Top 5 Tips for Teaching Law Online

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed legal education.  As law professors, we find ourselves in a new era of online teaching that is fraught with uncertainties and new challenges.  We face the task of redesigning our courses while continuing to teach effectively and struggle to figure out how to design an online law course that is both effective and engaging.

As a longtime proponent of online educational programs,  I surveyed the legal academic community to identify the five most common “pain points” experienced over the last several months.  The data informed a webinar I conducted last month for the AALS Section on Technology, Law and Legal Education (click here to watch it), which I recently developed into a 3-day Bootcamp on Designing Your Online Law Course.  In this post, I address each pain point in turn, with the aim to provide strategies and highlight some advantages of online education.

Making the Experience Like a Classroom

Colleagues ask how they can replicate the traditional classroom experience.  They want to maintain lively class discussions on Zoom, but find it difficult to engage students and encourage participation.  Many struggle with multitasking between controlling the class narrative, presenting their slides, and monitoring the chat function.  So, the first pain point is how to I replicate the classroom experience using online modalities?

The answer is simple: you can’t.  Online learning is different than traditional classroom teaching.  When teaching online, we need to adopt a new mindset.  In my view, the first step in adopting a new mindset is to appreciate that “teaching” and “learning” are two different verbs performed by two distinct groups of actors.  For years, I assumed that if I taught a topic, my students learned it.  Not, I realize the mistake in that way of thinking and have started to think about teaching and learning from my students’ perspectives.  By unbundling the teaching and learning processes, we can be more deliberate about how students learn best.  I think that is the first step in building an effective online course.

 Engaging Students

Being cognizant of the learning side of the process will also guide us in engaging students.  The second “pain point” articulated has to do with student engagement; “how to I engage my students online?” The solution is to shift to a student-centered design approach.  Student-centered design is a concept I borrowed from user-centered design, a design-thinking approach that has been successfully employed by start-ups and other new ventures.

User-centered design, or design thinking, teaches us to start by gaining a deep understanding and empathizing with our end users—in this case, our students.  What do we know about our students?  We know that they are learning at home; at home they likely face many distractions, have a shorter attention span, and might be dealing with familial obligations.  If we acknowledge these realities as we develop our syllabus and engage in course design, we know that we will want to chunk up the learning into smaller pieces to keep students engaged.

Student-centered design will also guide our course design by getting us to clearly articulate the learning goals for our courses and for each unit (class, week, section).  The guiding questions here are: what do we want our students to know, be able to do, and value when they finish the course/unit?

Next, plan the assignments and readings your students can complete on their own time (cases, statutes, regulations, articles, treatises), as well as the active learning activities (chunked videos, narrated slides, podcasts, exercises, role plays, discussion boards, reflections, breakout rooms, Socratic dialogue, etc).  Lastly, give students formative assessments such as quizzes, and provide ample feedback on discussion boards and written drafts/exercises.  This may entail more planning, grading, and monitoring than in-person classes.

Assessing Learning and Providing Feedback

The third “pain point” centers around gauging student learning.  For that, online education offers a lot of options to gather feedback about and assess student learning.   You can use online tools to assess if students are moving toward the learning goals.  Indeed, online learning makes it easy to insert periodic formative assessments—either graded or ungraded – throughout the course.  In law school we are used to summative assessments.  Summative assessments, while the cornerstone of gauging law school performance, do not give students feedback as they are in the process of learning.  Learning theory tells us that students learn best when they get immediate feedback.  It also keeps them engaged in the learning process.  Moreover, the results will show you how effective your own course is—allowing for better course design, iteration and corrections, as needed.  Formative assessments come in many forms, from multiple choice quizzes to demonstrate basic remembering and understanding, to problems that ask students to apply facts to the law or analyze case holdings.  When inserted into your learning management system, you can also provide an answer key and pre-written explanations, so that the students get feedback close in time to taking the assessment.

Maximizing Your Impact

Another question that I am asked a lot by law professors relates to using our time most efficiently.  Online education certainly requires a more steady upfront investment of time.  I think that to maximize our impact as professors, we should think about how to use space and time differently.  By that I mean, we should consider what aspects of our syllabi need to be done in person, and what parts can be performed by students on their own time or in small groups.  I think that as you start to consider this question and become more comfortable with the affordances made possible through online technologies, you will find that there are lots of asynchronous ways to engage students in learning.  For example, rather than leading an entire several-hour class online, consider asking students to work independently or in small groups on problems or projects and then reconvene and debrief.  On Zoom, you can drop in intermittently into break out rooms to check on student progress.  Rather than devoting the entire class period to lecturing, consider adding active learning exercises such as working through problems, role plays, or simply answering their questions.

Working with Technology

Finally, the pain points of many professors center around using new technologies.  That is totally understandable.  Utilizing current technology can be overwhelming, especially for supporting active learning in a completely synchronous context.  The key is to start slowly by learning a few tools at a time.  Try not to overwhelm yourself or your students with lots of new technologies at once.  Use existing resources from your campus, or collaborate with colleagues to share the burden by sharing resources or using existing resources, such as those found on LegalED, Quimbee, BarBri, and CALI.  As you shift your mindset to online learning, remember that it is okay to make mistakes.  Students appreciate that you are learning as you go—just like them.

I really enjoy teaching online and hope you will, too.  If you are experiencing pain points that I missed here, please share them in the comments below.  As always, I’d love your feedback.


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