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Monday, August 03, 2020

Metacognition and Learning How to Learn Online – Preparing for Fall Teaching in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, or Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here.  This post and other recent posts focus on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

So far I’ve talked about a variety of techniques to assess and engage students from comprehension checks to group work, discussions, and community-based learning.  In my last post on the topic of assessment & engagement, I want to talk about techniques that help students reflect on their learning.  Even in non-COVID times, we could all probably do a better job teaching students how to succeed in law school courses, but this instruction is especially important as we ask students to suddenly transition to an entirely new way of learning.  This transition also comes at a time when their personal lives and professional goals may in flux.  Simply dumping students into remote or physically distanced courses without some guidance on how to succeed in these courses seems like a failure in our job as educators.

So how can we help students learn effectively in their fall courses?  First, we need to offer them guidance on what we know about successful learning in these new environments.  There are a lot of resources out there on how students can prepare to learn online.  Here’s a great list compiled by Professor Cat Moon at Vanderbilt Law School.  As professors, it’s worth becoming familiar with these resources ourselves and talking with our students and advisees about how they can thrive in their remote courses.

A lot of this advice is common sense--i.e., create a dedicated work space, minimize distractions, and create a regular work schedule.  That said, students will still benefit from clear guidance on these topics as well as conversations about how to implement this guidance in their own lives.   For example, I often recommend that students try the Freedom app, which blocks specific website so you don’t find yourself mindlessly spending hours on social media or ranting at the news sites (not that I’ve ever done that…).  It’s also worth reminding students that everything they’ve learned about growth mindsets applies here too.  I’ve heard lots of students say that they “just don’t learn well online.”  That may well be true, but they are also probably pretty new at it.  Like anything, it may take practice and some trial and error before they find out what works for them.  As an aside, the same is probably true for all of the faculty who say that their teaching style just doesn’t work online.

Even if we think we have all of the answers, we know we shouldn’t just stand at the front of our physically distanced classrooms or on Zoom and lecture at students on how to learn effectively in these spaces.  Going back to basic pedagogy concepts, we need active learning to help these concepts sink in.  And of course, we don’t have all of the answers.  Our students are in very different situations, especially now, so they need to figure out what works best for them given their own course loads, living situations, and other challenges.

I’ve decided that I am going to build short opportunities for reflection at least every other week into my fall courses.  Some of these opportunities will be through pre-class assignments (I’ve talked here about the Google Doc assignments my students complete before class), and others will be during class or at the end of class. 

Here I need to give credit where credit is most definitely due.  I watched a webinar this summer where Professor April Dawson at North Carolina Central University School of Law highlighted a reflection exercise she does at the end of her classes that asks students to provide 1-2 takeaways from the class session and provides a space for their questions that she can then answer during the next class period.  She recommends using a QR code that students can open with their phone that links to a short form.  She uses airtable (here’s a short video she created to show how to set up a similar form yourself), but you could do the same thing through Google Forms.  I love this idea, and it would also work for professors who are trying to figure out how to take attendance in these new spaces. 

Here’s a form that I created based on her template.  Just open the camera on your phone, aim it at the QR code, and then click on the link that comes up.  If students do not have a cell phone, you can provide them with the web link.

QR code
Here are some specific metacognition prompts that you can also use, either through polling software or reflection that students do on their own:

  • What helped you learn in the spring when classes went online?  What practices or strategies do wish you had adopted?
  • If you were to do [name specific assignment] again, what would you do differently?  What would you do in the same way?
  • Think about today’s class.  What strategies did you use to prepare?  How do you think they worked?  What other strategies would you like to try?
  • What does fully preparing for class include for you?  Create a list of the things you want to do on your own to understand the material before coming to class. 
  • If you were to spend 30 minutes after class reflecting on what we learned today, what specific things would you do during this time? 
  • What are your goals for this course in light of your larger motivation in coming to law school?  What have you done so far this semester that has helped you to achieve these goals?  What specific strategies could you try to help you achieve these goals?

I’ll end by acknowledging that students won’t necessarily want to reflect on these questions.  Students often want us to focus on the black letter law and other information they will need for the exam.  Fair enough, but their overall success as lawyers depends on them learning this broader set of skills.  Just as education is changing, the practice of law is changing as well, and our students will have to bring these same metacognition skills to their practice.  So as you’re overhauling your courses this summer, consider building in a few metacognition exercises and explaining to students why it’s important to stop and reflect every once in a while.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 3, 2020 at 08:58 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


Considering that so many law schools are going online this fall, my book, Think Like A Lawyer: Legal Reasoning for Law Students and Business Professionals (2020) is an especially valuable resource because it contains self-correcting exercises in legal reasoning and problem-solving. I have just come out with a new edition. Because I have self-published this edition, it is half the price of the first edition. The new edition includes reflection exercises in every chapter.

Active learning is important, and it is hard to provide active learning with online instruction. This book gives students detailed active learning they can do in their own homes.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Aug 3, 2020 1:16:45 PM

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