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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Further Thoughts on Different Learning Styles

The recent news about the scientific debate over learning styles and the evidence to support the idea that learning styles among students really differ was on my mind as I read a recent article by my colleague, Louis Schulze, called Alternative Justifications for Academic Support II: How “Academic Support Across the Curriculum” Helps Meet the Goals of the Carnegie Report and Best Practices. Louis heads the academic support program here at New England Law and we have often discussed whether professors should alter their approach to teaching to accommodate different learning styles among students.  For my part, I have no facility with technology and eschew PowerPoint and movie clips and the like.  I do use old school technology—namely, writing on the chalkboard. But for the most part I teach as I was taught: I ask questions, call on students to answer those questions, and the discussion continues from there.

Which leads to the point I typically raise with Louis: altering one’s teaching to appeal to different learning styles among students is well and good and consumer-friendly, but in much of the practice of law, an endeavor which requires learning on the job for much of one’s career, no one is going to adapt to a student's preferred learning mode. That is, the judge will not explain his evidentiary ruling visually, the senior partner will not illustrate his point with a movie clip from The Departed, and you will be hard-pressed to find the Classics Illustrated versions of the cases you need to read and understand for the summary judgment brief due at the end of the week.

Which is not to say that the professors teaching in our academic support program are not doing some of the most important work in the law school, as illustrated by Louis’s thoughtful article about how academic support practices can be integrated across the law school curriculum.

Posted by Lawrence Friedman on August 30, 2011 at 08:21 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Since I will be using a chart in class tomorrow (in an advanced constitutional law seminar, no less), I am hardly one to contend that visual learning does not bring anything to the table. Some information is best conveyed visually. I suspect that our differences, if any, involve only a matter of degree.

I quite agree as well that the first year curriculum is usefully regarded as scaffolding, and need not simulate the demands of practice to the extent of the second and third year curriculum. Still, given the importance of the first year to a student's overall success in law school and path of learning, I think it important to limit reliance on visual learning, even in the first year. In my view, we should not be basing too much of the first year on a style of learning that is of quite limited importance in terms of the style of learning that a lawyer must master by the end of law school.


Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Sep 1, 2011 3:49:21 PM


Might it be the case that drawing charts for our students not only (a) helps them understand the cases or rule structure we are directly teaching but also (b) helps them understand that to interpret or process new cases or rule structures throughout their careers, it might help them to try to draw charts like these? This is obviously an empirical question, and I would be extremely interested in empirical evidence about what sorts of teaching techniques are most helpful for acquiring the life-long-learning skills necessary to be a successful lawyer. But I wouldn't just assume that the best way to help people acquire these or other skills necessary to the successful practice of law is to deny students in class the sorts of assistance they won't get in practice. When I think of the Carnegie report, about which I have my qualms to be sure, one of the key points I took away was that, at least at the early stages of learning, teachers need to provide "scaffolding" for the later acquisition of knowledge. And providing scaffolding seems to involve moving in a direction that is farther from the modeling of actual practice than is the standard pseudo-Socratic classroom. The analogy that makes sense to me, which I mentioned in my previous comment, is the curriculum in the first two years of most American medical schools. So I totally agree with you that we need to produce students proficient in the skill of assimilating large quantities of written material. The question is what is the best technique (it's probably a set of techniques) to develop that skill.



Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Sep 1, 2011 2:04:20 PM

Although it seems Professor Friedman has retreated somewhat, the point of his post is a powerful one. There are a variety of ways to teach effectively, and some of them are visual. Although I abhor Powerpoint, I find that sometimes charts or other visual materials can convey material most effectively. In law school, Tribe's triangle helped me to grasp the rule against hearsay. The critical point, however, is that because we must prepare our students to practice law, we should be wary of overreliance on visual learning. Effective lawyers are lifelong learners -- in practice, lawyers do not focus on the material they learned in law school, but on the frequently novel and usually quite particularized problems of their clients. Lawyers must learn enormous quantities of new material to keep abreast of their clients' needs. The great bulk of this material is in writing, and must be assimiliated through that medium. If we do not produce students proficient in this skill, we are doing them a considerable disservice.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Sep 1, 2011 11:13:27 AM

Sam, I appreciate your thoughtful comments about my brief post on teaching and learning styles. You’re right, of course, that tackling many of the varied tasks lawyers face in practice could benefit from thinking about those tasks in various dimensions; as the example of Larry Tribe’s triangle shows, conceptualizing the issue in visual terms can lead to new insights for lawyers who respond to that mode of organizing information. There is no reason, moreover, why we should not help students to figure out which learning styles work for them, and to help them to use that knowledge as they go about their studies—this is an aspect of the academic excellence program here at New England Law. My point about learning styles was really limited to the first-year experience and the importance of helping students to figure out, in the limited time we are with them in the classroom, the skill of legal analysis, which requires the close reading of cases. For those students who will go on to become litigators, this skill is critical; at a minimum, development of this skill may be what separates law students from other kinds of graduate students. As Carissa notes, in practice there is just the case, and students who choose the litigation path will need to grapple with these texts regardless of their preferred style of learning.

Posted by: Lawrence Friedman | Aug 31, 2011 6:50:49 PM

Arizona State also has a number of faculty members who are deeply engaged in the learning styles literature/scene. They have made a number of presentations here at internal workshops, and so I've often wondered what other faculty are supposed to do with the information they provide about learning styles.

My tentative thoughts so far fall somewhere between Lawrence and Sam. I do think that there is a place in law school for trying to accommodate different learning styles. In the first year (or at least the first semester), one of the biggest hurdles students face is how to read and digest a case/think like a lawyer/master legal reasoning/whatever you want to call this skill. Some students master that skill far more quickly than others, and it seems like a good idea to try and ease the path of those students who are lagging behind, even if it means teaching outside of our comfort zone.

But once students have mastered that basic skill, I think law schools have to not only teach them additional content that they learn via that skill, but also help students transition into practice. While we generally think about the school-to-practice transition in terms of clinics or other skills courses, I think that those of us who teach non-skills courses also have a role to play. We should teach in a way that communicates to students how much will be expected of them intellectually once they leave the school and begin practicing. And here is where I agree with Lawrence — we need to teach our students how to understand and engage with material when their only exposure to that material is a printed case. That is a skill that they will need in practice, and I’m not sure how the learning styles theory (of which I’ve read only a very small portion of the literature) teaches us how to help our students make that transition.

That’s not to say we upper-level skills professors should try to make our classes interesting — as I read the NPR article (and am also guided by my own common sense), everyone agrees that more student interest = more learning. But I assume that we all teach classes that we find (at least somewhat) interesting, and I’m not sure it matters whether we communicate that interest by showing a film clip that illustrates a particular topic, or by simply explaining what we find interesting.

Posted by: carissa | Aug 31, 2011 1:07:40 PM

Well, in much of the practice of law, no one is going to engage you in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue either. It makes sense to me that some teaching should model what people will experience in the practice of law -- and maybe nearly all teaching should model *some aspect* of what people will experience in the practice of law -- but the argument that some pedagogical technique is not what lawyers will experience most of the time in their practices doesn't make a lot of sense to me. If the goal is to train lawyers, I would think that the test of a pedagogical technique would be whether it is prepares someone to be a lawyer. That could happen by transmitting basic information that is memorized and internalized (like the first two years of med school). It could happen by offering the student a framework for understanding an area of the law into which later information can be fed and processed. It could happen by showing the student examples of creative methods of understanding that spur the student to think creatively when confronting new problems later. So maybe the judge won't diagram the evidence ruling, but Larry Tribe's triangle might help the student, and soon-to-be lawyer, "get" hearsay in a way that cements the knowledge necessary to understand the judge's ruling. Etc. Not to mention that practice settings are very diverse, and lawyers have to do lots of different things in practice (including explaining legal concepts to clients, jurors, and other nonlawyers), for which it might be very useful to understand how to discuss a legal problem on several different levels.

I think a more salient objection to the concern about appealing to different learning styles is that teachers also have different teaching styles. The post reads a bit like a rationalization for not wanting to alter the teaching style that is comfortable for you, with an assertion about what happens in practice as the rationalization. I think the issue of different teaching styles is a very important one, and it deserves discussion on the merits. I'm very sympathetic to the proposition that not every teacher needs to appeal to every way of learning to the same degree. But just saying "in practice they won't hold your hand like this" seems to me to preempt that worthwhile discussion.

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Aug 30, 2011 9:52:12 PM

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