The greatest problem facing your law students has little to do with the subtleties of curriculum and rhetorical style in the classroom, and everything to do with the ongoing jobs-and-economic crisis in legal education. So the best thing that you can do to improve your teaching is to help your students obtain real jobs as lawyers, such as by making your teaching more vocational, and also by setting up networking contacts, informational interviews and lunches, and even job internships, externships, and interviews.To give you one concrete example, I just met a young woman from BYU Law here in Salt Lake City. I had judged this student two years each in an annual moot court competition for IP. Her individual score was the highest both years. She was executive editor of a law journal. She had a perfectly average and respectable 3.3 GPA (much higher than mine, despite the B+ I made in your class). Despite doing basically everything right, she was unemployed after graduation and the bar exam and came to me for help. Fortunately, I was able to get her an interview and some contract work with the small firm that I work for, which may potentially lead to full time work. Her story is one of countless similar stories.
In making these broad statements, I'm relying on the growing recognition of the crisis in legal education and employment, as explained by Paul Campos' great blog Inside the Law School Scam and Tamanaha's book Failing Law Schools.
This is basically a high-risk/high-reward one shot opportunity to prove what you know. For students like me, who learn through hands-on practice, I feel like this system failed me. (To give you one example, I studied for many dozens of hours for Property I, and made a C+, and the next semester I didn't buy the book and used a friend's outline two days before the exam, and made a B+.). It is as if law school teaching is designed to purposefully avoid maximizing their students' grades on the final exam, even though that is their only measure of performance and critically important to their future employment.
Here are some more specific recommendations:
1. For reasons that baffle me, law school only provides meaningful feedback through one final exam at the end of the year. What's worse is that this feedback is basically limited to a mysterious grade that, from the student's perspective, has no clear relationship to the student's performance. Once the grade is out, the class is over, and students and professors generally spend zero time going over the exam and what people did wrong (I tried this once, the professor gave me cursory explanations that I didn't understand, as if I was annoying him, and I never tried to do it again).
If you are concerned that grading homework is too burdensome, I would simply use scan-trons, which are easy to grade, or have the students grade their own quizzes as you work through them during class. As you develop a body of material over the years, preparing and grading quizzes will be easier. There will necessarily be an increase in burden on you, but I think it shouldn't be overstated, and could help students like me tremendously. You will have to ask yourself how much extraordinary work you want to do to be an extraordinary teacher.
As strange as it sounds on the surface, I would have welcomed more quizzes, homework, practice tests, and example problems. As far as I remember, law professors never went through practice problems with their students, even though that would help them tremendously on the exam. As someone with an engineering background, this was very strange and confusing to me. If students are concerned about doing more "work," you can give them the option to do either the traditional final-only track, or a homework-quiz-and-final track.
3. Most students and 1Ls enter law school without a full appreciation of the difficulties of getting a real lawyer job and paying off student debt. This is changing fast - law school admissions are down about 25% over the last two years, which is going to put pressure on law professors (the professor-student ratio even at [my law school]) blew my mind) - but students still don't really appreciate what they are getting into. They generally don't appreciate, for example, that A. employment statistics are absolutely meaningless, because they are based on self-selected samples, and underemployed or unemployed students are drastically less likely to report their status at all. Students also generally don't appreciate that B. reported average indebtedness fails to include accrued interest. If you share my (and others') concerns about these issues, I think it would be appropriate to spend part of the first class, or so, discussing these and similar realities in the legal-education-and-job market.
2. Students generally go to law school to get a job. Law professors, in contrast, are quite academic. Law school felt incredibly divorced from the real world practice of law - which is why people say that law school won't teach you how to practice law, and why the bar exam is an additional requirement to law practice that is very different from law school. I would generally try to move your class into a more vocational style to address the real interests and goals of your students.
4. One thing I enjoyed about my Torts class was that our professor made us read the book "Damages," which I thought was fascinating. Every character in that book seemed like a flawed hero in some quasi-Shakespearean tragedy. And it felt like a realistic perspective on what tort law is really like. You could give students a realistic perspective by bringing in real torts/trademark plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, etc. and have them speak briefly (or lengthily) about the reality of legal practice. These guest speakers would also help you establish networking connections and internship/lunch/externship/
employment opportunities for your students, which many of them desperately need.
5. Basically every single class in law school is graded on a curve. I don't know if the law school requires this, but it makes no sense to me. It basically ensures that, if enough people do horribly, many will still pass. Vice versa: if enough people do well, many will still get a C. Notably, if students have scholarships that require a certain GPA level, the curve can literally force some students to lose their scholarships, even if their performance is adequate on a objective/curveless measure. There are reports that some law schools give out so many GPA-contingent scholarships that it is mathematically impossible for every receiving student to keep their scholarship, simply because of the curve (if you're curious, you could investigate this at [your law school]). So, if at all possible, I would try to grade exams (homework, quizzes, practice tests) without a curve. Decide what is an A, B, or C level, and assign grades based on objective performance.
Note, also, that the curve creates the illusion that professors cannot fail to serve their students. The professor can do an absolutely amazing job, and turn every student into the next Scalia (or Stevens). The professor can be absolutely horrible, and teach every student nothing. But, in both cases, the grade distribution looks exactly the same. The professor has zero feedback on his/her performance. Eliminating the curve would remove this illusion. A professor who fails to serve her students (not that you ever did) would be unable to hide that fact, if there was no curve, because every student would fail.
6. Most everyone will admit, I think, that outside the highest (and lowest) range of law school performance, there is a large factor of randomness that separates B+, B, B-, and C+ students, etc. One Georgetown professor famously admitted this in an online video (which I can't seem to find on Youtube now). By eliminating the curve (see 5 above), you would help overcome this sense of randomness. Also, by having practice problems, homework, quizzes, etc., you could repeatedly show students how certain answers are objectively the right answer to questions. This would also undercut the sense of randomness. Multiple choice questions tend to be/feel more objectively fair than essay questions (although it can still be surprisingly difficult to create good multiple choice questions, I know).
7. As a last general point, I am not an expert on education, either academic or vocational, nor am I an expert on learning. There is an absolutely gigantic literature on how students, esp. grade school or high school students, really learn. Philanthropists like Bill Gates have funded many millions of dollars into this research, to distinguish between good teachers and bad teachers, what methods work and what methods fail. You can watch Bill Gates' TED talk to get a sense of this science, and then find related books on Amazon. As far as I know, the typical law professors has zero exposure to this scientific literature. The typical law professor just did really well at a good law school, which is very different than doing really well in an Education Ph.d program. If I was a law professor genuinely interested in my students learning, and doing well in an objective sense (not just on a curve), then I would not only expose myself to this literature, but I would master it, and apply the techniques that distinguish the best teachers from the mediocre teachers.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
They write letters
A lawyer received an email recently from a former professor, asking for advice on how she could improve her teaching. Here is the lawyer's response, reprinted with permission (a few inessential details have been altered to protect identities):