Some Thoughts on Teaching Techniques – Precise Writing Exercise

Bad teacher.

Bad teacher.

By way of disclaimer: I am by all measures a novice teacher, having started my career at DU Law in the summer of 2007.  In some ways, though, this may be an advantage in terms of learning about new teaching techniques, because in my inexperience I am very open to new ideas.

I would also say that it is in the nature of the small-group and individual work emphasized in Academic Achievement to always be on the hunt for teaching techniques that work for different types of students.

Hopefully these two premises lend me some ground to discuss teaching techniques despite my limited experience.

I should note that among my responsibilities at the law school is teaching a course aimed primarily at 2Ls called “Intermediate Legal Analysis.”  While it is a type of upper level writing course, the focus is on logic—understanding the logic of the law and then conveying that understanding in our own analyses.

In addition to the focus on logic and reasoning, one of the primary goals of the different sections of Intermediate Legal Analysis (multiple sections are offered by three different professors) is to revisit in greater depth one of the topics of the 1L curriculum.  In my class, the topic is Constitutional Law; our problem is whether the Equal Protection Clause requires states to recognize same-sex unions under the same legal framework as traditional, opposite-sex marriage, rather than under a separate “civil union” status.

Thus, while the focus of the class is narrow, it does require that I teach substantive doctrine in addition to skills.  The techniques presented below are primarily geared toward teaching substantive content, with skills acquisition being more of a secondary goal.

So with that lengthy caveat . . . .

I would like to offer a few approaches I have tried recently that seem to have worked out well from a few perspectives.  First, these techniques support active rather than passive learning.  Second, they encourage a deeper understanding of the material.  Third, they push students to develop critical standards for their own thought processes.

(1) Precise Writing

I rely quite a bit on Bryan Garners’sLegal Writing in Plain English” in my teaching.  In the section on crafting “deep issue” statements, Garner refers to a bygone practice in secondary education: teaching “précis writing” (which I will refer to as “precise writing,” since I don’t speak French).

According to Garner, the aim of precise writing drills was to have students reduce a lengthy passage down to its essence.  Thus, the gist of a lengthy paragraph could be expressed in a single sentence; a several-page essay in a paragraph, etc.

Were schools still teaching this skill, Garner argues, law students would be better equipped for law school in that they would be practiced in reducing complexity down to simplicity.  Stated another way, they would be able to conceptualize and articulate the relationship between the forest and the trees.

It occurred to me that precise writing could be used to encourage my students to both develop a more thorough understanding of the material they were reading and practice the analytical and writing skills associated with the exercise.  Accordingly, I searched the web for a good description of precise writing and assigned this exercise to my students in conjunction with their review of the decision in Loving v. Virginia:

Précis Writing – SOURCE:  http://www.csbsju.edu/writingcenters/handouts/precis_writing.htm

The goal of a précis is to summarize the findings in an article by identifying the main points and conclusions of the research along with reviewing the broader implications of the results obtained in the passage.

In order to accomplish this goal, it helps to follow a six step process:

Step 1: Read the passage.  Read it again.  Go on reading it until you understand it.  Put down on paper the main idea or ideas; make notes in the margins.

Step 2: Read the passage again to make sure you haven’t missed any important ideas.

Step 3: Referring to your notes if you need to, but not to the original, write a rough summary of the passage. By not looking at the original, you will avoid copying; you will be forced to put the ideas into your own words.

Step 4: Read your précis.  Ask yourself the following questions—

  • Does it say what the original says?
  • Does it sound like normal English?
  • Have you kept the connections of thought original?
  • Is the précis perfectly clear?
  • Can you improve or condense any words or phrases?

Step 5: Count the words.  If there are too many, write more concisely to shorten the précis. If there are too few, check to see whether you omitted some important ideas.

Step 6: Read the précis again. If nothing important has been omitted and nothing at all added, write your final, correct copy.  Proofread it.

Needless to say, class discussion improved dramatically as a result of requiring this type of preparation, and by all indications, the students felt they were gaining substantive knowledge and skills training at once.

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3 responses to “Some Thoughts on Teaching Techniques – Precise Writing Exercise

  1. I thought the precise writing was really tedious, but helpful. I wouldn’t follow the step-by-step technique unless instructed to again because I think it’s too constraining, but I think having gone through the steps provides some points that I will keep in mind while putting together summaries of future cases. I agree with Garner that teaching this technique earlier would be beneficial: my note taking upon entering law school consisted of rephrasing everything the case had to say (though I’m sure some of this was the fact that I wasn’t entirely sure what was important and what wasn’t important in cases.) Needless to say, my notes were not particularly helpful.

    • susannahpollvogt

      Thank for your comment Patty. “Tedious but helpful” is pretty close to a ringing endorsement in my book, given the goals of the class. I think your comment also points to the ways in which law school expects students to have a certain set of uniform skills re: processing information in place upon entry, and that this may not be the case.

  2. i like this explanation as for a learner precise is always a helpful to explain his own comment on the given paragraph concise manner. it explore learner vocublary too.

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