Getting to Know Your Students

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

This post can be found on the “Law Teaching” section of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning website.

“I had some time today to post a blog post with a teaching idea on getting to know your students and starting to build a learning community in your classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, I sent my students a “Getting to Know You” form which contained the following questions:

  1. Tell me anything you would like me to know about you.
  2. How comfortable are you with writing and research? Please give me as much information as you can so I can gauge your experience.
  3. Why did you decide to go to law school?
  4. Why did you choose Gonzaga?
  5. What study methods work best for you?
  6. How do you learn best in the classroom?
  7. Think of your favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your favorite?
  8. Think of your least favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your least favorite?

These simple questions gave me insights into who is sitting in front of me.  I stapled a picture to each of their information sheets so that I could put a face to the information.  I am only one week into the semester but the information has already helped me.  For instance, when I am forming working groups for the day, I was able to pair students who are comfortable with writing and research with students who are less sure.  Also, knowing what study methods work for the students in front of me, helps me shape how I teach each group of students.  Because each group of students is so different, it is good to have information about those students rather than creating lesson plans without that information.”

Thank you to Sandra Simpson for allowing us to re-blog this!

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.

Teaching What You Don’t Know—Wonderful Book with a NSFW Title

Teaching What You Don’t Know by Dr. Therese Huston is the most helpful teaching book I’ve ever come across.  It combines theory, practical advice, and reassurance in short and helpful chapters.  It has something for everyone who teaches law school at any level.  While the title might be off-putting to those being taught (maybe keep it home), as she explains it, “Teaching what you don’t know is an increasingly common reality for a majority of academics.”  To paraphrase, the only people who don’t teach what they don’t know are adjuncts hired for single classes and very senior research professors who buy out their teaching time.  The rest of us, very much including law professors who she acknowledges throughout, are essentially teaching survey courses in which it would be impossible to claim expertise for every point and chapter.

All that said, this book is truly a life-saver for the times when we truly, really are teaching what we don’t know either because we have taken on someone else’s class in an emergency or more naturally, when starting out when we are asked to teach a class for the first time. “Knowing” an area of law and “knowing how” to teach it are two very different things.  It’s also helpful when you are new at an institution and the students don’t know you.

In a few very short chapters, Dr. Huston provides practical advice for every challenge—very much including how to prepare and how to present yourself and your state of expertise in the class.  The section on “Establishing Credibility” is a must for anyone teaching something or somewhere new.  It can also help navigate the very choppy waters of teaching evaluations—which as we are all now aware reflect first impressions and often dovetail societal biases.

It’s worth some quotes— “Your knowledge of the field may be the primary way that you earn credibility from your colleagues, but you have a different relationship with students and you establish credibility, respect, and trust in different ways.  Research shows that instructors tend to lose credibility with their students when they:

  • “Show up late for class
  • Lack familiarity with the text
  • Cannot explain difficult concepts
  • Rarely ask if students understand their explanations
  • Does not make any attempt to answer students’ questions
  • Fail to follow course policies”

And even more helpful “there are several things you can do to create the kind of credibility that matters to students”

  • Show up on time for class, preferably early, so you have a chance to connect with students and find out if they have any questions
  • Periodically ask students if they understand the material

That first suggestion is gold.  I urge it on everyone.  It can work like magic.  And make your class more welcoming and inclusive. Research suggests that students care that you care—and the simple act of arriving early (even if the classroom isn’t available, you can mingle) allows you to interact informally with students who might never rush the podium after class or certainly not make the pilgrimage to office hours.

It’s also great for those who want to adopt new teaching methods.  There are a lot of teaching books—all with value.  But sometimes reading about 150 techniques for active learning is overwhelming.  Dr. Huston’s advice is highly curated, clearly explained, and very doable. I’ve given this book away several times since discovering it in the education section of a London bookstore and can’t count how many times I’ve read it and recommended it to others.  I don’t know why it isn’t better known.  Despite its title and its value to beginners and those who find themselves teaching something truly new, what the book really provides is sound, research based advice of value to everyone interested in teaching excellence-—even when teaching things you really know quite well. 

Jennifer S. Bard,J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.,Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law

A Few Practical Classroom Resources For The Weeks Ahead: Accessibility, Clarity, And Inclusivity

By this point in August, all faculty, no matter how long you’ve teaching, come to the realization that your class is probably as ready as it is ever going to be.  For those of us particularly interested in teaching law students, it’s also the time to get realistic about the extent to which we can incorporate all the best practices that we know should be in our classes to provide the best possible experiences for our students.  So, what are some practical things you can do right now?  This helpful information from WVU for faculty teaching for the first time can be a helpful checklist.

These are a few high yield resources that I find particularly helpful for turning these intentions into action.

  1. Accessibility

One of the most basic issues we all face is whether the material we provide our students is accessible to them.  Fortunately, there are excellent resources to help use principles of universal design—and not only is it a good idea to follow these principles, it’s actually the law. 

For that reason, it’s likely that your own university already has materials but here are some examples to get you started.  An overview from Cornell,  WVU advice specific to PowerPoints, a comprehensive resource from Colorado and some more pointers about PowerPoint from Blackboard.    Often forgotten is the accessibility of video material—here’s some good advice.

Finally, here is a barebones checklist for documents from the U.S. Govt that could be helpful as a last step before releasing a more substantial document to the class.

  • Clarity of Content

We all want to be clear—and it turns out there are some best practices for doing that.  Here’s one to get started with. (more later)

  • Inclusivity—a few thoughts on names

We all want our classrooms to be a welcoming learning environment for all of our students.  A first step to doing that is just to remember that we all see the world through our own experiences and it’s likely that other people will see it differently.  And luckily there are experts both within the field of legal education, law, and more generally higher education who can help us achieve that goal.   My first advice is to seek out experts starting on your own campus.  Beyond that—are a few resources and a warm invitation to include more in the comments.   

The American Association of Colleges and Universities, a compendium of resources specific to GLBTQ inclusivity, and some information from the ABA

Much is written regarding best practices in calling students by whatever name they choose—and maybe more on how to make that happen later.  

But here’s something less discussed– the names we use for the many hypotheticals we end up writing.   While it seems fun at the beginning to write the “stories” on which subsequent legal analysis is based, it turns out that naming our characters can be something of a minefield.   It’s never a good idea to use the names of the student themselves or people they know—for one thing it can be distracting at best and depending on the hypothetical, perhaps even distressing. 

Beyond that, Names are very powerful, and by choosing to name our plaintiffs, defendants, judges, and witnesses, we are sending messages about how we see the world and our students’ place in it.  At this point, we are all conscious of avoiding offense by not making all the crime and accident victims women and all the judges men, let alone engage in racial, ethnic, sexist, abelist, sanist (please avoid the word “crazy” as hard as that is), homophobic or regional stereotyping [even when it’s in the context of ribbing sports rivals].

But there’s a next step beyond avoiding offense—and that’s truly inviting the larger world into our classroom by drawing names from a variety of cultures and regions.  Where do we find these names?  Baby naming sites! Here are two of my favorites baby name wizard and nameberry.   You probably have your own to add in the comments.

Both of these sites have lists of contemporary popular names in different regions.  At bare minimum, it opens up your fund of knowledge and allows for variety.   But even better, it can help your classroom better reflect the diversity of our country. 

To make it onto a top ten list, these are names that have probably been circulating for a while. Students may well have a cousin or a nephew with one of these names.

 And as a side benefit for pure learning theory, having access to so many names avoid the inherent confusion of a hypo involve Paul, Peter, and Polly.

They can also help you avoid falling into gender traps—here are 150 gender neutral English language names.   Caution.  After doing this, it is essential to proof-read yourself so that you have not fallen into the trap such as making all the defendants Swedish and all the crime victims Norwegian.  Caution 2: If you use these resources enough you may get a lot of diaper ads.

Recap—this post has a deliberately spare list of resources to help make your classroom more accessible and inclusive.

Have a great first week of class–

Jennifer S. Bard, J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law

After All These Years: Another Bar Exam Over, Another Entering Class, but Still a Disconnect between the Licensing Exam and What We Need Lawyers to Be and Do

I was never a Journey fan but I truly am astonished that after all these years of preparing lawyers for practice, and after two years of an unprecedented undermining of  the rule of law in our nation, law schools still live with a disconnect between the profession’s  licensing exam and what business, government and society needs lawyers to be and do, which includes protecting  the rule of law. 

The National Law Journal recently discussed two new major studies which will analyze whether the current exam is the best measure of new lawyer competence.  The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) is in the midst of a three year study  to “ensure that the bar examination continues to test the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for competent entry-level legal practice in the 21st century.”  (Hmm, continues? that’s a bit biased) and has already held 30 listening sessions.  

The second study, “Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence” is an initiative of  the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in partnership with Ohio State Law Professor Deborah Merritt, and aspires to develop a “fair, evidence-based definition of minimum competence” to improve the current licensing process.  Funded by Access-Lex, the researchers:

will be holding 60 focus groups in 12 locations around the country. While these focus group participants will primarily be new lawyers, we will also hold a number of specialized groups with supervisors. Additional specialized groups will include only women and only people of color, as well as groups in rural areas; traditional job analyses can mask the views of these lawyers, yet their perspectives are essential to create a more fully representative view of minimum competence and how to test for it effectively. Through these focus groups, we will be able to capture key information from a diversity of perspectives and provide concrete data on the definition of minimum competence that the profession can use to improve the bar exam and how lawyers are licensed.

 

Readers may remember that IAALS has provided helpful research in the past through its Foundations for Practice  research, which identified the  competencies over 24,000 legal employers value in new hires (most of which go untested by the current licensing process) as well as the evaluation of the graduates of the Daniel Websters Honors alternative to the bar exam in “Ahead of the Curve:  turning Law Students into Lawyers

I suppose I should be delighted that more studies are being launched. They are addressing the exact issues so many of us have raised for decades. However, my reaction is uncharacteristically pessimistic.  (Readers here who have tolerated my enthusiastic use of exclamation points and emphasis will agree it is uncharacteristic).  Perhaps it is the August humidity. Perhaps, it is the sorrow surrounding our nation after a week of grief from senseless gun violence But more likely, it is the fact that I am feeling frustrated that we have already studied this to death! For example, working with state bar associations The Foundations for Practice Project already studied new lawyer competencies with 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states participating and found

… the foundations that entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession.

In a first-of-its-kind survey, we asked, “What makes a new lawyer successful?” More than 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states answered.

What we learned is that new lawyers need more than IQ and EQ to be successful. They also need CQ: Character Quotient. In fact, 76% of characteristics (thinks like integrity, work ethic, common sense, and resilience) were identified by a majority of respondents as necessary right out of law school.

Beyond character, new lawyers are successful when they come to the job with a broad blend of legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics that comprise what we call the “whole lawyer.”

So why is the NCBE, who clearly has a stake in the outcome, refusing to respond to the outcome of that 3 year old study but instead promising only to do its own study. JEESH! We tweak here and there, we add more pro bono or experiential requirements, but no one truly influential will admit that our insistence on anchoring the gateway to the profession to a timed, written exam instead of clinical excellence is the problem.

Starting as early as 2008, this blog has discussed the problems with the bar exam and its role as an unhelpful, anxiety producing, discriminatory, skewed, and unnecessarily speeded, gate-keeping device.  For a sporadic history of posts between then and now, in fairly chronological order, click on the links below.

Did You Know That “Bar Courses” Don’t Matter? 

New Article: No Excuses Left for Failing to Reform Legal Education

Working with State Bar Associations on Best Practices

Bar Passage and Best Practices for Legal Education

One BAR to rule them all?

The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program

NYSBA Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession Report

New Requirements for Bar Exam Stress Clinical Education

Existential Crisis and Bar Exams: what is really cruelest?

The Bar Exam Inhibits Curricular Reform

NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION VIGOROUSLY OPPOSES PROPOSAL TO BRING UBE TO NY THIS JULY

Preparing Students for the Multistate Bar Exam

Musings on the Bar Exam and Legal Education’s Attitude toward it

Bar Exam Musings, Part II: Skillfully Changing the Bar Exam Narrative

Experts in the Legal Field Question the Bar Exam…

What’s going on in California? “TFARR- recommended” 15 credits of competency training

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

Examining the Bar

Keeping an experiential identity in bar passage reform

Whither Clinical Courses and Bar Passage – by Prof. Robert Kuehn

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

Professor Merritt’s Blog post on attorney discipline and bar exam WORTH A READ!

Studying Better Ways to Test Bar Applicants for Minimum Competence: Another Reason to Care about the California Bar Exam (Besides the Cut Score Debate)

Scholarship on Bar Exam Alternatives Needed

ABA Commission on Future of the Profession & ABA Vote on Bar Passage Proposal

Drafting Exams With Test-Taking Speed in MindConcrete Suggestions for Bar Exam Reform

We have to talk about the bar exam

What can Law Schools Learn about Bar Passage from Medical Schools’ Approach to Studying Students Who Struggle with Licensing Exams?

More Resources Re Teaching, Learning, and Bar Passage

A Fresh Look at the Uniform Bar Examination

Letters raise concerns about changes to the bar pass accreditation standard

Time to Remedy the Ills Afflicting ABA Council’s Standard 316 Proposal

Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?

Shifting the Focus of Legal Education Back to Just That: Education

How Practice Tests Reduce Anxiety in Bar Preparation and the Exam

Quite a listing, huh? I suspect that the IAALS and Merritt project will provide us with extraordinarily helpful insights into measuring minimum competence. But political clout is also needed. Will this BLOG simply be adding more posts for years to come on the unfairness and inappropriateness of a slightly modified, unnecessarily stressful, timed, bar exam — a continued hazing tradition?  I hope the NCBE and other institutional influencers proves me wrong.

A Fresh Look at the Uniform Bar Examination

The bar exam is back in the news. Later this month the ABA House of Delegates will consider a proposal to raise the bar-passage standard. The proposal would require that 75% of an accredited law school’s graduates pass a bar exam within two years of graduation.

In most states, bar exam means the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Uniform Bar Exam. The UBE has been adopted by 35 jurisdictions and is under consideration in others. It carries the endorsement of many ABA-related entities. They include the Conference of Chief Justices, the Law Student and Law Practice Divisions, the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, and the House of Delegates.

As a reminder of the features of the UBE, and an update on the pace of its adoption, I have accepted Mary Lynch’s gracious invitation to reblog my recent post “Will the Uniform Bar Exam Come to Michigan?” from the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School blog. (Spoiler alert: no time soon.)

Professor Merritt’s Blog post on attorney discipline and bar exam WORTH A READ!

Our blog has often posted about many issues related to licensing lawyers, experiential requirements for admission, the monopolizing power of the NCBE and the pros and cons of the UBE.  Thus, I recommend to our readers an excellent post by our blogger friend Professor Deborah Merritt over at Law School Cafe on bar exam scores and lawyer discipline. Professor Merritt analyzes an article by Pepperdine Professors Robert Anderson and Professor Derek Mueller entitled The High Cost of Lowering the Bar Exam.   Professors Anderson and Mueller opine that “lowering the bar examination passing score will likely increase the amount of malpractice, misconduct, and discipline among California lawyers.” Merritt objects to any causal inference noting,

Two key facts, however, weigh strongly against drawing that type of causal inference. First, as Anderson and Muller point out, “[t]here is virtually no discipline in the first 10 years of practice.” If the bar exam measured qualities related to attorney discipline, one would expect to see disciplinary cases emerge during those 10 years. Wouldn’t attorneys with marginal competency (as measured by the current bar exam) reveal their deficiencies during their early practice years?

Second, attorney discipline almost never rests on lack of knowledge about legal doctrine, poor reasoning skills, or bad writing–the skills currently measured by the bar exam. Levin and her colleagues reported that attorneys most often received discipline for failing to communicate with clients (20.0%), lack of diligence (17.93%), and failure to safeguard client property (11.26%). Only 4.14% of disciplinary sanctions related to “competence”–and even some of those cases may have reflected incompetence in areas that are not tested by the bar exam.

My favorite comment by Professor Merritt provides another example from which we should not infer causality (however tempting it might be to some of us who have been hurt by patriarchy),

We should not exclude individuals from a profession based on qualities that merely correlate with misconduct.

To underscore that point, consider this: The strongest predictor of attorney discipline is the y chromosome. Male attorneys are much more likely than female ones to be disciplined. If we want to use correlations to reduce instances of attorney discipline, it would be much more efficient to ban men from the profession, subject them to special character exams, or require them to achieve a higher bar exam score than women. Those actions, of course, would raise special issues of gender discrimination–but they illustrate the drawbacks of predicting malfeasance based on correlations.

These questions and assumed correlations are important ones. Many defend the decreasing bar passage statistics as appropriate market correction to prevent “undesirables” from entry into the profession — a consumer protection argument. However, as Professor Merritt points out, there is so much more to unpack here. For example, most misconduct challenges occur against solo practitioners or small firms. This raises overlapping socio-economic questions: which lawyers could be perceived as easiest to challenge, which lawyers have the best legal defense teams, and which kind of clients have the most reason to complain.

After teaching for over 28 years and observing which graduates pass the bar on the first try and which do not , I am skeptical of the Anderson-Mueller argument. I would love to see the NCBE and other scholars engage in a socio-economic analysis of bar passage and of disciplinary misconduct.

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