“Talking to Teach” versus “Doing to Learn”

DU Law is doing something very exciting.  Namely, instead of just paying lip-service to all the hub-bub about reforming legal education, we are taking steps to put reform into practice.


Professor Roberto Corrada, who has been designated the Chair of  our Modern Learning Initiative, has organized a series of sessions in which the faculty will discuss specific teaching techniques designed to increase student engagement, enhance learning, and improve outcomes.

(For those outside of legal academia, it might seem like such sessions would be a routine component of faculty development, but the truth is that most law faculty have had no formal training in teaching techniques, and it is not something we necessarily tend to talk about without prompting.  DU is actively working on changing this culture.  Furthermore, when we start talking, you quickly learn that your colleagues are already doing a lot of innovative and exciting things in the classroom.)

The first of these sessions was led by Mark Caldwell of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA), who focused on principles of adult learning.

The gist of the presentation was that lecturing—the primary mode of law teaching—while deeply entrenched in the law school tradition, is perhaps one of the least effective modes of transferring knowledge.  Rather, students retain the most knowledge when they articulate concepts themselves and practice applying those concepts in novel situations (that is, when students “say” and “do”).

This concept is neatly illustrated in Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Learning“:

Reference: the Cone of Learning

From one perspective, the value of active learning may seem obvious, but law teaching bears several characteristics that make it—at least on a superficial level—hostile to promoting active learning.

Allow me to speculate as to the reasons for this.

First, lecture is our tradition.  The foundational model of law school education (namely Langdell’s interpretation of the socratic method) was designed for efficiency—that is, maximizing resources by having a single professor transfer knowledge to a large number of students through combination of lecture and demonstrative socratic dialogue.  (There is room for debate on whether socratic dialogue is a form of active learning—and even if it can be in theory, whether it is in practice.)

Second, the legal academy tends to cleave to tradition.  For one thing, the basic intellectual stance of the law is inherently conservative in its reliance on and deference to precedent as opposed to innovative thinking and practice.  It would be unsurprising if this inherently conservative disposition influenced our pedagogy.

In addition, because the law consists of highly specialized terms and concepts unfamiliar to the lay person, there is perhaps an exaggerated knowledge hierarchy between law students and their professors.  Thus, engaging in meaningful active learning exercises with law students, and especially 1Ls, may seem like a particularly daunting challenge.

Finally, I believe that another reason we adhere so closely to traditional models of law teaching is that, in the absence of formal training in a variety of teaching techniques, our only reference point as beginning teachers is what was done to us as 1Ls in law school.  We unconsciously replicate what was modeled for us.

Indeed, this seems supported my Elizabeth Mertz’s observation that, regardless of the institution or the race or gender of the professor, first year contracts classes tend to be taught in a strikingly similar way using similar techniques and communicating similar fundamental values.  This can be easily explained if replication is the primary model of teaching pedagogy in our field.

By simply initiating the conversation and presenting an array of techniques to promote active learning, the Modern Learning Initiative is moving the proverbial ball forward.  Here are a few of the techniques, some of which we discussed during the session:

– “Pair and share” is a classic for increasing and improving class participation.  Give students a question and have them discuss the question with one other classmate before coming back to group discussion.

– To engage more reserved students and also students for whom English is a second language, have students write individually on a question for several minutes and then engage in group discussion once they have had a moment to formulate their thoughts.

–  Simply have a student at the board to record the results of a brain-storming session.

– Have a student try to make a visual diagram of a concept for the class.

– Have students teach a portion of the class.

– Administer in-class exercises, that will be reviewed but not graded, that require students to actively apply what they have learned to a novel problem.

As one participant pointed out, it is critical to create a positive and open learning environment where students can take risks and make mistakes.  Mistakes are, after all, one of the best ways to learn.

The above are examples of some more limited ways that faculty can easily incorporate active learning into their classes.

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