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Thursday, May 29, 2014

On class supplements

I have written a supplement (available at your local supermarket checkout line). I assign supplements in every course I teach, including selecting one casebook that combines the best elements of a treaty treatise and a casebook. But the overuse of supplements and study aides, especially in 1L courses, feels as if it is getting out of control. Two related problems: 1) Students are using supplements and study guides in lieu of the class reading and 2) Students are using too many study guides and it is all getting confusing.

Some examples: 1) On Civ Pro, I gave question (from a recent 5th Circuit case) that basically lined up with Nicastro, yet a significant number of students never mentioned Nicastro, but discussed the competing opinions in Asahi (which is what a supplement written before 2011 would have discussed). 2) Several students meeting with me after grades came out told me how hard they worked in the class, always indicated by how many different supplements and study guides and audio recordings they used, never by how much they focused on the actual assigned cases, rules, and statutes.

Do others notice this problem? And is there a way to get it under control, to make students focus primarily on the primary sources and let the supplements be just that?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 29, 2014 at 12:01 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


Howard -- I too have been flummoxed by the invocation of "traditional bases of jurisdiction" as the first step to PJ analysis. According to a student, it comes from Rich Freer's recorded lectures.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Jun 9, 2016 12:43:04 PM

The Glannon E&E is all you need for Civ Pro. And I don't mean it's the only supplement you need.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Jun 1, 2014 11:45:39 PM

I teach Civ Pro, which is a 1L (albeit 2d semester at my *public* school) course, and I'm still seeing these precise practices. It's never about the text of the rule or statute, always the explanation of the statute's meaning they get from the supplement.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 30, 2014 10:42:40 PM

Brad, besides giving me a chance to spot a funny bit of bad editing on my part, you raise a good point. I'm not sure. Statutes also aren't black and white, but I think the real challenge for students is that they must be read slowly and with great care. You have to stop to consider - after you can spot them - terms of art, you might need the statute's definitions section to understand any part of it, and you need enough orientation within the issue to understand what the statute is getting at. I only teach one somewhat statute-based course, and I think this process is much harder than following common-law reasoning.

But, without the type of learning Longtime 1L teacher extols, students have no chance at this, regardless of in which order these different skills are presented. The bottom line is that I can't really argue against making students read statutes (which some 1L courses certainly do) from the beginning; I'm just not sure it would affect the dynamics we're talking about here.


Posted by: adam | May 30, 2014 2:56:28 PM

> Students have enormous difficulty internalizing the concept of common-law reasoning, even in situations where it would seem unavoidable. They strongly prefer black-and-white rules, and will happily try to shove them into whatever peg the professor puts on the exam.

It seems odd that that students also seem to have so much difficulty with heavily statutory areas of the law when they finally hit them in the second or third year. Perhaps they would have been better at analyzing statues if it was the first thing they did rather than having just spent a year figuring out common law reasoning.

Posted by: brad | May 30, 2014 2:21:45 PM

I understand where Bobo is coming from, though I find myself almost completely disagreeing with Bored JD.

Specifically, students absolutely do not know what they do not know. And the outline method of studying is unlikely to clue them in. The great majority of students can muster something like a correct statement of the law, in the ballpark of the questions presented, most of the time. That's about as far, however, as many outlines will take you. Getting the A isn't (usually) about figuring out law school a month earlier (law grades do not tend to rise dramatically as students progress, so while I sort of like your former prof's comment, I don't think it is true). It's about understanding what this or that body of law is getting at/trying to do, and knowing how to use the tools that system provides. Whatever one can -and should - say about the fit between legal education and practice, there is usually an excellent fit between the casebook + lecture and what the professor is asking for on the exam.

Stepping back a bit, Longtime 1L prof captures something that has bothered me for years. Students have enormous difficulty internalizing the concept of common-law reasoning, even in situations where it would seem unavoidable. They strongly prefer black-and-white rules, and will happily try to shove them into whatever peg the professor puts on the exam. Rules are great, and I always tell my students to use the "magic words" where appropriate. But rules are usually in aid of some underlying principle. Maybe it's just me, but in every course I teach, I find about a half-dozen precepts (at most) per subject that are endlessly recycled and elaborated in different contexts. I talk about these throughout the course. The cases draw the connections all the time. I emphasize them in review. And then I am astounded to see nothing but "bullet point" reasoning on many exams, which will definitely not be the A exams.

Back to Bobo: I agree that this is how students think, and I'll even concede that Bored JD's inevitable linkage to the cost of legal education underscores the stakes for students trying to maximize their chances of success. For me, the question is this: how to get students to believe me when I say: "There is no substitute for understanding the cases and what I've said about them." And: "Supplements can clarify and particularize the occasional sticking point for you, but the course cannot be found in there." Because Bobo's and BJD's comments, and my own experience - supremely talented former student Asher aside - makes me wonder whether there is any fighting the learning habits students seem to have learned over a lifetime, both in school and out of it.

Posted by: adam | May 30, 2014 9:18:44 AM

The utility of supplements depends on the Professor's style. Supplements are largely designed to make things easy for students, which is why they sell well, and mostly eliminate the ambiguity from materials. But to the extent a Professor emphasizes ambiguity and analytical skills rather than rules, the supplements will often be harmful and misleading, and I think one of the most important things for a Professor, is to be clear in what they are seeking and to make the exam replicate what goes on in class. I always tell my students that supplements are more likely to hurt them than help them, and from talking with students who do well, those students do not rely on supplements (or do not admit to doing so). I teach contracts and do not spend much time on the Restatement so when I get exam answers that are replete with the Restatement, particularly sections we never mentioned, I have a good sense that they are relying on a supplement, and during the second semester, almost always in lieu of the assigned reading. The best thing most students can do for supplemental reading is read more cases, and these days googling a case name from the notes will turn up just about any case, and sometimes the briefs too, and students who take that approach, are likely to fare much better in the long run.

Posted by: MLS | May 30, 2014 8:56:28 AM

Bobbo is absolutely right. Students know what they know and what they don't know. And what they know from reading past outlines and talking to older students is that they are going to spend hours upon hours trying to make sense of these cases and then almost none of the material is going to be needed on the exam, except for some facts and a very brief rule statement. So they look for shortcuts, even if it means they delay learning the analytical skills (assuming that law school actually teaches those, I have yet to see good evidence that it does).

A professor once told my class that the difference between the A students and the B students was that the A students got the hang of a law school exam one month earlier in their 40 year legal careers. Now at Yale and other schools that professors came from where everyone gets a great job, it might be okay that someone doesn't get law school exams before December of the 1L year. But at the school you teach at, with its $192K instate COA and 55.4% employment score, the margin for error is much smaller.

TLDR; there's nothing you can do about this. It involves forces beyond your control.

Posted by: BoredJD | May 30, 2014 2:01:42 AM

Going to interject here with a Herm Edwards moment to note that "You play to win the game. You don't play it just to play it."

My point is, regardless of what actual learning outcomes are, 1L students are going to lean on supplements because (a) their 1L grades are so important to their job prospects, (b) because they have no clue what they're doing on a law school exam or what the criteria for grading actually is (incidentally, I still don't), and (c) because they often don't know what a case or line of cases actually means but still need a framework to answer questions about those cases. There is also the time constraint, whereby studying for one class can eat into time that would otherwise be available to study for another one, so there is an efficiency issue there too.

So can supplements lead a student astray? Sure. More often than not though, I think the framework/efficiency advantages outweigh the probability of a student being misled.

Not that any of this invalidates the points above, but I'm just sayin.

Posted by: Bobbo McBobertsonton | May 29, 2014 4:32:57 PM

Longtime 1L Teacher: My version of this in Civ Pro is when students refer to "traditional bases of jurisdiction" (in contradistinction to Shoe), a term I never have used, never learned in class myself, and that I don't believe is wholly accurate anymore (if it ever was).

Glenn: I use Clermont's Principles of Civil Procedure and when asked I tell students that Glannon's is the best supplement and the only one they should use. That hasn't worked, because they're still looking for everything else they can find, good or not. Maybe the next move is to give in and assign Glannon's and tell them "this is all you should want or will need."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 29, 2014 4:16:48 PM

I have a different approach. I "ASSIGN" (I call it theoretically optional but practically mandatory I recommend they do it but I do not check) a particular supplement, Glannon's Examples and Explanations for Civ Pro, and tell students when to read which portions, where we cover cases he leaves out, and where they can ignore things he says (in at least one instance I have also mentioned an error of his but he corrected it, I think, in the most recent version). Not only do I love that book for doing the kind of iterative examples I don't always have time to do in class (we do about 100 numbered hypos of my own during the semester but I find adding his makes Civ Pro even better), but I think it also reduces the number of other (perhaps less good, but certainly less isomorphic to my civ pro course) supplements they use. It also has the positive effects of generating good conversations for office hours (when they don't get something tangible or when his and my readings of cases diverge) and also allows the students to "pace" themselves rather than binge on supplements at the end of the year. I've heard nothing but good things from my students on this approach.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | May 29, 2014 3:47:40 PM

My advice, as a recent graduate, would be to tell the story you tell in your post at the beginning of the semester, or preferably some scarier version of it if you know of one. If students are specifically advised that supplements can contain material external to what's taught in class, and/or explanations of the material contrary to what you teach them, and that reliance on supplements can therefore harm students' grades, they'll likely be more cautious about using supplements; at least, they'll likely check to make sure that they don't put things in their outlines that they didn't read or weren't told in class. But if you just vaguely advise that supplements aren't all that necessary and may retard learning how to read a case, a law student's likely to think that of course you, a law professor, don't think the supplement's necessary, but for them it is, and as for retarding their ability to read a case and draw their own conclusions, they may not care, or care about it as much as the perceived advantage from reading supplements.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | May 29, 2014 3:24:38 PM

I've noticed this too -- for example, when students taking a closed-book exam invoke cases that I did not assign and never so much as mentioned during the semester. The problem, in my view, is that there has been a sea change -- induced primarily by the internet -- in how students now understand the very concept of what it means to "learn" a subject. For us, "learning" often meant staring at the same couple of pages of material over and over until either we saw something differently or passed out. For this generation, brought up on the internet, "learning" means something different -- it means finding an already-existing explanation somewhere out there that tells you what you want to know. "Studying" doesn't mean trying again and again through close re-reading to understand a mysterious passage; it means working up a sweat searching the web for something that will clarify the passage for you. What seems to be endangered is the idea that learning can be self-generated. Rather, learning means finding just the right source. A teacher's injunction to "focus primarily on the primary materials" thus contradicts a lifetime of training.

Posted by: Longtime 1L Teacher | May 29, 2014 2:01:27 PM


I have noticed this problem for quite a while now. I don't teach any 1L courses, but I counsel my advisees not to use study aids or, if they must use them, to use them after the class discussion. I think students are relying on what the study guides tell them, and that's retarding the development of their own analytical abilities. I get the best analysis in the one class I teach where I use unpublished materials and no study guide is available.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | May 29, 2014 12:34:30 PM

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