« What is the Future of Empirical Legal Scholarship? | Main | Preview on Iowa Gay Marriage Decision »

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Law School Case Method & How to Assess the Teaching/Learning Process Throughout the Semester

My post yesterday noted that there is a dual feedback problem in law school:  The "one exam to rule them all" format means that both students and professors aren't able to assess how the teaching/learning process is proceeding throughout the semester.  Well, actually, there is the opportunity for such feedback, but it is often in the moment whilthe professor is teaching a concept to students through the Socratic method.  But after I have completed a class on, say, the search incident to a lawful arrest, how do I know whether students retained that materiawhen we have moved on to the next class and the discussion of the plain view doctrine?  I mentioned in my last post that I use an ungraded midterm, but I give that out in Week 7 or 8 of a class, and that lets misconceptions fester for a while if students misunderstood something in week 2 or 3.  And what about material from after the midterm?  Sure, there is a final review session to clarify that material, but it comes just before the final exam and after most students have made their outlines.

When I started teaching, in order to achieve immediate feedback, at the start of a given class, I would begin with a 5 minute review of the material from last class.  But I soon realized that this was merely me restating what I said the class before in a way that didn't engage students or provide them or me with actual feedback. Meanwhile, updated editions of casebooks do give students some relatively recent opinions (although often not as primary cases), but I also felt like I wasn't giving students enough of the living, breathing law as it is being decided in the trenches.

As a way of killing two birds with one stone, I decided to scrap the 5 minute refresher and replace it with what I call my "law school case method."  Now, at the start of class, I give students condensed (and sometimes slightly modified) portions of recent (and Illinois/7th Circuit) precedent dealing with the topic of the last class to see where we stand.  So, after the search incident to a lawful arrest class, we opened the next class by discussing the following 4 cases:

Hypo 1: State v. Campbell, 185 P.3d 266 (Idaho.App. 2008): Two officers were conducting a traffic stop when a white El Camino went past them. One of the officers recognized the vehicle as matching the description of a vehicle involved in a reported stalking incident earlier that day. The officers left to look for the El Camino and located it in a nearby parking lot. The officers approached Campbell and his passenger. The passenger told one officer that Campbell had driven the vehicle into the parking lot. The other officer “asked [Campbell] who drove the car here, and he said that he did.” Campbell also told the other officer that his driver's license was suspended, which information was confirmed by a dispatcher. Campbell was then arrested for misdemeanor driving without privileges. A search of the vehicle incident to arrest turned up drugs and other evidence. Campbell filed a motion to suppress the seized evidence.  Should his motion succeed?

Hypo 2: United States v. Varner, 481 F.3d 569 (8th Cir. 2007): Two officers approached Varner's home with an arrest warrant for failure to pay child support. At the door, Varner identified himself, and stepped outside. He was arrested and handcuffed. He asked if he could go inside the house to tell his girlfriend he was leaving. The officers agreed, following him inside.  Entering the living room, the officers saw a glass pipe used for methamphetamine and seized it.  Varner moves to suppress the pipe.  Should the motion succeed?

Hypo 3: United States v. Arnold, 388 F.3d 237 (7th Cir. 2004): Officer Ford arrested Arnold for driving his four-door Pontiac Bonneville with only a learner’s permit and without anyone else in the car.  Before towing the vehicle, Officer Ford searched it.  Beginning his search in the back seat, Ford observed that the car contained a middle armrest. From experience, the officer knew that the area behind the armrest opened directly into the trunk. Officer Ford pulled the armrest down and discovered a loaded handgun that was visible in the immediate space of the trunk. Arnold was later charged with carrying a handgun without a permit.  Arnold moves to suppress the handgun.  Should the motion succeed?

Hypo 4: Lewis v. Secretary, Department of Corrections, 2009 WL 151097 (M.D. Fla. 2009): Officers had a warrant to arrest Lewis for trafficking in hydrocodone.  From a distance, they observed Lewis park in a parking lot.  Over the next 30 minutes, they observed Lewis repeatedly approach somebody, go in and out of his car (but not turn the car on), and then approach somebody else.  After 30 minutes, they arrested Lewis, searched his car incident to that arrest, and discovered hydrocodone.  Lewis moves to suppress the hydrocodone.  Should the motion succeed?

These cases allowed me to make sure that students had retained information regarding several important aspects of the search incident to a lawful arrest doctrine: (1) when an arrest is lawful, (2) how officers can stay at the arrestee's elbow after a lawful arrest, (3) what constitutes the passenger compartment of an automobile, and (4) what makes someone a recent occupant?

I also take one of these introductory opinions (and sometimes add facts to it) and weave it through the rest of the class so as to tell a story to the class about the doctrine we are learning that day.  For instance, in the plain view class, after we discussed Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990), I explained that the officers in Varner also could have seized the pipe under the plain view exception.  But after we discussed Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987), I cautioned that the plain view exception would not have applied if the pipe were upside down and an officer had to flip it over to determine whether it was a crack pipe or a regular pipe used for smoking tobacco.

Of course, my "law school case method" still does not ensure that students will retain material a couple of classes down the road, and that is why I try to use cases that will test not only concepts that we just learned, but also concepts that we learne in earlier class.  To wit, to test the independent source and inevitable discovery doctrines, I used the following case last class:

Hypo 1: United States v. Pruneda, 518 F.3d 597 (8th Cir. 2008): After the police received information from a cooperating witness that was sufficient to establish probable cause to arrest for drug trafficking and justify a search warrant for Garcia-Delacruz’s house, Drug Task Force officers only obtained an arrest warrant.  After properly executing the warrant and arresting Garcia-Delacruz, an officer conducted a protective sweep of Garcia-Delacruz's basement to ensure that no other individuals were present. While conducting the protective sweep of the basement, the officer observed firearms and drug paraphernalia in plain view.  At the suppression hearing, One of the officers testified that his team, which executes high-risk arrests, is trained to do a protective sweep each time they do an entry.  Will the evidence be suppressed?

This case allowed me to test not only those two doctrines but also the protective sweep and knock-and-announce doctrines from earlier classes.  I have found that this method works well, but I am open to any suggestions on what I think might be the most important teaching topic.  Besides a midterm, what techniques have you used to test how well students are retaining material throughout the semester?

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on April 2, 2009 at 12:50 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Law School Case Method & How to Assess the Teaching/Learning Process Throughout the Semester:


The comments to this entry are closed.