students that you care about them, that you are willing to learn that which is initially unfamiliar to you, and that all students in your class belong there.

II. Empower students to find their own answers

Many students have grown up with “helicopter parents” – parents described by one set of researchers as being “high on warmth/support, high on control, and low on granting autonomy”. As Professor Palmer notes, this type of parenting potentially produces law students with limited critical thinking and problem solving skills. It also means that some students enter law school, expecting the same level of assistance from faculty as they got from their parents.

Many of today’s students need training on how to become expert, self-regulated learners who engage in independent problem solving. Numerous articles, including those by Professor Palmer and Professor Ritter suggest ways to help law students develop into professionals able to think critically and engage in independent problem solving. Again, here we focus on just one easily implementable tip.

Tip: When a student asks or emails you a question, try not to be a “helicopter professor.

Respond Promptly but Not Immediately

Instead of immediately answering, take a few hours to see if the student resolves the question on his or her own. (How many times have you received a second email from a student two minutes after a first saying that the student found the answer so “never mind.”)

Encourage The Student To Find The Answer

If a student does not resolve the issue initially on his or her own, engage the student in the process of finding the answer him or herself. You might use a technique similar to the Socractic method we use to help students discover and understand doctrinal complexities, asking the student to consider where he or she might find the answer.

Manage expectations by letting the class know that, as part of a deliberate plan to help them develop into problem solving lawyers, you will not directly answer questions that you have already provided answers to in class resources. (E.g. you will not tell them something that is in the syllabus.) Also let them know that they learn best if they figure out the answer to complex questions on their own and that you will help them by asking questions that challenge them to do that.

Recognize that Students May Need Guidance

When questions require searching beyond sources you have already provided (the syllabus and assigned texts and postings), recognize that students may not have a clue how to go about what seems like common sense research to us. Thus, consider recommending a specific treatise or encouraging the student to consult the research librarians. Then, invite the student to check back after their search if they still have questions or need further clarity.

Don’t Give In To Temptation

It may be hard to resist answering a question – especially when that answer is at our fingertips. It is almost always quicker to answer the question than work with the student as he or she tries to find the answer. Also, some faculty want to avoid seeming “mean”. Whatever the reason, try to avoid the temptation to automatically answer student questions. In the long run, answering questions rather than empowering students to find their own answers hurts more than it helps.

III. Push students to develop a command of legal terminology

Immersion in the language of law school has always been confusing, even for top students 40 years ago. Scott Turow, writing in his 1977 novel, One L, about his first year at Harvard law school describes learning what he calls “Legal” as “a second language.” Turow notes, “Legal bore some relation to English,” but it twists and turns in ways that make it resemble a “very peculiar” “dialect,” one in which even familiar words may have different meanings.

Today’s students are likely to find terminology even more challenging than students in prior generations as many modern students enter law school without a strong civics foundations. As Professor Flanagan notes, “College graduates are unprepared to master “thinking like a lawyer” because they lack the fundamental thinking, reading, and writing skills that form the foundation for learning in law school.” Though dictionaries are with them at all times (on omnipresent phones), they seem

to consult them less frequently than those of us who lugged around hardback copies of Black’s Law Dictionary.

Tip: Require students to create and record short [1 to 2 minute] videos in which they explain and contextualize important legal terms in plain English

Using Familiar Tools to Connect Fluency in Legal Terminology to Law Practice

Students all have cellphones and most record videos of themselves and their friends. This exercise uses those tools to help students create fluency and deeper understanding of legal terminology.

This active learning, plain English translation exercise will help the terminology stick because it requires first understanding the terms and then being able to explain them in context. It also contributes to professional identity and community building as students see and hear themselves, and each other, using words in an actual (simulated) lawyering context.

Encourage students to be creative, working alone or in pairs, and write and act out a “mini script” that simulates a conversation explaining and using the term in context with a lay person they might encounter in practice such as a potential future client, an IT person at their future law firm, a witness, juror, or non lawyer expert. Creating “real life” scenarios helps students understand that this exercise is not “busy work” but instead is a building block in learning critical lawyering skills.

For those students who need additional reasons to master “legalese” generally as well as the specific terminology associated with your course, remind them that mastery not only empowers them to get more out of, and connect on a deeper level with, their studies, it also will likely help them get a better grade on your final and help prepare them to pass the bar exam.

Use the Videos as A Class Learning Experience

You may require everyone to turn in one video, or decide to give extra or participation credit for completing a set of 5-10 such videos. The videos can help both the students making them and their colleagues.

Alert students to the fact that you will post their videos on a private YouTube channel, or on TWEN, BlackBoard or whatever online system you use for other class materials. Your IT person can easily show you how to do this.

While you could provide feedback on each video, or a sample of videos, another option is to post the videos to a class video library with a discussion board. This shows students their work is being seen. It also allows them to constructively comment on each other’s videos, and it creates an “online class dictionary.”

You may want to ask students’ permission to use their videos in future classes so that you can show the best clips to future students. (Most will readily agree and will probably take the exercise even more seriously knowing you plan to use them in the future, and they will likely appreciate that you are taking their work seriously too.)

IV. Share Your Own Tips

Each of the tips discussed above are relatively easy to implement and have a potential high payoff in student engagement and learning, community building, and the creation of professional identity. We know you have other tips and hope you will share those with all of us.

2 Responses

  1. These suggestions as to how to encourage students to “join” in the classroom endeavor are significant. Like everyone else, students appreciate being treated as individuals, so the practice of having them fill out an index card on the first day of class, indicating how their name is to be pronounced, and perhaps a bit more about themselves and why they have found their way to your classroom, is likely to imbue in them good feelings towards you and, respectively, your classroom.
    Encouraging students to become independent, rather than assuming that they are and then acting disappointed when you learn that they are not, is also a great idea. The helicopter culture is invasive, including in law schools; anything that encourages independence in law students should be invaluable to you as a teacher but especially to your students as they develop their professional identities.
    Finally, having your students practice offering explanations via video is a way to both meet them at the place where they are likely to be comfortable, the screen, and encourage them to realize the benefit of preparation and practice in the endeavor that we call learning.

  2. I love these suggestions and have saved #III for use in my legal ethics course! I also really thank you for the phonetic pronunciation tip. I was already planning to use index cards to get a little info from each student, but adding this to it should be a game-changer, especially in a room with several non-JD students from around the globe! Thanks again.

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