Fostering Student Success: Part I Challenges Posed by Changing Times and Changing Culture

The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.

By Sara J. Berman, Director of Academic and Bar Success Programs at the AccessLex Institute’s Center for Legal Education Excellence; SSRN author page https://ssrn.com/author=2846291

Law school culture is shifting; the days of the hundred percent final exam are giving way to a culture that emphasizes routine midterms, quizzes, polling, and other formative assessment.  This is in part because of ABA requirements under Standard 314[1] and in part because of the now ample evidence that wise feedback helps law students succeed.[2], [3], [4]  

The shift toward integration of more thoughtful feedback into the curriculum dovetails with a movement of many of today’s leading legal educators to encourage growth mindsets.[5] But voices urging adoption of such positive mindsets ring hollow when set into a greater legal education backdrop that still too often fosters a fixed mindset.  Students who “get it” right away are handsomely rewarded, with the most prestigious jobs,[6] law review, and other opportunities. Those who persevere and overcome struggles are barely acknowledged or, more often, stigmatized because of their early low performance –some never regaining full confidence, even if they later dramatically improve. 

Empirical studies confirm that 1L GPA often correlates with bar passage.[7] Acknowledging high performers is appropriate, even laudable; but should we continue to perpetuate a zero-sum environment where initially-lower performers are not encouraged to improve in consistent and meaningful ways? Are we even aware of the extent to which our system expressly and impliedly communicates to certain students that they are “fated” to fail?  Let’s become collectively more aware and pilot studies to determine whether different faculty and institutional responses to 1L grades might alter what appears to be a “failure trajectory” for lower-performing students. Let’s find ways to truly encourage grit, rather than just giving it lip service all the while rewarding only those who catch on most quickly.  Let’s create a system that “normalizes struggle,” as Professor Christopher argues,[8] and celebrates learning from early mistakes. 

Much learning occurs after 1L. We must study how much more learning might take place if we rewarded, valued, and encouraged law students who engage in continuous improvement and, by graduation, become far more skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable than their first-year grades would indicate. This is not to suggest an “A for effort” or “everyone gets a trophy.” Rather, this is a call for pilot programs and careful study of how initially-lower-performing law students would fare (on the bar exam and in practice) if given true and un-stigmatized opportunities to improve, and be rewarded for improving, during law school.  Such opportunities may come in the form of the suggestions noted in Part II of this post, and by seeding the law school curriculum with formative assessment and thoughtful feedback.

Employers will surely still find ways to determine which graduates are the best fits for which jobs. In the meantime, we are wasting precious resources trying to get lower-performing students to thrive in cultures that do not encourage them to do the extra work required to outperform their early indicators.  Let’s at least study how bar passage (not to mention, job satisfaction and dedicated commitment to using the rule of law to make the world a better place) might improve if law school culture stressed deep, slow, and steady learning, and truly rewarded persistence, resilience, and continuous improvement.

Part II of this post explores some of the many possibilities for “simple” changes that might help advance the ongoing culture shift toward a true growth mindset.  Stay tuned!


[1] Section of Legal Educ. and Admissions to the Bar, Am. Bar Ass’n, ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools § 314 (2019),https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/misc/legal_education/Standards/2017-2018ABAStandardsforApprovalofLawSchools/2017_2018_standards_chapter3.authcheckdam.pdf.

[2] Paula J. Manning, Understanding the Impact of Inadequate Feedback: A Means to Reduce Law Student Psychological Distress, Increase Motivation, and Improve Learning Outcomes, 43 Cumb. L. Rev. 225 (2012).

[3] Daniel Schwarcz & Dion Farganis, The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance, 67 J. Legal Educ. 139 (2017).

[4] Carol Springer Sargent & Andrea A. Curcio, Empirical Evidence That Formative Assessments Improve Final Exams, 61 J. Legal Educ. 379, 405 (2012).

[5] The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006); see also Sarah J. Adams-Schoen, Of Old Dogs and New Tricks—Can Law Schools Really Fix Students’ Fixed Mindsets?, 19 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst. 3, 48 (2014); Kaci Bishop, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, 70 Ark. L. Rev. 959, 1006 (2018); Eduardo Briceño & Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success Before the Bar Blog (September 12, 2017); Olympia Duhart, Growing Grit in the LRW Classroom: Practices that Promote Passion and Perseverance (2019) (on file with the author).

[6] See Roger C. Cramton, The Current State of the Law Curriculum, 32 J. Legal Educ. 321, 335 (1982) (arguing that “[f]irst-year grades control the distribution of goodies: honors, law review, job placement, and, because of the importance placed on these matters by the law school culture, even the student’s sense of personal worth.”)

[7] Amy Farley et al., Law Student Success and Supports: Examining Bar Passage and Factors That Contribute to Student Performance (2018) (on file with the author).

[8] Catherine Martin Christopher’s recent article, Normalizing Struggle, Ark. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2019) provides many possibilities for precisely these different sorts of responses and actions.

New York Proposes “Experiential Learning Requirements” as Condition of Licensure: CLEA and NYS Bar Committee Respond

Readers of this blog and followers of the NCBE’s expansion remember  that this past Spring New York became the 16th state  to  adopt the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), changing  its longstanding bar admission requirements.  Many voices opposed adoption including the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) (see Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar (CLEAB) report 10-29-2014  and vote of House of Delegates), the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) and the Society for American Law Teachers (SALT).  Despite these and other  opposition voices, the proposal was adopted with the new changes going into effect for the July 2016 bar examination.

During discussion of the adoption of the UBE, the Court was encouraged  to include clinical or experiential  requirements for licensing so that lawyers admitted to the New York Bar would be ahead of the curve — a position I firmly support.   On the opposite coast, California had been engaged in a multi-year process examining licensure and profession readiness which resulted in a proposal requiring 15 credits of experiential learning before admission.  In response to the movement to incorporate experiential learning in bar admission,  the New York State Court of Appeals formed a Task Force on Experiential Learning and Admission to the Bar.  Just last month, that Taskforce requested comments on its proposal that

New York adopt a new mechanism for ensuring that all applicants for admission to the bar possess the requisite skills and are familiar with the professional values for effective, ethical and responsible practice. In light of New York’s diverse applicant pool, and in an effort to accommodate the varying educational backgrounds of applicants, the Task Force suggests five separate paths by which applicants for admission can demonstrate that they have satisfied the skills competency requirement.

The New York Law Journal examined the proposal in an article found here.   In addition, the Honorable Judge Jenny Rivera, chair of the Taskforce attended a meeting of NYSBA’s Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar (CLEAB) to explain the proposal and answer questions.

It is heartening that the Court is concerned about and wants to  require the development of essential lawyering skills and professional values acquisition. However, without more, Pathway 1 of the current proposal will not actually ensure  that applicants to the bar experience the kind of skill development and value formation that the Taskforce desires.  Pathway 1, referencing new ABA standards,  requires schools to confirm that they have published  their “plan for incorporating into their curriculum the skills and professional values that,  in the school’s judgment,  are required for its graduates’ basic competence and ethical participation in the legal profession.” It also requires law schools to certify  that law graduate applicants for admission “have sufficient competency in those skills and sufficient familiarity with those values” which are publicly available on the law school’s website.  Although Judge Rivera believes that the certification process described in Pathway 1 can have some real bite, as pointed out in comments submitted by the Clinical Legal Education Association (11.9. 15 CLEA SUBMISSION ON EXPERIENTIAL REQUIREMENT ), Pathway 1 simply mirrors the experiential training requirements already mandated by the American Bar Association.     

New York’s  law school deans, not unexpectedly,  submitted comments supporting the “flexibility” of Pathway 1.  The  CLEAB report to the Experiential Taskforce expressed concern that without additional content to Pathway 1 “little will be accomplished” by the proposal.   And as one member of the NYS bar committee  argued, “what law school is going to admit that one of its graduates did not acquire the skills or  values promised on its website?”

In my opinion, the most important concern is whether applicants to the bar have ever represented or interacted with a client, or operated as a lawyer, in a live setting under guided, experienced supervision before admission.  In its comment to the Taskforce, CLEA urges that a “three- credit clinical training requirement” be added for all J. D. applicants to the New York Bar.  This makes sense.  Law school clinics and faculty-supervised externships are designed to create the very kind of skill development and value acquisition with which the Court is concerned.  And clinical faculty have developed the formative assessment tools to maximize skill and professional identity formation.

I am hopeful that, in its next iteration of the proposal, the Taskforce will heed CLEA and CLEAB’s comments and come back with recommendations that will ensure applicants for the bar are ready to engage in competent, ethical and professional representation of New York’s citizenry, corporations, and notforprofits.

 

 

 

 

Teaching Legal Reasoning More Efficiently?

Teaching the traditional analytical skills more efficiently and effectively could provide a much needed opening for broadening the range of skills taught to all law students. In the legal academy’s version of the “socratic method”, law teachers historically taught the analytical skills” implicitly”. They demonstrated legal reasoning by pushing students away from their raw intuitions of fairness and justice to articulate rules and exceptions, while attending carefully to the inevitable ambiguities of language.

Some law teachers suggest that the process of learning to “think like a lawyer” fundamentally requires time and practice and therefore cannot be significantly speeded up.

Yet the implicit approach has been repeatedly challenged by scholars seeking to teach legal reasoning more explicitly, by naming and explaining how it works.*  (An obsession with the goal of teaching legal reasoning more efficiently was a major thread in two phases of my own legal career when I taught first year civil procedure. I struggled both to teach skills more explicitly and to provide students with opportunities to practice them.)

A recent contribution to this quest by my colleague Jane Winn grows out of her experiment teaching common law legal reasoning to undergraduates. Students were randomly assigned to use either a well-regarded study aid, or Winn’s own materials. The materials were also leavened by her own and colleagues’ experiences teaching foreign LL.M. and J.D. students coming from legal systems growing out of the European continental legal tradition.

Winn’s effort, aimed at law students, is notable in three respects. First, at twenty-nine pages it fills an intermediate-length niche: longer than a typical class “handout’, but shorter than the various book length alternatives. Second, it covers case briefing, outlining and exam questions, demonstrating how the three are related. Third, it grew out of an attempt to test her teaching method empirically using random assignment to a control group. Both law students and legal educators should find it a useful contribution.

The 2015 ABA accreditation standards may provide a laboratory in which to test efforts such as Winn’s. Standard 302 now requires law schools to adopt learning outcomes that, under subsection (b), must include legal analysis and reading; Standard 314 requires law schools to provide students with both formative assessment (feedback) and summative assessments (final “grades”); under Standard 315 law schools must engage in “ongoing evaluation of the program of education, learning outcomes, and assessment methods”. At its best this combination of more intentionally articulated outcomes, feedback to students, and program evaluation could prompt law schools to evaluate the potential for greater efficiency and effectiveness in teaching legal reasoning. I remain hopeful that enough schools will approach this task rigorously and in good faith that at least some progress can be made.

*Winn’s illustrious predecessors include:

  • Leading Legal Realist Karl Llewelyn, whose The Bramble Bush: Classic Lectures on Law and Law School have been assigned to generations of law students;
  • University of Chicago Professor and President and U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi, author of An Introduction to Legal Reasoning, originally published in the University of Chicago Law Review and then in book form;
  • Critical Theorist and Harvard Professor Duncan Kennedy, who took the decidedly un-Harvard step of visiting at New England School of Law in his attempt to reach beyond elite students and sharpen his skill at teaching students about the “gaps, conflicts and ambiguities” that underlie the development of the common law. He shared his insights widely with former students moving into teaching careers. produced a short volume
  • My former colleagues Pierre Schlag and David Skover, who produced a short volume early in their careers that catalogued the Tactics of Legal Reasoning (1985).
  • Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul, Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams (1999)
  • Leading clinical teachers Albert J. Moore and David Binder, Demystifying The First Year of Law School: A Guide to the 1L Experience (2009)

In recent decades much of the heavy lifting in legal reasoning has devolved upon teachers of legal analysis, research and writing. Among the results is a burgeoning literature proposing variations on the syllogistic Issue-Rule-Analysis (or Application)-Conclusion approach to analyzing and writing about legal problems, as well as a variety of textbooks.

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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.

Using Portfolios for Assessment

A few years ago I started to use student portfolios as part of the end-of-semester evaluation of my students. I have found that portfolios can be an excellent vehicle both for the student’s own self-reflection and for providing summative feedback.

Here is how I use them. At the end of the semester, I ask each student to prepare a portfolio of the written work the student did over the course of the semester. In doing so, each student is asked to read the first and final version of the principal documents that the student drafted during the semester (in the context of my cases, these include the client’s affidavit, any witness affidavits and a brief).

I also ask them to bring the drafts and final versions to the meeting. During the meeting, each student is expected to have reflected on his/her writing, considered how his/her writing progressed over the semester, and point out 2-3 improvements that he or she made. They are also expected to use the drafts to illustrate the progress.

My students find that the act of assembling the portfolio and rereading their own written work serves as a reminder of how far the student has come in crafting a legal theory or developing a factual account of the relevant events or even about some of the obstacles that he or she encountered along the way and how he or she managed to overcome them. I like this method of assessment because it is mainly about self-reflection. Each student in learning from his or her own work. The portfolio is simply a vehicle to make that learning tangible. It is a wonderfully, tangible way to show someone how much he or she has improved over the course of a semester.

I was recently speaking with Larry Farmer from Brigham Young University School of Law. He mentioned that he uses portfolios too. But in his case, they are videos. At the beginning of his course on Interviewing, before any class has been conducted, he asks each student to conduct a mock interview, which is videotaped. The students then spend the semester learning about, practicing, and refining their interviewing techniques.

Then, at the end of the semester, they are asked to review that first interview and to reflect upon their own improvement over the semester. Like the written portfolio that I use, this one also uses a student’s own work to demonstrate learning and progress. I plan to try it next semester.

Are there other ideas out there? Do you use portfolios? If so, how? How can I improve my process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Starting with WHY — Building Curriculum for Clinic-wide Orientation

My clinical colleagues and I are planning to convert an Orientation that we currently jointly teach into a 2-credit Clinic Orientation module. The Orientation typically includes a mixture of joint classes and smaller individual clinic-focused sessions.

Since we are developing this new course from scratch, it provides an opportunity to think deliberatively about how we design the course and to clarify our objectives and learning outcomes. In light of the changes in ABA accreditation standards, including the need to define learning outcomes and to assess according to our stated objectives, I thought it could be helpful to document the process we are taking as we develop the course.

My faculty colleagues and I met for the first time this week to start brainstorming for development of this new Clinic Orientation course. We started by brainstorming about WHY we want to develop the course. (I was inspired to Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Here is his inspiring TED talk on that topic).

Here is what we came up with as to WHY we want to develop a new jointly-taught, credit-bearing, Orientation module:

  1. Students need to be able to do certain activities early in the semester/hit the ground running:
  • Interviewing
  • Office procedures
  • Reflection/self-critique
  • Professional responsibility 101 (when working with clients)
  • Research
  • Fact investigation (including reading/maintaining files)
  • Working with interpreters
  • Persuasion
  • Attention to cultural difference/ competency/empathy
  1. Explain the WHY of our pedagogy (explain clinical pedagogy to students)
  • Active and engaged learning
  • Direct responsibility – WHY? Autonomy, mastery, purpose
  • Collaboration – across the board, with team, fellow clinic students, students in other clinics, support staff, faculty
  • Acting for Lawyers
  1. Reinforce “one firm” culture – clinical courses are different, collegial, work together, spaces where you can learn while having fun!
  1. Service Mission of Clinics
  1. Set our expectations for students
  1. Efficiency of teaching resources

As we developed this list, our goal was to brainstorm and include as wide a scope of objectives as possible. We decided to leave for another set of meetings the tasks of thinking about how to achieve these goals and what the classes designed to achieve them would look like. Keeping the conversation on task was a challenge; the temptation was to move onto thinking about how or what. We found it easiest when we designated a person to draw us back to the WHY task when the conversation started to branch off into thinking about HOW or WHAT.

Our next step is drawn from the IDEO Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit. IDEO is a design firm. It looks at systems from a design perspective. I am excited to start applying their theories and practices to legal education. I’ll keep you posted as that project develops.

Call for Talks – Igniting Law Teaching 2015

LAW PROFESSORS: Are you doing innovative things in the classroom? I would love to showcase your ideas at Igniting Law Teaching, a TEDx-styled conference on law school innovations.

The Call for Talks for Igniting Law Teaching 2015 is out, http://legaledweb.com/ilt-2015-call-for-talks. We’ll be reviewing proposals on a rolling basis, until January 15th.

The conference is March 19-20, 2015 (stay tuned for registration information) in Washington DC at American University Washington College of Law.

Last year’s conference brought together more than 40 law school academics in a TEDx-styled conference to share ideas on law school innovations. LegalED’s Teaching Pedagogy video collection includes many of the talks from last year’s conference (others are being produced and will be available soon).

The topics we addressed last year are: Flipping A Law School Course, Using the Classroom for Active Learning, Simulations, Feedback and Assessment, The Craft of Law Teaching, Applying Learning Theory to Legal Education, Beyond Traditional Law Subjects, and Teaching for the 21st Century.

We would love to hear more on these topics and also expand the horizons a bit. We designed the conference to create a forum for professors like you who are experimenting with cutting edge technologies and techniques in law teaching with the goal of spreading your ideas to the broader community. We see the conference as a way to showcase you as a leader in teaching innovation and to inspire innovation by others as well.

The Igniting Law Teaching conference is unlike other gatherings of law professors. Here, talks will be styled as TEDx Talks, with each speaker on stage alone, giving a well scripted and performed talk about an aspect of law school pedagogy. In the end, we will create a collection of short videos on law school-related pedagogy that will inspire innovation and experimentation by law professors around the country, and the world, to bring more active learning and practical skills training into the law school curriculum. The videos will be available for viewing by the larger academic community on LegalED, a website developed by a community of law professors interested in using online technologies to facilitate more active, problem-based learning in the classroom, in addition to more assessment and feedback.

This is a great opportunity to showcase your innovations to the legal academy. Consider joining us for Igniting Law Teaching 2015!

Cross-posted on the LegalTech Blog

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