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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Sponsored Post: An Active Learning Approach to Teaching Civil Procedure

The following post is by Rory Bahadur (Washburn) and is sponsored by West Academic.

It is easy to get overwhelmed when reading the copious literature on good teaching.  The literature is replete with pedagogy recommendations that can appear hyper technical and unattainable.  For example, active learning, flipped classrooms, facilitating cognitive schema formation, pretesting, providing more formative and summative assessment and engaging students in large classrooms.  In addition to unattainability and hyper technicality, implementing these pedagogic techniques appears to require a massive and labor-intensive revamping of what we already do and are comfortable doing in the legal classroom.  That is until I began experimenting with a directed reading approach to teaching law.

I began teaching civil procedure in 2007 and up until 2014 I struggled on two specific fronts.  Initially I struggled to get students confident and engaged when teaching the classes that required painful and careful rule reading, like the class where we cover Rule 12 and its subtly worded dual waiver provisions in 12(h)(1).  Additionally, I struggled to get students engaged in the more nuanced aspects of civil procedure.  For example, students never seemed to get rabidly enthusiastic about understanding that Justice O’Connor’s stream of commerce test is similar to Justice White’s opinion in World-Wide Volkswagen and that much of specific personal jurisdiction is a tension between federalism and fairness.

That all changed when, for one particularly grueling topic, I decided to give my students the Socratic questions I would be asking in class a few days later.  So, students were assigned the reading and were also given the Socratic questions I would be asking in the class that covered those readings. 

Kismet!!!!  In that class were the most prepared, excited students I have ever had.  I wondered if I was in some alternate universe where venue transfer, forum non conveniens and the Piper v. Reyno case was a really strong stimulant.  I spent some time after class chatting with the students to discover why class had gone the way it had.  The common themes were:

  1. We did not come into class feeling completely lost and unaware waiting for the deer in the headlights feeling for an hour and a half of feeling incompetent as we suddenly realized how little we knew compared to you;
  2. It made us able to think of the new material you were bringing to class, not in a contextual vacuum, but in terms of how it added to our understanding of the assigned reading;
  3. We wanted to engage more because we felt more competent because of the questions;
  4. In class, we were able to immediately realize what we had misinterpreted and how to fix the way we read or to shore up what we thought the doctrine was;
  5. We could go back after class and incorporate the material you brought to class into the basic framework answering the questions allowed us to create before class;
  6. We knew what we needed to do to become better at reading carefully and reading slowly.

From that point on I worked to create pre-class questions to accompany the material in every single civil procedure class I taught.  The process took seven years, and the result is my civil procedure casebook, Civil Procedure: An Active Learning Approach.

The pandemic created a baptism by fire scenario.  In summer of 2020, Drexel University, Kline School of Law asked me on short notice to teach a synchronous 4 credit torts class to incoming students via this thing called zoom.  I created directed reading questions for every class and those questions were provided to the students before class and I asked the students to answer the questions and submit their answers before class began using the LMS platform Drexel used.  This answering of questions was in lieu of traditional briefing.  I gave them a small effort-based grade and feedback where necessary on the submissions which counted to their final grade and we began answering those questions in class.  This allowed us to engage with the doctrine at a much more sophisticated level than when my students came into class after having just read and briefed in the traditional manner.  Also, by skimming the answers before class, I knew what topics the students had the most trouble understanding and could adjust the lecture accordingly. The student evaluations were unprecedentedly positive.

Next, I tried the directed reading approach in a fully asynchronous civil procedure class in summer of 2020.  Students were given access to the lecture discussing the questions only after they submitted their initial answers to the questions based on the reading assigned.  Post-lecture they would resubmit answers to the same questions they answered before the lecture.  By comparing the pre- and post-lecture submissions I could assess whether the learning goals of the lecture were achieved.  Students got feedback on the submissions for formative assessment and the questions were also graded, providing summative assessment.  The student evaluations were again positive to an extent I have never experienced or could expect, and a common thread was that the class required more work than a traditional law school class, but they were so encouraged to do the work because of the amount they felt they were learning compared to traditional classes.

Most recently I tried the method in an in-person/hybrid torts class and in a synchronous admiralty class.  Again, student evaluations were unbelievably positive and consistent with previous student sentiment.  In one of the classes I received the maximum score on every evaluation criterion and was told by the administration that it had never happened in their memory before.

An important takeaway is that the method can be applied seamlessly across the synchronous, asynchronous and in-person teaching modalities and the preparation on the part of the teacher is the same in each modality.

Civil Procedure: An Active Learning Approach represents the refinement of the directed reading approach.  Directed reading creates a flipped classroom for every class session resulting in higher student readiness, engagement, and doctrinal understanding.  Alternative contextualization, which forces students to draw parallels between new material they are learning and material they have previously learned, and to explain the new material in the context of the previously learned material, is used in the question structure such that cognitive schema formation is enhanced for students.  The aim is to deliberately contextualize previously learned principles in the context of new material being learned to make both contexts more understandable.

The book also has active learning exercises which result in students reading the rules more carefully and creating deeper and more meaningful context for the rules they are learning than in the traditional read and brief model.

Assessment is continuous and incorporated into the book’s structure such that students continuously receive extensive feedback about their learning without any extra labor expenditure on the professor’s part.

Finally, the teacher’s manual is unique.  It contains detailed answers to every directed reading question asked in the casebook and explains the pedagogy technique being employed by the question.  It also identifies areas where students traditionally struggle with concepts and provides solutions for these issues.  Adopters will also receive hundreds of PowerPoint slides with diagrams, flowcharts and case excerpts keyed to specific directed questions and the relevant material in the teacher’s manual.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 15, 2021 at 05:26 PM in Sponsored Announcements | Permalink

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