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Monday, December 02, 2019

The Case for Teacher-Created Supplemental Learning Guides

The following post is by Leslie Y. Garfield Tenzer (Pace) and is sponsored by West Academic.

There is a chasm between doctrinal classroom learning and commercial study aids. In the classroom, particularly first year, faculties aim to rewire student neurons, training them to "think like a lawyer." In contrast, commercial outlines, flashcards, and the like, detail the black- letter law, encouraging students to memorize rather than analyze.

Commercial outlines have been a valued supplement to learning for decades. A growing number of today’s students, however, are finding these materials critical to academic success. One cause for this over-reliance may be that commercial materials tend to deliver information through bullet-points. This design promotes memorization, a skill essential to most undergraduate lecture-type classes, and therefore one with which college graduates are familiar.

I find it ironic that the skill that earned many students the grades necessary to get into law school is quite different from the skills necessary to earn top grades in law school. Study guides are undoubtedly helpful to students seeking to understand critical legal concepts. Commercial outlines serve the purpose of providing a basic explanation and aid with memorization. As a student, I enjoyed the benefit of a Gilberts outline to provide structure for my personal study guides. But while these types of materials provide a solid backdrop for learning legal concepts, few succeed in developing the kind of thinking inspired by Socratic teaching.

To encourage analytical learning outside of the classroom, many faculty are creating supplemental learning materials or extra assignments. My colleague Michael Mushlin and Judge Lisa Smith, Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of New York, developed a series of supplement assignments designed to take 1L Civil Procedure students beyond the technical knowledge of the Federal Rules as a way to help students appreciate the analytical rigor essential in the courtroom. Students are asked to draft a complaint, conduct a deposition, and engage in other lawyering skills. Providing students with a contextualized experience at the beginning of their law school careers, students learn that law school demands more than pure memorization of the law. You can read more about their experience here.

Another colleague, Bridget Crawford, created a series of prompts for her Federal Income Tax students to answer in between classes. The questions are designed to guide students through critical tests included in the Internal Revenue Code and Regulations. According to Professor Crawford, "Sometimes forcing oneself to slow down and write out answers to questions enables students to read a complex statute differently and more carefully than any of us might on our own. I created this worksheet as an exercise in close reading and statutory interpretation. Those are fantastic skills that will help a lawyer in any area of the law."

Other professors are developing materials that are designed for their students but are also available on a more national scale. Beth Wilensky and Nancy Vettorello found that there was not enough time to cover both the law and the skills necessary to succeed in their Legal Practice at the University of Michigan School of Law. They created a series of YouTube videos on fundamental legal skills concepts. Asking students to watch the videos on their own time, allows for more supervised analytical learning. "Students seem to like the videos," according to Prof. Wilensky, "both because they get a break from reading and also because they appreciate having access to the videos after the class ends." Professor Vettorello noted the added benefit of using class time to have students write, enabling her to comment immediately on their writing. “Frankly it tested my ability to describe and explain suggested changes -- when I made a suggestion and was left with blank stares, it was obvious that my feedback was not detailed enough or that I was using terminology that was not getting through.” Both professors find the experience invaluable. “It's like being able to sit next to them while they write, which is fascinating, informative, and even humbling.” An added benefit is to those outside the Michigan classroom. The videos are getting national traction, with well over 1,500 hits since their posting in 2016. A sample video is available here.

In 2018, out of my desire to combat what I call "flashcard learning," I created the podcast “Law to Fact.” In each episode, I have the opportunity to explore a particular concept with a member of the legal academy, a sort of “portable office hours” students can download at their convenience. The deep exploration of doctrinal issues such as the rule against perpetuities with Shelby Green or skills like how to read a legal opinion with Orin Kerr offers students the chance to observe the analytical component of law school learning. The podcast has been enthusiastically received by students and professors, with over 125K downloads to date.

It is the enthusiasm on the part of the “Law to Fact” guests that I find most encouraging. In every instance, faculty members, many of whom I have never met before, have been generous with both their time and their passion. We teach because we want students to learn not just the law, but how to think like lawyers. In an era where more and more students are inclined to believe that mastery of the material means memorizing the law, I argue it is incumbent upon law faculty to acknowledge reliance on commercial study guides and provide a proper context for their use. Doing so can be as easy as explaining the when, why, and how to use commercially prepared study aids to accomplish ideal learning. And, for those of you who haven’t done so in the past, I encourage you to create the type of supplemental material you believe will best prepare your students for success on exams, on the bar, and ultimately, as attorneys.

Finally, I welcome anyone interested to join me on an episode of Law to Fact. As those who have already participated can attest, it is a fun easy 1⁄2 hour exercise, and one that benefits those studying the law. You can reach me at [email protected].

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 2, 2019 at 02:08 PM in Sponsored Announcements | Permalink


Almost 300 law faculty have created over 1000 interactive web-based teaching aids that posit hypotheticals and then pepper the student with questions about their reading. These tutorials can branch and loop based on student answers. All result in immediate feedback for the student, but also uses a scoring system that motivate the student to repeat and learn.

All of these tutorials are free to law students at almost 200 US law schools and the collection has been in development since 1982. Law faculty assign them and can see their student scores if they want using a special link.

Where is all this magic happening?

It's legal education's best kept secret!

Posted by: John Mayer CALI | Dec 5, 2019 2:04:31 AM

I agree that first-year classes should concentrate on developing the cognitive basics of legal reasoning and studying law. I have written two books for this purpose: Think Like A Lawyer: Legal Reasoning for Law Students and Business Professionals (ABA Pub. 2013) and A Companion to Torts: Think Like A Torts Lawyer (2015). These books contain lots of exercises and problems to help students develop their legal reasoning and argument skills.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Dec 2, 2019 7:35:29 PM

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