Why Law Schools Need to Teach Critical Thinking

by Scott Fruehwald

Law schools have never systematically taught critical thinking.  I do not mean that law schools do not help develop critical thinking.  However, this is not done on a systematic basis.  There is no method or approach for teaching critical thinking in law schools.

For example, taking a class in negotiation will help students develop critical thinking, but not systematically.  This is like learning grammar just by speaking a language.  While this gets the student some of the way, to be systematically trained in a language, a student must explicitly study grammar.  Similarly, the Socratic method does help develop some critical thinking processes, but it mainly teaches students how to extract and understand doctrine.

I have just completed a book that shows law professors how to understand and teach critical thinking: How to Teach Lawyers, Judges, and Law Students Critical Thinking: Millions Saw the Apple Fall, but Newton asked Why.

Critical thinking is “[t]he intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”  (here)  “It is . . . automatically questioning if the information presented is factual, reliable, evidence‑based, and unbiased.” (here)  Critical thinking is a set of processes, including metacognition, conceptualizing, synthesizing (constructing), asking questions, organizing, developing and evaluating alternatives, considering unintended results, planning, self-monitoring, reflection, spotting assumptions, evaluating inferences, exercising epistemic vigilance, supporting arguments with evidence, evaluation, skepticism, and self-direction.

Here are several things that critical thinking can do:

1.  Critical thinking helps overcome superficial thinking.  It helps you see when you are relying on unsupported assumptions or opinions.

2.  Critical thinking helps overcome thinking based solely on intuition.

3.  Critical thinking produces rigorous and disciplined thinking.

4.  Critical thinking helps individuals create questions.

5.  Critical thinking helps individuals know when they need more information.

6.  Critical thinking helps avoid unintended consequences.

7.  Critical thinking supports problem-solving.  It helps make sure you don’t skip a step in the problem-solving process.

8.  Critical thinking helps overcome biased thinking.

9.  Critical thinking helps avoid mistakes by providing a method to evaluate (double-check) one’s work.

10.  Critical thinking helps an individual critique the work of others.

11.  Critical thinking promotes deep thinking.

12.  Critical thinking helps an individual see all sides of an argument.

13.  Critical thinking helps individuals solve difficult problems.

14.  Critical thinking helps individuals support their arguments.

15.  Critical thinking helps individuals recognize how a problem is framed and overcome the framing effect.

16.  Critical thinking helps thinkers recognize when selfish motives lie behind an argument.  It helps thinkers recognize manipulation.

17.  Critical thinking teaches students how to construct the law.

My book introduces critical thinking, shows how to teach it to lawyers, judges, and law students, and demonstrates how to use critical thinking to improve the Socratic method.  It also shows law professors how to improve their teaching through critical thinking.  Finally, it includes chapters on teaching legal writing and judges.  Since critical thinking development requires practice, it includes many examples and exercises.

Universal Design in the Law School Classroom—a Few Thoughts

One of the many things that most of us teaching in universities, very much including law schools, lack by way of training is any overview of how living with a disability affects learning, let alone what interventions might make a difference.

At best, some of us have second hand knowledge through the experience of friends and relatives (My Mom was a Speech Pathologist) who have that training or perhaps their children who are recipients of such instruction in grade school.   So no matter how willingly we provide the “accommodations” ordered by often overwhelmed university offices tasked with meeting the institution’s legal obligations, we do so without an underlying understanding of what those accommodations are supposed to achieve.  Or how they are supposed to achieve them.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to get a degree in teaching and learning to acquire a basic proficiency in how to teach in ways that make it more accessible to all students and as well as to work with experts to address the specific needs of individual students.

The resources below reflect a variety of sources for information as well as some ideas about universal design that would make learning more accessible to everyone.  It’s also helpful, in general, to be open to the idea that learning and sensory perception is different for everyone—and it’s probably better to let students make their own decisions about things like where in the room they want to sit than to adhere to traditions like pre-assigned seating.

To preview an article I’m working on, it is also important for us to realize that many of the common tasks assigned to law students, especially in classes intended to teach the crucial skills of legal research and writing, depend on levels of Executive Function rather than intelligence or knowledge basis or even ability to “think like a lawyer.”

Here are some resources:

Preparing Accessible Documents and here

An article from Diversability Magazine, Navigating Learning Disabilities in Law School.  https://www.diverseabilitymagazine.com/2017/04/navigate-learning-disabilities-law-school/

This information from Vanderbilt covers a lot of ground, and offers very practical suggestions in the section titled, “Strategies for Creating Accessible Learning Environments”

A recent survey of medical students seeking input on what would enhance their learning was a plea for no more blue slides with yellow text.   These links are helpful to make sure that we are not making life harder for students when we design slides. https://www.yorksj.ac.uk/media/content-assets/student-services/documents/A-Guide-to-Dyslexia-(PowerPoint)-A5.pdf

Here are some practical suggestions that we might offer all our students dealing with pages of dense text in small print-https://www.ws.edu/student-services/disability/teaching/learning.shtm

Hearing impairment is very common and sometimes comes on so gradually that people don’t even notice. It’s fair to assume that everyone would benefit from things like not just the Prof. using a microphone but passing one around so that students can here each other.  Here are some things to keep in mind about students with hearing impairments-including a very helpful point that no assistive device “restores” hearing and that we should respect a student’s own assessment of where in the classroom works best for them.  https://www3.gallaudet.edu/Documents/Clerc/TIPSTOGO-2.pdf

Best Practice Contributors Highlighted in Best Articles of 2019

A big congratulations to our very own bloggers, Jennifer Bard and Benjamin Madison, for being featured on the TaxProf Blog!

Jennifer Bard’s article, “Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?” and Benjamin Madison’s article, “New Rubrics Available to Help Law Schools that Have Adopted Learning Outcomes Related to Professional Identity Formation” were both listed as TaxProf Blog’s “Best Legal Education Articles of 2019.”

Refuting the False Trope on Clinical Courses and Bar Passage

Robert Kuehn, Washington University School of Law

It has been observed that “the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion.” Until recently, this could be said about the possible influence of enrollment in clinical courses on a student’s likelihood of passing the bar examination. While there was a shortage of empirical studies on any possible relationship, there have been plenty of opinions on how taking those courses might be harmful, opinions often reflected in graduation restrictions on clinical courses and requirements for bar subject-matter courses.

But, there are now significantly more facts to refute those opinions. Two recent, large-scale studies have both found no relationship between the number of law clinic or externship courses or credits a law graduate took and her likelihood of passing the bar exam.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Education, academic records of ten years of law school graduates of Washington University in St. Louis and Wayne State University were reviewed for any relationship between the number of law clinic, externship, or, more generally, experiential courses or credits and bar passage. After first accounting for the possible influence of law school grades on bar passage (the most significant predictor of bar success), the study found no correlation at either school between law clinic or externship enrollment and bar passage — no relationship between participation in a law clinic or externship and passage, none between the number of clinical courses and passage, none between the number of clinical credits and passage, and no evidence that students graduating with lower GPAs were disproportionately enrolling in those courses as a way to avoid doctrinal courses (another not uncommon trope). This lack of any relationship was in spite of increased enrollment in experiential courses at both schools over the ten-year period and decreased enrollment in courses teaching material tested on the bar (referred to as bar subject-matter courses).

The article notes that nationwide data on experiential course enrollment and bar passage also belie any claim the two are related. That data indicate that as enrollment in experiential courses was increasing from 2006-2016, bar passage percentages were fairly steady and that the recent decline in passage coincided with decreased, not increased, enrollment in those courses.

A recent study commissioned by the California State Bar found a similar lack of relationship between law clinic and externship courses and bar exam performance. The study reviewed law school coursework and performance on three July exams for over 7,500 bar applicants from eleven California schools. It found no relationship between the number of academic credits from law clinic courses and exam performance, either across all schools or even when reviewing schools separately. Similarly, there was no relationship between the number of externship or internship credits and performance, again when examined across all schools or within schools. The broad range of entering credentials at the eleven schools, and lack of a relationship even within those schools, indicates that the results should be applicable to most law schools, including those with lower LSATs and undergraduate GPAs for entering students.

The study results from Washington University/Wayne State and the California State Bar are similar to smaller studies at Texas Tech and the University of Denver that also reported no statistically significant relationship between enrollment in a law clinic or externship course and bar passage.

The Washington University/Wayne State and California State Bar studies further revealed that opinions about the value of bar subject-matter courses should be moderated. There were small correlations at both schools between the number of bar subject courses and bar passage. But this result (explaining less than 5% of the variability in bar outcomes) was only for low performing students and additional courses showed no marginal benefit once students took the school’s average number of bar courses.

The California State Bar study focused on whether taking a specific course was related to performance on the bar exam topic taught in those courses. It found that neither attendance nor performance in courses covering any of the 13 bar-related topics was related to performance on the corresponding California bar exam or Multistate Bar Exam content covering that subject.

Studies at other schools also indicate that enrollment in bar subject-related courses do not support broad claims about the benefit of taking those courses.

It is time to put away the misinformed trope of participation in law clinic and externship courses harming a student’s chances of passing the bar exam and let the facts do the talking. Law schools should recognize and students should be told they can obtain valuable preparation for the practice of law by enrolling in clinical courses without affecting their likelihood of passing the bar exam.

Active Retrieval Practice: Known to Improve Learning but Underappreciated?

Exam time has arrived in law schools.  Students who want to excel on exams (and later, as attorneys) would do well to try out active retrieval practice.  To understand the value of retrieval practice, some brief discussion of well-established cognitive science is necessary.  Learning involves (1) taking knowledge into short-term working memory, and then (2) moving it from working memory to long-term memory by actively using the knowledge.[1]  In their excellent book, Teaching Law by Design, Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz, Professor Sophie Sparrow, and Professor Gerald Hess explain this process of storing learning in cognitive schema.[2]  They liken schemata to a “folder system[] provided for users of computer operating systems.”[3]  As they observe, however, storing knowledge “isn’t enough.  To analyze a problem, students must recall (“retrieve”) what they have learned and use that learning . . . .”[4] 

Research on cognition demonstrates that meaningful learning in any discipline requires the learner to perform some form of active retrieval exercises to be able to use the knowledge in analyzing and solving problems.   Active retrieval methods are ways in which the learner recalls knowledge and uses the recalled knowledge to solve problems or answer questions.[5]  Recalling for mere “knowledge checks,” sometimes called rote learning, is not effective.[6]   In the law school arena, a student can recite a memorized rule but not be able to apply it to fact patterns in a way that shows understanding.   Effective retrieval-based learning activities require the student to solve problems or to answer questions.  By doing so, the learner strengthens her understanding  of, and ability to recall, the knowledge.[7]  In law school, mid-term exams require students to recall information at least in mid-semester.  The problem there is that neuroscience shows a marked forgetting curve: if learning is not retrieved within a few days of its being stored, the knowledge is lost and must be relearned.[8]  Indeed, retrieving and using the knowledge are the critical parts of developing meaningful learning. 

               Spurred by the adoption of ABA Standard 314, my colleagues and I have been giving mid-term exams and using a variety of interim assessments designed to have students to recall information from previous classes. I regularly have a mid-term that includes multiple-choice, essays, or both.  The exams are graded and students receive a model answer. I discuss with students the answers to the assessments and common mistakes (e.g., failing to state rules accurately, insufficient application of facts in supporting one’s analysis).   The exam and follow-up discussions achieve the goal of providing the “meaningful feedback” that ABA Standard 314 seeks.   The mid-term is also summative. My experience is that many students do not take a practice, ungraded mid-term seriously. Having the exam count, but not so much as to prevent a student from recovering from a poor exam, helps to ensure that students prepare for and spend time on the mid-term.

               Another way that I have incorporated active recall practice is by using multiple-choice polling questions.  In the first class after we finish a course segment, we begin the class with multiple-choice questions that students answer by polling.    I ensure participation by recording the polling, by student, and including their responses (or lack thereof) as a class-participation part of the grade.  In answering the questions through polling, students must recall knowledge to analyze the question and reach a conclusion.   For example, after completing the study of removal jurisdiction and procedures, I use a series of multiple-choice polling questions that explore the many nuances of removal.   These sessions provide “meaningful feedback” to both students and to me.   If everyone misses a question, you can be sure I go back to discuss the area.  I also encourage anyone who missed a question in these polling sessions to meet with me after reviewing the topic addressed by the question.

               I urge students not to rely solely on the mid-term and the polling sessions as a means of ensuring they have learned material well.  Instead, I highly recommend preparing answers to essays under timed conditions.  At times I provide a model answer after they practice an essay. I also invite students to meet with me to go over their answers.   In these discussions, I almost always find some area in which a student has a mistaken understanding of a rule or concept.  If we did not uncover that misunderstanding, a student could repeatedly recall a flawed rule or approach.  Hence, I appreciate more than ever the wisdom of Standard 314’s emphasis on formative assessment.   After resolving any misunderstandings, I encourage a student to rewrite an answer.  That allows the student to revisit the topic and solidify her understanding.  Indeed, the act of writing itself helps students to embed the rules and concepts more firmly in their memory.[9] 

               What is true for law school is also true for the Bar Exam.   Last summer Sara Berman and I created a podcast for the ABA on practicing tests (essays, Multistate Performance Tests [MPTs], etc.) as some of the most effective ways to prepare for a state’s Bar Exam.[10]  Ideally, a student learns everything she needs to know in law school Bar review is just that–review.  More often, Bar applicants have a vague recollection of rules and concepts from their time in law school.  In other words, Bar applicants often find themselves relearning rules and concepts.  In so doing, they will learn more effectively by practicing an essay or MPT answer and by submitting these answers for grading to their Bar Preparation company and the faculty at their law school who help Bar applicants.  In doing these exercises, they benefit for at least two reasons.  First, it will identify areas in which the applicant’s knowledge of rules and concepts is so weak that she cannot answer a question.   Knowing that, the applicant can review that area and know that she needs to do so.  Second, exercises such as practice essay answers will require applicants to recall the rules they do know and apply them.  The more they do so, the more likely they are to remember them on the Bar. 

               Repeated, active retrieval practice is one of the best ways to learn to perform on exams or in law practice.  Yet, despite the data showing its effectiveness, such practices are not the norm in higher education.[11]  The practice is likely not the norm in law schools.   Standard 314 ought to help to some extent increase active retrieval before the end of the law school semester.  Yet, at present students are not spending their time as wisely as they could. Instead of preparing detailed outlines, and memorizing rules or flash cards, they would learn more from methods that require them to recall and apply legal rules and analysis.   Indeed, one might say this fact is one of the best kept secrets in law school. Perhaps it is time to let this secret out.


[1] Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie Sparrow & Gerald Hess, Teaching Law by Design 4­–7 (Carolina Academic Press 2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 5–6.

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] Jeffrey D. Karpicke, A Powerful Way to Improve Learning and Memory: Practicing Retrieval Enhances Long-Term, Meaningful Learning, American Psychological Association (2016), available at https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory (last checked Dec. 6, 2019).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Louis N. Schulze, Jr., Using Science to Build Better Learners: One School’s Successful Efforts to Raise its Bar Passage Rates in an Era of Decline, 68 J. Legal Educ. 230, 245 (Winter 2019).

[9] Bryan Goodwyn, The Magic of Writing Stuff Down, 75 Educational Leadership 78–79 (April 2019).

[10] Sara Berman and Ben Madison, Practice Makes Passing, Episode 6 of American Bar Associations Path to Law Student Well-Being Podcast series, available at  https://www.spreaker.com/show/path-to-law-student-well-being  (June 22, 2019).

[11] According to Dr. Karpicke, college students likewise use rote learning methods more than they use active retrieval exercises.  See Karpicke, supra note 5.

Guiding Students From Law School Into the World

It seems that one of the things we law professors can do to help our students develop their identities as professionals and their obligations to the greater society is to incorporate into the law school events that plug students into what’s going on in the “real world.“ I did just this in a small way this week by offering all the students the opportunity to attend and participate in a talk/discussion about the Supreme Court arguments that were heard last week in the DACA case.

The students were invited to attend a portion of my immigration clinic class. Food and pro bono credit hours helped, I’m sure, but the event brought a plentiful group of students I had not interacted with before, who were both knowledgeable about and interested in the issue of the day.  The event lasted only about 45 minutes, but that was long enough to produce a lively and I think informative conversation about oral arguments, professionalism, case theory, the role of policy, administrative law, and of course the specific legal issues raised by the case.

With so much of the law school endeavor focused on exam taking and other tasks that force students into a single-focused, competitive role, bringing them into a discussion about key issues at stake in our country in the moment could likely enhance their connections to their future and help them envision some individual goals they can aim for once out in that “real world.”

“Being Human To My Students And Letting Them Know I Care”

This is a wonderful blog post I found on the Institute for Law Learning and Teaching by Jane Korn, Professor of Law at Gonzaga University School of Law. As a current law student, I think that this practice should be implemented in all law schools for first year law students. I had a professor during 1L who did something similar. He would start the class every week with, “so how is 1L going?” and we could spend 10 minutes discussing general concerns about 1L and papers or exams we had coming up. Not only did it ease some of the anxiety, it also showed that the professor really cared about the students. It was like they were saying, “I’ve been there too and I’m here to support you.” Kudos to Professor Korn for setting aside some time in her class to do this!

“I have taught first year law students for a long time.  Please do not ask how long!  But years ago, I became worried about the mental health and stress levels of my first semester, first year students. I teach a four credit, one semester course in Civil Procedure during the first semester of law school.   On the last day of the week that I teach in Civ Pro, I take a few minutes out of class time and ask my students to tell me how they are doing.

The first time I do this, usually at the end of the first week of law school,  I tell my students that it is my custom, from time to time, to take time out from Civ Pro, and talk about anything they would like (with some limits).  In some years, it takes weeks for them to take me up on this offer.  Other years, they start right in.  They ask questions like the following:

  1. When should I start outlining?
  2. How much time should I spend studying every night?
  3. How important is getting involved in extracurricular activities?
  4. What if I don’t know what kind of law I want to practice?
  5. Do professors care about grammar and organization on a final exam? (I only answer what I expect and do not answer for other faculty)

I think that much of the time, they do not get a chance to ask a law professor these kinds of questions, and can usually only ask upper class students.  While we have faculty advisors, students may or may not feel comfortable asking them questions like the above.  They eventually do (and sometimes quickly) feel comfortable asking me a wide variety of questions.  They sometimes ask personal questions and, within reason, I answer them because it makes them feel more comfortable with me.  Questions on gossipy matters about other faculty are off limits. If for example, they complain about another professor,  I handle this question with a smile and say something like – you should ask that professor about this issue.

I set aside class time for several reasons. First, while I do worry about giving up valuable teaching time, lessening the stress of my students may make them more able to learn.  Second, students often feel like they are the only one with a particular concern during this first semester, and they often do not have the ability to know that others have the same concerns or questions.  In the first year, many of our students are not from this area and are far away from support systems, at least at first until they can make friends at law school.  The ability to know that other students have the same problems they do can lessen the feeling of isolation.  Using class time to answer questions to the entire group may help them with this sense of isolation and being the only one who doesn’t know something.  It also lets them see that their concerns are important and credible.

Every year my teaching evaluations reflect this process positively.  Students feel like I care (which I do).  However, the reason I do it is to increase their comfort during those first few exciting, confusing, and terrifying months of law school.”

 

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