Friday, August 21, 2020

Designing an Inclusive & Supportive Classroom Environment -- 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 focuses on the final step – supporting the students in our fall courses.

This is the last post in my series on preparing for our fall courses.   This post focuses on the final step in my approach to redesigning our courses to be physically distanced, hybrid, or remote -- planning for an inclusive and supportive classroom environment.  This step is easy to overlook as we try to learn all of the new technologies and techniques for fall teaching, but it is essential.  We all try to support our students and create an inclusive classroom, but it will be harder this fall.  Take our efforts to help students who don't understand the material in a given unit.  Normally, we can observe students in class and notice if they look confused or a little lost.   We can catch up with them in the hall, and they can also casually stop by our office if they have a question.  We don’t catch all issues this way, but we catch a fair amount.  When we all start wearing masks in the classroom and leaving the building (or logging off Zoom) as soon as class is over, we lose these informal ways of checking in with our students.

At the same time, our students may be struggling more.   They are dealing with additional anxiety and trauma related to the past several months.  Classes will be more challenging, both because our pedagogical techniques in these new environments will be less familiar to them and because being in a physically distanced or remote classroom feels more alienating.   And students may be struggling with the logistics of these new learning environments -- they may not have the right technology or a quiet work space.  In short, they may struggle more this semester, but we may notice it less.

Importantly, these burdens are not distributed equally through our society or our classrooms.  Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as well as the racial violence and protests this summer.  Students with children may be struggling to find childcare this fall.  Students with spouses or roommates may have to share limited Internet connections, and students living in remote areas may not have any reliable Internet. 

In addition, we are changing many aspects of our courses, from assessments to learning activities and community building exercises.  When we redesign this many things at once, we can easily miss things.  We can craft assignments that don’t fully reflect our commitment to diversity, plan learning activities that don’t fully include all students, and miss ways that our policies and practices burden students unnecessarily.  This isn’t necessarily about bad faith on our part.  We are trying to do a lot right now, and things will fall through the cracks if we aren’t careful to think about our new course design through an lens of inclusivity and equity.  

Finally, students with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable.  Higher ed’s disability services are never perfect, but they will have additional hurdles this fall.  Students who have not been formally diagnosed with a disability may discover additional learning challenges in this new environment.  Students who do have a documented disability may have figured out accommodations that work for them in a traditional classroom, but these accommodations may be less effective in physically distanced or remote courses.  And universities have not developed clear guidelines on how to help students in these new environments, so they will be trying new approaches, some of which may need adjustment or may not work.  

If you want to understand the challenges that some students may face in the fall, check out this website.  It is styled as a “choose-your-own-adventure” narrative through the eyes of a student with disabilities. Someone could probably create a similar one about trying to navigate remote courses this fall as well.  The pandemic has created new and very real challenges for our students regardless of the learning environment.

It sounds daunting to build an inclusive and supportive classroom environment under these circumstances, but here are some concrete tips you can implement fairly easily.

Look at New Content and Assessments Through an Inclusivity Lens.  Ideally, you’ve been thinking about inclusive pedagogy all through your course redesign, and my advice throughout this series has tried to reflect inclusive pedagogy principles.  But it’s important to do a final hard look at your course design as you put the pieces together.  Which issues and voices do you prioritize in your selection of readings?  Do your fact patterns include a diverse group of people and fact patterns?  Experts in inclusive pedagogy talk about using curriculum choices as a window and mirror.  As a window, curricular choices should help students see into other people’s lives and lived experiences.  As a mirror, students should have the opportunity to see their reality reflected in the chosen examples.  Use this redesign as an opportunity to look critically at your pedagogical choices through this lens.

Look at New Policies and Practices Through an Inclusivity Lens.  You can do the same thing for any new policies and practices you have built into your course.  Most of us have many new policies in our syllabi this year.  With each rule, ask yourself, who is included and who is left out?  In other words, who will find it easy to comply with the rule, and who will find it more difficult?  Are these difficulties necessary to achieve your pedagogical goal or is there another approach that might accomplish the same goal without imposing new challenges on some students. 

For example, there’s been a robust debate this summer about whether to require students to turn on their cameras.  There’s no easy answer.  Seeing everyone’s faces helps foster the virtual classroom environment, and it allows professors to see whether students look engaged or confused.  On the other hand, students may have privacy concerns about showing their personal space to classmates and professors.  I saw this language recommended somewhere, and I like it, but my point isn’t that you should adopt any one specific policy.  Instead you should think intentionally about the different interests in play and give considerable weight to the interests of students who may want to keep their environment private.  Give your other new policies and practices – from your attendance policy to rules about private chats on Zoom—the same scrutiny.

Use Universal Design Principles.  Faculty should strive for universal design of their courses, which means designing a course to work for everyone.  For physically distanced classrooms, this means wearing a mic even if we are fairly confident that most students can hear us from behind a mask.  In all classes, it means captioning our videos, using high-contrast color combinations in our slides, and providing concise text descriptions of content presented within image. 

Clear structure and communication is also a key part of universal design.  For students who struggle with attention and processing challenges, having a well-designed course in which the professor clearly lays out the requirements and how the different pieces of the course fit together is essential.  My last post addressed ways to build this structure into your course. 

Be Flexible on Accommodations.  Although online education has been around for a long time, we are still in unchartered territory in many ways.  Many law schools did not offer online courses before this past spring, so they may not have established accommodations policies for remote learning.  Zoom is a relatively new platform for online education, so its features raise new issues as well.  Physically distanced teaching is also entirely new for most educational institutions, so few have road-tested policies on helping students learn in an environment where the professor is teaching in a mask, behind Plexiglass barriers, with students spread out throughout a classroom. 

Students may also discover that they have new challenges or that existing challenges are magnified in these learning environments.  Some students, for example, have learned that spending a lot of time on Zoom triggers migraines or that the challenges from ADHD are magnified in remote courses.  We should let students know that they should talk to use or our dean of students’ office about any new challenges they face, and we also need to be flexible as our schools use a bit of trial and error to find the right accommodations for students.  The AALS had a great webinar called “Meeting the Needs of All Students Online” that addressed this issue. 

Check In Often, Esp. with Remote Students:  In traditional classrooms, you can often tell if students are struggling or just seem off.  In physically distanced or remote classes, though, it may be more difficult to read these informal signs.  Consider planning monthly individual check-ins with students or find other ways to check in regularly.  If you are primarily teaching in-person, but you have some students who regularly participate remotely, check in with your remote students even more.   

Nudge Struggling Students:  Create enough low-stakes assessments (graded or not) in the first few weeks of class that you have a pretty good sense of who is falling behind early on.  Reach out to them with a personalized but supportive email telling them you have noticed that they are having difficulty in the course and asking if you can help in any way.  You might say something like, “Hi ___, I was looking at the scores for the midterm and saw that you didn’t do as well as you might have expected.  It’s still early in the semester, so I would love to talk about how you might be able to improve your performance on the final exam.”

Build in breaks.  In a long in-person class, we often build in breaks.  Consider doing the same in synchronous Zoom classes as well.  You may even need more frequent breaks.  Best practices suggest a ten minute break for every fifty minutes of class in online classes.  You might also encourage a 1-minute stretch and/or breathing break after every 15 minutes of lecture or as a transition from lecture to an activity.

That’s a wrap on this series!  I may be back with a post or two in the fall, but for now I’ll end with a note about the importance of supporting yourself and your colleagues this semester, in addition to your students.  The summer is normally a time for rejuvenation when we can focus on other aspects of our jobs, but this summer looked really different.  Not only are we still in a pandemic, but we also had to overhaul all of our classes, often with a great deal of uncertainty about exactly how we will be teaching this fall.  It’s important to remember that your courses weren’t perfect the first time you taught them, and they won’t be perfect this semester.  That’s ok.  We’re all making the best of a truly challenging situation.  Be easy on yourself, and be there for your colleagues where you can be.  Good luck to all of us!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 21, 2020 at 09:42 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Building Communication and Structure Into Our Courses -- 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 focuses on the fourth step – developing a communication plan to introduce more structure and rhythm into your courses.

With classes just around the corner, most of us have likely figured out the key aspects of our course plan.  We’ve determined how to adapt our assessment and learning activities for these new learning environments.  We’ve come up with a strategy to connect with our students and help them connect with each other.  We’ve even practiced with the technology that will allow us to teach in a hybrid or remote way.  And we may feel like we are ready.  In my last two posts, however, I want to discuss how to put the finishing touches on our fall courses by (i) building additional communication and structure into our courses, and (ii) creating a plan to identify and support struggling students.  This post will focus on the first topic, and my final post later in the week will address the second.

Thinking about communication and structure certainly isn't new.  Most of us already think about how we will communicate with our students and how we can build structure into our classes.  This semester, however, when we are all teaching in distanced classrooms in the midst of a global pandemic, we need to think even more deliberately about these topics.  So here are a few suggestions:

Decide on a Consistent Communications Strategy (Ideally with Your Colleagues):  Back in mid-March, when the world suddenly shut down, how did you communicate the changes to your courses to your students?  Did you send them an email (or multiple emails)?  Did you put the new plan in your learning management system?  Did you create a Google Doc that you kept updated?  Most faculty I know used one of these strategies, and they felt pretty good about it.  Yes, our plans changed, but we made sure our students knew about all of the changes. 

From the student perspective, however, it often felt overwhelming because they were receiving communications from multiple professors and we all used our own preferred form of communication.  Imagine that you’re a student trying to keep track of five sets of Zoom links.  Some of your professors used a recurring calendar invite; others included the links in an email that got lost somewhere in your email folder; still others put the links on Blackboard, Canvas, or TWEN.  And maybe their approach changed from week to week.  Before every class, you have to remember where the particular professor put this particular piece of information.  And it’s the middle of a global pandemic, so you are already stressed and distracted.  I felt this dichotomy myself.  As a professor, I was sure I was being clear.  As a parent of three kids in the K-12 system, with multiple teachers who likely all thought they were being clear, I had no idea what was going on.  My kids missed several classes, assignments, etc. in the spring because we couldn’t keep track of all of the information coming our way through a million different channels.

My suggestion is that you decide now how you will communicate any changes to your course plan and then stick to it.  If you are teaching face-to-face, start using the system now, so your students will be used to it if and when the class has to transition to fully online. 

Ideally, your colleagues will all agree on a single consistent communication plan as well.  Yes, professors are all free agents, but this is a time to come together to reduce the mental load for our students.  Here at Richmond Law, we have encouraged professors to send out a single announcement through our learning management system each week with the reading, assignments, and Zoom links for the following week’s classes.  If a student can’t remember what they need to do for that week, they know exactly where to go.  It may be hard to pull off a school-wide plan at this point, but if you are teaching 1Ls, you might try to coordinate with the other 1L professors in your section.  If you are teaching a large upper-level course, try to coordinate with the professors teaching the other courses your students are likely taking.  And don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good here.  A consistent strategy across the school is far better than fifty perfect – but different – strategies. 

Build More Structure into Your Courses.  Most professors have thought deeply about the structure of their courses.  We know how the different doctrinal pieces fit together, and we’ve come up with assessments and other activities to help students learn this doctrine.  If you could see inside my brain, you would see a giant interconnected web of law, diagrams, hypos, and assignments for each of my courses that I have carefully constructed over the last 15 years.  The challenge though is that, even if these connections are clear to us, they may not be nearly as clear to our students. 

Good course design always includes thinking through how to make these connections visible, but this step is especially important this semester.    We are still figuring out how to teach in these new environments, so things that may have been clear to our students in the past may be muddier this fall.  Our students are also learning in new ways, and they may be juggling personal challenges and the stresses of the world in ways that make seeing these connections more challenging.  And many of the normal opportunities to clarify the content with our students – such as conversations before or after class or informal conversations in the hallways – may not happen now.  So it’s worth taking a few minutes to think through how you can make the underlying structure of your course even more visible to your students.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Build structure into your syllabus. This is not the semester for a barebones syllabus with a short list of reading assignments.  Instead, format your syllabus so students can easily tell the major units and sub-units of your course and then include the assignments within this structure.  In my syllabus, for example, the assignments section is in table form with a column that lists each day’s topic and another column listing the specific assignment for that topic.  Each unit in the course has its own table, so students can easily tell the major units in the course and where we are within each unit.
  • Build structure into your class sessions. We all know that attention wanders on Zoom, so keep students oriented by creating a clear structure for the class session and communicating that structure.  I include a slide at the start of every class with the main topics of the day, and I come back to that slide every time we move to the next topic during the class session.  If you don’t use PowerPoint, you can do the same thing by writing the topics on the board and referring back to them when you switch topics. 
  • Highlight the underlying structure of the doctrine. It’s easy for students to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to complicated legal doctrine.  They may focus on the particularities of Pennoyer or International Shoe, for example, without stepping back and understanding how these cases fit into the broader legal landscape.  Most of us have developed ways to  highlight the underlying structure.  For example, when I teach fiduciary duties in Business Associations, I have a single slide laying out how the big pieces fit together that I come back to between every case.  We need to make sure that this part of our teaching doesn’t get lost in the chaos of the fall.  Confirm that these techniques still work if you are teaching remotely and think through new approaches if necessary. 

I am planning one more post for later in the week on how to support struggling students during this semester.  In the meantime, good luck to everyone who started teaching this week!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 18, 2020 at 02:33 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Building Connections Among Your Students -- 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 third step—building connections and community in our physically distanced, remote, or hybrid courses.

In a prior post, I discussed this importance of building connections and community in our courses this fall.  According to the community of inquiry model, if we want to design an effective learning environment, we should consider three types of interaction—(1) how students interact with the material, (2) how they interact with us, and (3) how they interact with each other.  My last post focused on how students can connect with us in these new learning elements, while this post will focus on how we can provide opportunities for students to interact with each other. 

Prioritize Group Assessments & Activities.  We are all rethinking how we will assess and engage students this semester, and with all of the challenges, it can be tempting to simplify and do more lecturing or individual assessments, especially if you are teaching in a physically distanced classroom where group work is far more difficult.  But the cost of choosing more individual assessments is that students will feel even more disconnected from each other.  We need to figure out how to get students talking to each other, even in physically distanced classrooms.  As I’ve talked about previously, it should still work to have students work in groups of two or three even in a physically distanced classroom, and it’s worth the effort even if it feels complicated to get students to work together while in masks.  You might even hold events outside of class that are more informal, like discussions of current events related to the class or a movie watching party.

Create group camaraderie.  Stealing an idea from Harry Potter, consider putting the students into groups and give them opportunities to earn points for their group.  The groups can compete against each other to gain the most points.  The two groups in my class will be the “Pennoyers” and the “International Shoes” (try to guess what class I am teaching…).  If I were teaching Business Associations, I’d break them into houses named after Delaware Court of Chancery judges.  Clearly, my motto is “if you’re going to geek out, geek all the way out.”  I may hold trivia contests or Jeopardy contests related to the course material as a review or just for fun, with the winning house getting points. 

The groups could also serve as a support system for the members.  For example, you could encourage them to share phone numbers, so they can reach out to each other if they are having tech issues.  If you are teaching a hybrid class with only some students in-person each class, you might assign them to the same in-class days, so they get to know each other in-person as well. 

Assign students to study groups.  In a regular semester, study groups can develop naturally.  It is harder for students to connect with each other remotely or in a physically distanced classroom, so you might create study groups early on.  You can give the groups a few assignments that they turn in for a completion grade to create incentives for them to meet as a group.  Not all of the groups will work well together, and I certainly wouldn’t force them to stay together beyond these early assignments, but it could help some students form connections.

Use fun icebreakers.  Consider icebreakers throughout the semester.  We typically use icebreakers on the first day of class and then assume the students will get to know each other organically throughout the rest of the semester.  In physically distanced or remote courses, however, we may have to work harder to introduce (and re-introduce!) the students to each other.  You might pick a theme each week, asking students to send you pictures or tidbits about themselves that relate to the theme. 

Here's what I’m planning.  I’m doing one “just for fun” prompt a week – they’ll be totally optional, but I plan to hype them up so students hopefully put in the few minutes it will take to do them.  I’ll also share my own answers with them so they get to know me a bit better.  If they choose to respond, they will put their responses in their pre-class Google Docs or Flipgrid video assignments, which I talked about here.  (As an aside, if you want sample instructions for either of these technologies, just email me!).  I’ll let the students know that I plan to share a few each class, so they can learn more about each other. 

Here are some sample prompts from my syllabus:

  • At the start of many movies, there is a song that plays when the hero makes their first appearance. This song (often called a “walkout song”) symbolizes the hero’s journey and what is to come.  You have just made your first appearance in law school.  What is your walkout song?  You can include the song title in your Google Doc if you would like.  And if you can’t think of a song that fits, you can include a meme or gif instead.  I stole this prompt from Professor Molly Brady at Harvard, and I love the idea.
  • Do you have a pet? If so, I’d love to see a picture! 
  • Share one thing that has surprised you about law school so far.
  • What TV series have you watched over the last six months that you have really liked?
  • Share your cutest or craziest baby pictures!
  • What’s your favorite board game or card game? What do you love about it?
  • If you could design your perfect career, what would it be?
  • What’s your favorite place to go in [the town where your law school is located]?
  • What’s your favorite holiday and what do you love about it?
  • What has been your favorite part of law school so far? What’s one thing about law school you wish you could change? 
  • If you could go anywhere in the world during winter break, where would you go? Since this is your fantasy, it can be any season you’d like as well. 

Simulate Unstructured Classroom Time. In an in-person class, students will often arrive a bit early and chat with their classmates, or they will stay after class to ask you a question.  You can provide similar opportunities in an online class.  Let the students know that you will open up the Zoom class ten minutes early, but will mute your own mic and speakers, so they can talk to each other.  You can also tell them that you will stay after class for 10 minutes for their questions.

Build fun moments into class.  If you are teaching remotely, you might screenshare word searches or crossword puzzles before class or during the break.  Students can work on them together using the annotation tool in Zoom. I bought an account to wordmint, which allows you to create all kinds of customized games and puzzles.  The account was cheap, and now I can create personalized puzzles for my students.  I might create one for personal jurisdiction, for example, that includes all the new terminology they have learned, from “long-arm statute” to “minimum contacts.” 

Combine fun and attendance:  My colleague Kristen Osenga has a good idea for using our polling software – PollEverywhere -- to take attendance in a fun way.  She asks a question in the first 2 minutes of class like “What’s your favorite decade?,”  “What’s your favorite type of candy?,” and “What are your plans for spring break?”.   The options will usually be multiple choice, and she’ll share her own thoughts as well.  She says that it gets the class talking from the beginning about something not class related, and gives the students a chance to know each other and her.

 Collaborative Start-Stop-Continue: In a start-stop-continue exercise, students work in pairs or small groups to provide their thoughts about what they’d like their instructor to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing in class. The groups can submit their responses to you using a Google Form email, or a free online bulletin board (e.g., Padlet, Lino). You can follow up by summarizing the results and discussing you will or won’t change and why.  This can be a good way for students to collaborate in a low-stakes way and learn how they are each experiencing the class. 

Allow Extra Credit Group Projects.  Consider giving students the option to form groups and do a fun extra credit project.  You might let them research the background of a case, come up with a video explaining a rule to a non-lawyer, or even make a fun hand washing poster that goes with the class:

Handwashing(Full disclosure -- I would love to give credit to whoever created it, but I don't know who that is!  If you know, email me and I'll edit this post.)

I’d love any other tips you have in the comments, or you can join the conversation on Twitter here.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 11, 2020 at 03:14 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, August 07, 2020

Building a Rapport With Your Students -- 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 third step—building connections and community in our physically distanced, remote, or hybrid courses.

 In my last post, I discussed this importance of building connections and community in our courses this fall.  According to the community of inquiry model, if we want to design an effective learning environment, we should consider three types of interaction—(1) how students interact with the material, (2) how they interact with us, and (3) how they interact with each other.  This post will focus on second element, or how students interact with us.  It will be an adjustment for sure, but even if our students are behind masks or a video screen, there are a number of things we can try to build meaningful connections with them. 

Welcome Videos:  Record a short video of yourself to introduce yourself to your students.  Make it fun.  Show your kids, your pets, whatever!  Let them see you as a person rather than just the teacher behind the mask at the front of the room.  You might also talk about what makes the course important/relevant/fun and how they can succeed in it.  Here’s a good example of a script for this sort of video.  You might also have students record short videos of themselves in the first week of class.  You can use your learning management system or a tool like Flipgrid to do this.  You might ask them to give their name, their hometown, and a fun fact about themselves.  Or you can tie it into the course content.  If you teach Civil Procedure, for example, you might style the welcome video as a chance for them explain their citizenship for subject-matter jurisdiction purposes.  You learn a lot about someone by hearing about where they intend to remain indefinitely and why!  Encourage the students to have fun with the videos and then make them all accessible to the whole class, so they can get to know each other a bit better.  

Learn their names quickly.  Try to learn every student’s name, ideally in the first week of class.  Your learning management system may have photographs of the students in your classes.  Our tech team here has used these photographs to create a matching game that professors can use to quiz themselves on your students’ names, but you can just study the photographs as well.  In larger in-person classes, consider having them use name tents for a few weeks.

Get to know them personally.  It will be harder to get to know students when they are behind a mask or screen, so you will have to be more deliberate about making these personal connections.  Consider setting up Zoom coffee dates with individual students in the first few weeks of the semester or with small groups of students if you are teaching larger classes.  You can also ask students to fill out a Google Form at the start of the semester that asks a whole host of information about their background, why they came to law school, and their broader interests.  In your later communications with them, try to refer back to things you know about them from these more personal meetings.  

Use Video Assignments Where Possible.  I’ve talked before about the pre-class assignments my Civil Procedure students do in Google Docs.  This semester, I’m going to make some of these assignments video assignments instead so I can see students without masks on and get to know their personalities a bit better.  My learning management system allows video assignments, but I think I’m going to use Flipgrid this fall­­—its interface is more personal and frankly fun, and it seems like a better platform if your goal is to build connections.  In these videos, you might ask them to summarize a key point of law from the assigned reading or give a hypothetical client advice based on the reading.  You might also ask for their personal views on the reading—i.e., do they think the court got it right?  why or why not?

Record periodic videos yourself.  If you get a few questions from students on the same point, you might record a brief video clarifying the point and send it out to your students.  Especially if you are teaching in a physically distanced classroom this fall, these videos could be a good opportunity for your students to see you without your mask on.  Make these videos a little more personal and engaging than you might in a normal semester. 

Make office hours more inviting.  I don’t know about you, but my office hours aren’t typically the most popular events.  I’ll sit in my office for a few hours, and maybe one or two students will stop by, at least until we get a few weeks out from exams.  This semester, I am going to work harder to get students to attend.  I’m renaming them “student hours” based on recommendations suggesting that some students (especially first-generation students) may not know the purpose of office hours, and I plan to regularly encourage students in my classes to attend.  When students do attend, I will make a special effort to get to know them personally.  Logistically, office hours are pretty easy to hold in Zoom—just enable your personal waiting room, and admit students one-by-one in the order in which they arrived in the room.  I may also hold some communal office hour sessions that function more like review sessions at the end of different units, so students can have more opportunities to interact with each other.      

Hold optional events outside of class.  A few times during the semester, you might hold an optional event related to the course.  For example, you can invite them to read a few chapters of a book related to the course or send out a shorter article or video, and then meet one evening on Zoom (or even physically distanced in your backyard or on campus) to discuss.  You might also hold an optional session to talk about course content in the news.  If you teach a business related course, you might talk about what the heck happened at WeWork.  If you teach Civil Procedure, you might talk about the oral argument in the Ford personal jurisdiction case that will be argued in October.  The goal here would be to bring together a smaller group in a less formal setting.  If you are teaching in a physically distanced class where everyone is wearing masks, you might hold these smaller sessions over Zoom so people can see each other without masks on.

Notice positive contributions.  Send students a personal email when they have a good contribution in class, a discussion board, or an assignment.  Keep track of who has received emails, and see if you can send at least one or two emails to every student during the semester. 

Humanize your tech.  We will likely be using technology a lot more this semester, but the default interfaces can feel really impersonal.  I’m going to make my Blackboard course page and my slides more human and interesting this semester.  In your learning management system, consider adding your own profile picture and/or adding images in your posts (here are directions -- go down to “add images in the editor”).  In PowerPoint, trade the black-on-white slides for slide templates that are a bit more engaging.  You might also add pictures, videos, etc. to text-filled slides.  It’s a little thing, but the world already feels impersonal enough right now without our tech choices adding to it.

Embrace imperfections.  New online teachers often have a desire to make their class sessions perfect. I was definitely guilty of this in the spring.  When I recorded asynchronous videos, for example, I would keep re-recording them until I could get a take without any stumbles or other issues.  But experts in online pedagogy say that stumbles help personalize online courses.  Students don’t necessarily want the Coursera version of a law school course.  They want to see their professor as a real person and that means seeing the version of the video where your kid interrupted your recording or where you momentarily  forgot what you were going to say.   This spring, my students had many laughs at the “cloffice” (i.e., closet/office) where I hid from my kids during our class sessions, and I think it helped bring humor to the class in a way that a perfect Zoom background would not have. 

I’d love your suggestions as well – feel free to post other ideas in the comments.  In my next post, I’ll talk about ways to connect students with each other this fall. 

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 7, 2020 at 06:45 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The Importance of Building Connections and Community -- 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

My posts so far in this series have focused on the first two steps of my five step approach to redesigning your courses to be physically distanced or remote— (1) identifying your learning objectives and (2) deciding on your assessment and engagement techniques.  This post will introduce the third step, which focuses on building connections and community in these new learning environments.  

We may think of connections and community as things that are nice to have, but they are actually essential to student learning.  Research shows that a sense of community at school is associated with increased motivation, greater enjoyment of their classes, and more effective learning.  The research also suggests that building this sense of community is much harder in online or hybrid courses.  Students in online environments struggle with feeling isolated (as do many professors!).

Most of the empirical data on this topic comes from undergraduates, but data from the Law Student Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) shows that a sense of belonging matters to law students as well.  LSSSE data has been used to examine both the inputs and outputs of law students’ sense of belonging.  In other words, using the LSSSE data, we can gain insight into what causes law students to feel a sense of belonging (the inputs) and the impact that a sense of belonging has on law students’ performance in law school and their career more generally (the outputs).

Starting with the inputs, LSSSE’s 2018 report Relationships Matter surveyed more than 18,000 students at 72 different law schools.  They conclude:  “Relationships with faculty, administrators, and peers are among the most influential aspects of the law student experience. These connections deepen students’ sense of belonging and enhance their understanding of class work and the profession.”  Connections, in other words, are key when it comes to fostering law students’ sense of belonging.  That’s not surprising.  Think back to your most meaningful learning experiences in law school.  They probably didn’t happen when you were passively listening in class.  For me at least, they came through study groups and conversations with faculty—i.e., those times in law school when my learning combined with meaningful relationships.

When it comes to the outputs, we can look at research summarized here by Professor Victor D. Quintanilla, who was one of the researchers who conducted a key study using LSSSE data.  They found that a sense of belonging significantly predicted three key outputs – (1) students’ overall experience in law school, (2) whether they would choose to go to law school again, and (3) their academic success (i.e., law school GPA).  Moreover, not only does a student’s sense of belonging help predict their academic performance, but the impact was even greater than other commonly used predictors such as undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores.  This means that, even if students come to law school with different academic backgrounds, we can help close this gap by fostering our students’ sense of belonging. 

Professor Quintanilla depicts the inputs and outputs of law students’ sense of belonging as follows:

The takeaways from this research are clear.  We cannot just focus on the content of our courses.  If we want our students to succeed, we also need to help foster key connections between our students and between our students, faculty, and staff.  In traditional classes, these connections develop fairly naturally.  Students talk casually with the professor and each other before and after class, and they bolster these connections through interactions outside of class—stopping by a professor’s office, running into their classmates in the hallways or the library, etc.  There are also personal bonds that develop in class when we can see people’s faces and expressions.  These connections will be much harder in physically distanced or remote classrooms, so this fall we will have to be much more intentional about developing a sense of connection and community among our students.

So how do we do it?  The theory on building community in online courses is built around the community of inquiry model.  The model has been represented as follows:


Social presence refers to the development of an online environment in which participants feel socially and emotionally connected with each other.  Cognitive presence describes the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.  Teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of meaningful learning.

This can feel a little abstract, but the main idea is that you need to think intentionally about how students will interact with the content, how they will interact with you, and how they will interact with each other.  I’ve talked about how students interact with the content in my prior posts on assessment and engagement techniques.  In my next two posts, I’ll discuss the other components, starting with how to foster connections between you and your students.  

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 5, 2020 at 06:49 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (1)

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 | Comments (1)

Friday, July 31, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Community-Based Learning in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and 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. 

One of the best parts of teaching in a law school is creating opportunities for students to take their learning out into the world.  We can bring speakers into our class, we can take students to visit a court or administrative agency to see the law in practice, and we can have our students meet up with real clients who may need their help. I even have a colleague who has her Criminal Procedure students do a ride along with the local police department.  Yet none of this will be possible this fall, at least not the way we’ve done it in the past—we certainly can’t put students on a bus and drive up to the Supreme Court, for example.  We could just scrap community-based learning entirely, but I’d love to explore ways to bring the community to our students, even if they are on Zoom.

Bring in speakers remotely.  This option is obvious, but I want to encourage professors to dream big on the speakers they invite into their remote courses.  Pre-COVID, it was hard to get big name speakers into our courses – virtual presentations were rare, and people often didn’t want to travel to talk to a handful of law students.  Now that we all work over Zoom, it’s so much easier to get someone to participate in a 30 minute virtual visit with a class.  So make a list of your dream speakers and invite them to your class.

Record a brief interview with a practicing lawyer about the material.  As asynchronous videos become more common, we might explore using them to introduce practicing lawyers’ views about the material we cover in class.  I’ll give one example here.  As any business law professor knows, the law on corporate boards’ oversight liability is in flux right now.  Rather than just letting my students hear from me on how the law is changing, I’m considering calling up 2-3 lawyers and asking them to record a brief interview with me on the impact of recent cases on traditional doctrine. These interviews will give my students a broader perspective on the law, while also letting them know that the cases they are reading in class actually matter to lawyers out in the world.

Ask lawyers to record their thoughts on assigned problems.  Like many professors, I often assign problem sets at the end of course units, and we go over the problems in class.  This year, I’m contemplating a new approach.  We’ll still talk about the problems as a class, but then I’ll show a video of a practicing lawyers working through the same problem.  I’ve never tried this approach, but my guess is that the lawyer will have a broader perspective on the problems than our in-class discussion, looking beyond the formal rules to the practicalities of pursuing various claims. 

Show law working remotely.  The legal profession has experienced tremendous upheaval over the last few months as hearings, trials, and mediations have all moved online.  It’s worth exploring whether our students can witness this upheaval for themselves.  If you’ve previously required students to visit your local court and attend a hearing, maybe they can attend a virtual hearing this semester.  The great thing about this option is that you don’t need to limit your class to local hearings.  Even if the courts around you are operating in-person, you may be able to find a locality somewhere in the country where courts are still virtual.

Use podcasts to provide broader context.  I’ve oriented my entire Business Associations course around podcasts.  At the start of each unit, I require students to listen to a podcast describing a business.  I then feature this business in all of the hypotheticals for this business, and then we end each unit with a lengthier case study relating to that business.  If you want my podcast list, just email me!  Sometimes I even reach out to the business to ask the founders for their thoughts on what they wanted from their lawyers in starting the business.  This approach helps students see the human side of business law, but a similar approach could work in other classes as well.  I won’t pretend that I know the podcasts options in all of the different areas of law, but there are enough out there that I’m sure we can all find some interesting options.    

Try a Community Interest Journal.  This idea comes from the Cross Academy, and they have more information about it here.  The basic idea is simple.  You have students create a journal or even just a single essay in which they connect real-world events to material from class.  I could imagine asking students to find an example of fiduciary duties in the news for my Business Associations course or class actions in the news for my Civil Procedure class.  I like the idea because it gives students some choice in how they engage with the material, which we know is important in fostering motivation.

My plan is to have one more post on assessment & engagement, focusing on metacognition strategies in the new learning environments.  I’ll then turn to ideas for building community and connection in our courses.


Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 31, 2020 at 10:55 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Group Work in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and 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.  Recent posts have focused on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

One of the biggest challenges in law school classrooms this fall will be figuring out how to have our students do collaborative work in class.  No matter what your teaching situation is, it will be difficult.  If you are teaching in a physically distanced classroom with students in masks and 6 feet away from each other, you will need to figure out how to get students to work together without shouting from across the room.  If you are teaching remotely, you need to figure out how to use breakout groups effectively.  These are very different challenges, but I know they are on people’s minds these days.  Here are some tips for doing group work in these two classroom settings.

Group Work in a Physically Distanced Classroom

Group work will definitely be challenging in physically distanced classes.  There aren’t any easy ways to allow five students to work together in class when they can’t get within six feet of each other.  Yet, it would be a shame if we abandoned group work entirely this fall.  With all of the new health requirements, we already feel more distant from each other, so we need to find ways to connect in our classes, and group work is a good way to do that.

So how do we do it?  I’ve been in a fair number of physically distanced classrooms lately (one of the “perks” of being an associate dean…), and I think think-pair-share will still work.  Even at six feet apart, students can still talk to the person next to them fairly easily and then share their thoughts with the whole class.  If the groups get bigger than two students though, it gets harder, especially as everyone raises their voices to be heard across the six foot distances.  So we can do group work in class as long as we limit the groups to two or perhaps three people. 

Alternatively, we can try group annotation.  I was skeptical of this option at first – I’ve seen too many online learning books that suggest having students “talk” to each other in a chat box or google doc, which just seems weird, at least if the expectation is that they will engage in complex work through these techniques.  But I think it feels less forced if students are working collaboratively to edit or comment on a single document.  So, for example, you might give groups of three or four students a copy of an operating agreement or complaint and let them edit it together, through comment boxes or redlining.  I wouldn’t overuse this technique, but I could see it being helpful for a 10-15 minute exercise. 

Finally, we can move the group work outside of class.  This approach is admittedly contrary to the idea of in-person classes, but it also reflects the reality that physically distanced classrooms are just different from traditional classrooms and we need to adapt to that.  Perhaps you lecture a bit more in class and then move the group exercise to a set time out of class.  Or you put students in assigned groups and let them come up with their own time to meet.  If you do that, you need to adjust the other work they are supposed to do outside of class so you’re not overwhelming them, but it could work for those group exercises where you really want them to talk with each other.

Now what may not work -- I don’t think we can do Zoom breakout groups while everyone is in the same physical classroom.  I originally thought this was the perfect solution.  Just have everyone log into Zoom while in class (perhaps wearing headphones) and then you can send them all into breakout groups to talk to each before resuming an in-person discussion with the full class.  But we tried it in our classrooms here, and the feedback from all of the mics on all of the computers was loud and drowned out everything else.  That said, I’ve heard from professors at other schools who have been told by their tech team that this option can work.  If you’ve tried it successfully, let me know your secret -- I'd love to try it in my classes!  Either way, though, if this is your plan, you definitely want to test it ahead of time.

Group Work in Remote Courses

This is one area where remote courses are definitely superior to physically distanced ones.  Group work is just a lot easier on Zoom or a similar platform where you can send the students into breakout rooms.  But as many of us learned this year, it is hard to keep students on task in breakout rooms.  It’s easy for them to start talking about their weekend rather than the assignment.  So how can we design breakout groups to enhance student learning? 

Discuss shared norms.  Breakout rooms are new for all of us, so students may not know how to work in them productively.  It’s worth having a discussion about the group’s shared norms at the start of the semester.  Discuss ways that groups can get off track and how to address them.

Clear deliverables.  This one is key.  Don’t send students into breakout groups to “discuss” a topic.  Instead give them an assignment with a clear deliverable that they have to turn in at the end.  For example, you might have a specific question they need to answer when they return to the full discussion.  Or you can have ask them for their top three thoughts on a given topic.  I have used Google Forms in the past where students need to fill in their takeaways and then submit it in the assigned time. 

Assign students different roles.  Another way to add structure to the breakout groups is to assign students to play specific roles in the breakout groups.  One student is the moderator who is tasked with getting the discussion going and keeping it on task.  Another student is the reporter who will have to share the group’s output with the rest of the class.  I also assign students to be the devil’s advocate to ask hard questions and push the discussion deeper. 

Make the prompts visible.  I’ve been in too many breakout groups where the first five minutes are consumed with questions about what exactly we are supposed to be doing.  Make the task clear, and give them a written summary that they can refer back to when they are in the breakout rooms.  The easiest way to do this is to cut and paste the prompt into the chat.  I’ll often have a word document ready to go with the specific text I plan to paste into the chat.  Alternatively, if you want them to refer to slides in their groups, you can have an email to the class set to go with just the relevant slides or you can post them in your learning management system perhaps in a section called “Materials for Today’s Class.”  Either way, remember that any slides you have screenshared before sending students into breakout groups won’t be visible in the groups, so you can’t just rely on screen sharing to share the prompt.

Monitor group progress.  Zoom allows you to visit breakout groups, but I personally think it is disruptive when the professor suddenly appears in the room.  A different approach is to have students document their work in a Google Doc that they share with you.  You might send them a link to a single google doc in the chat that includes links to other google docs named for each group (i.e., “click here to go to group 1’s workspace.”).  That’s a bit tricky to set up logistically, but once you get into a rhythm, I don’t think it will be that hard, and you can then monitor the group’s work in real time. 

Name the Groups.  Consider naming the breakout groups, as laid out here.  This name will show up in the left hand corner of the groups’ screen, so they can easily see it.  Naming the groups has a few clear benefits.  First, if the groups have different tasks, it will let them know which tasks they are responsible for, preventing a “wait, are we the plaintiffs or the defendants in this exercise?” moment.  Second, if you are using google docs to direct them to a group workspace as explained above, it will tell them which workspace is theirs.  Third, it will allow you to direct questions to specific groups when the class gets back together again. 

Pre-Assign Groups.  Zoom lets you assign students to groups manually or randomly.  I used random assignment in the spring, but this fall, I plan to put students into assigned groups that they stick with for a few class sessions, mostly to let them get to know each other a bit better.  Rather than assigning groups on the fly during class, which always feels stressful, I will use the pre-assign feature in Zoom.  Full disclosure – I’ve been using this feature this summer, and it’s really glitchy, bringing maybe 50 percent of the students into the assigned rooms – but it’s still easier to start with pre-named rooms and some of the students already assigned than to do everything during class while the students are waiting. 

Use a Timer:  Zoom has the option to set a timer for the breakout rooms that shows students how much time is left in the groups.  It is easy to enable, and it helps focus the conversation as time is running out. 

In my next post, I will talk about how to incorporate community-based learning into physically distanced, hybrid, and remote courses.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 29, 2020 at 12:32 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching: Guest Post on Combining Asynchronous and Live Online Teaching--Reasons and Strategies

This guest post is by Nina A. Kohn, David M. Levy Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Online Education, Syracuse University College of Law.  For the other posts in the series on preparing for fall teaching, see here.

My last post explored why faculty transitioning to online teaching should make live (or “synchronous”) teaching their default option.  Today’s post follows up with an explanation of why law faculty should nevertheless consider incorporating self-paced (or “asynchronous”) elements into their courses.  It also provides practical tips for faculty looking to add self-paced content to courses that are mere weeks away.

As I see it, there are three primary benefits to incorporating asynchronous elements into law courses.

Incorporating asynchronous lessons enhances live class.  Pairing live and asynchronous learning increases the likelihood that students come to live class sessions ready to engage with the material.  Students who have the opportunity to work through asynchronous lessons will tend to have a better understanding of material than they would have if they had only done assigned reading.  This is especially likely when asynchronous lessons include formative assessments that enable students to determine whether they understand the underlying material.  When students have tested their own understanding of foundational information before they join live class, faculty can use live class time more efficiently and engage in discussion of more nuanced and complex issues.

Incorporating asynchronous lessons expands formative assessment opportunities.  Law students tend to crave feedback and opportunities to assess how they are doing.  In part this is because many law school courses rely primarily on a single final exam to provide feedback, and this increases students’ anxiety about their performance and decreases their self-awareness as to their own competencies.  Asynchronous education is well-suited to addressing students’ need for feedback.  By incorporating questions or exercises into the asynchronous class—and providing students with either direct feedback or the ability to compare their answers to a model answer—faculty can help students understand their strengths and weaknesses.  Faculty who review the resulting student work—as should be the norm—can also identify students who may need extra help.

Incorporating asynchronous lessons increases flexibility for students.  Asynchronous instruction allows students to pace their learning according to their own needs and abilities.  In addition, students who would benefit from reviewing a lesson can readily do so.  The ability to review may be especially helpful during the Covid-19 pandemic as students struggle with physical and emotional health and caregiving responsibilities. 

But how can faculty capture these benefits of asynchronous education for their fall 2020 classes?  After all, as I discuss in-depth in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Education, creating high-quality asynchronous courses requires incorporating substantial interactive elements—and that takes a major up-front investment of time and resources.  The answer, I believe, is to: (1) keep asynchronous instruction short, and (2) use it primarily to convey information that can serve as a springboard for live class discussions. 

As a practical matter, in most subjects, this will mean using the asynchronous class time to cover foundational doctrines or frameworks (i.e., the “black letter law”) to be explored in greater depth in live class sessions.  One way to do this is to record a short lecture on a key doctrine or concrete skill, and pair that lecture with a question, problem, or exercise.  For example, faculty members might post a video of themselves explaining a particular doctrine to their school’s learning management system, and then ask students to analyze a problem, draft a reflection, or prepare an analysis using that doctrine.  That resulting work could be shared with the professor for review, with classmates on a discussion board, or during a live class session in which the professor calls on students to share their answers.    

Asynchronous lessons built this way need not—and typically should not—be long.  As Debora Threedy and Aaron Dewald observed in a 2016 article, even a ten minute asynchronous lesson can help faculty make better use of live class time.  And, especially for faculty who lack the time or resources to create lessons with embedded questions and exercises, keeping lessons short helps reduces the likelihood that students will lose focus or stop paying attention.

In sum, law faculty teaching online in the fall should consider conducting a (short but sweet) portion of each week’s class in an asynchronous manner.  This can not only support student learning, but make teaching more satisfying for faculty.  At least in my experience, the better prepared students are to engage in lively discussion, the more fun it is to teach.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 24, 2020 at 01:40 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching -- Guest Post on Law School Online: Choosing Between Live and Asynchronous Teaching

This guest post is by Nina A. Kohn, David M. Levy Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Online Education, Syracuse University College of Law.  For the other posts in the series on preparing for fall teaching, see here.

Law faculty nationwide are grappling with how best to teach courses that are online for all or part of the semester.  The single most important decision most will make is what format to use. 

Should they teach synchronous (or “live”) classes, using a videoconferencing platform such as Zoom?  Should they teach asynchronous (or “self-paced”) classes, recording lectures or other content that students can interact with on a more flexible schedule?  Should they combine the two formats?

As someone who led the design and implementation of an online JD program, spent the past several months training faculty transitioning to online teaching, and has taught both a traditional, doctrinal course (Torts) and a seminar (Aging and the Law) online, my recommendation is actually very simple:  law faculty should make synchronous (live) teaching their default. 

As I explore in depth in my new article “Teaching Law Online: A Guide for Faculty” (forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education), there are three primary reasons for making live law teaching the default even when classes are online.

Ease.  With training, reasonable class sizes, and the right technology, law professors teaching live online can employ the same teaching techniques that honed in their residential classrooms.  By comparison, unless faculty use exclusively a lecture format in their courses—and plan simply to record lectures for students to watch in lieu of live class (not recommended!)—moving to an asynchronous format requires faculty to fundamentally rethink how they teach. 

Resources.  Excellent live teaching can be accomplished with less up-front investment by schools and faculty than can excellent asynchronous teaching.  With some training and an appropriate videoconferencing application (e.g., Zoom), faculty can readily conduct high-quality live online classes without other new resources. 

By comparison, creating high-quality, self-paced lessons requires a substantial investment of time and resources.  This is because, as education experts have long agreed, high-quality education involves active learning so that students retain skills or knowledge conveyed during instruction.  In an asynchronous environment, active learning can be facilitated by incorporating questions and exercises that require students to apply what they are learning. Such integration, however, is resource-intensive. 

Faculty who do wish to develop asynchronous instruction that follows good practices, including sufficient interactivity, cannot simply rely on old teaching notes.  Rather, they must deliberately design lessons that strategically build in questions and exercises that can be completed asynchronously.  Moreover, since (as Michael Hunter Schwartz explained in a recent article) best practice is to intersperse interactivity at least every ten minutes, fully asynchronous classes should have embedded applied learning exercises.  They should not simply rely on long videos with exercises for students to do at the end.  But building this type of asynchronous classroom experience requires faculty to collaborate with professional online course builders or learn how to build interactive courses themselves.  And faculty may find that their schools lack the staff or technology resources to support either.

Quality.  The relative ease of live teaching, combined with the limited required investment of resources, means that faculty—especially those seeking to rapidly pivot their courses into an online format—are more likely to teach well live than to teach well asynchronously.  In addition, live teaching lends itself to dialogue and discussion-based teaching, which helps students build and practice the analytical, argumentative, and real-time processing skills that are core to the successful practice of law. 

Unfortunately, although best practice is to treat live teaching as the default even when online, many universities continue to treat asynchronous education as the default form of online education.  This tendency reflects the historical roots of online education.  When online education arrived on the higher education scene, it was largely asynchronous with limited interactivity.  This approach reflected the limitations of videoconferencing software and the role that online education played at the time.  Online education was not seen as a substitute for elite education, or central to the mission most universities.  Rather, especially among elite universities, online education was used to provide bulk training and enrichment opportunities, and new revenue streams that would support core programming.  Having tenure and tenure-track faculty record lectures, but otherwise limit their involvement in the online education space, was a way to leverage faculty resources without unduly diverting faculty attention away from more central endeavors. 

As universities move core degree programs online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important not to blindly accept the assumption that asynchronous education should be the default mode of online education – an assumption that is based on largely outdated considerations. 

Law faculty, in particular, should make live online teaching their default because live teaching is well-suited to teaching analytical and communication skills that lawyers need.  Asynchronous education should only be used in law courses when faculty are willing and able to build asynchronous content that fosters active learning.  Stay tuned for my next post where I break down some ways that faculty can build asynchronous lessons that do just that.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 22, 2020 at 03:27 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Discussion Boards in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and 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.  Posts this week will focus on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

Most assessment and engagement tools that people are talking about now are relatively familiar for most law professors.  We know how to check individual students’ comprehension in class, oversee discussions, and facilitate group work.  We just need help adapting these familiar techniques for physically distanced or remote courses.  Discussion boards, however, are different. Most law faculty have never used discussion boards, and my guess is that most of us have a pretty negative view of them.  And yet they seem quite prevalent in online courses, so I think many of us might be wondering if we should use them this fall and, if so, how we can use them effectively.

Should we use discussion boards?

I don’t claim to be an expert here, and I’ll invite anyone who has been teaching remotely for a long time to correct me, but my sense is that discussion boards are most helpful for asynchronous courses.  In asynchronous courses, it can be much more difficult to have students interact with the material and each other.  Done well (see tips below), discussion boards can be a great tool to help with these pedagogical challenges.   

I’ve been a little more skeptical of them in primarily synchronous courses, but I’m starting to wonder if they might have a role.  As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, I often have students complete a brief assignment before class to make sure that they understand the reading.  Usually these assignments are in Blackboard with a short quiz or in a Google Doc that only I can see, but perhaps there is value in having the class be able to see each other’s answers, especially once they have submitted their own answers.   Alternatively, building off an earlier tip to build in time for pre-discussion reflection, I can also imagine using discussion boards to get the students thinking about more complex issues from the reading.  Their comments in the discussion board could then serve as the foundation for later (hopefully more robust) discussions in a synchronous class session. 

How can we use discussion boards effectively?

I took an online course this summer that used discussion boards pretty effectively.  Here are some tips from that experience.

Determine the objective of each discussion thread.  Not all discussion threads are created equal.  Be thoughtful about the purpose of each thread.   There are at least four different types of discussion board threads:

  1. Introduction Do you want students to introduce themselves to each other or get to know each other better?
  2. Initial Engagement. Do you want students to engage with the material before class to ensure that they show up to class prepared?
  3. Application. Do you want students to apply what they have learned to new situations, perhaps after an initial class session or video on the material?
  4. Extension. Do you want students to take what they have learned and extend it into new areas or integrate it with other learning?

Once you know the goal of the thread, you can craft your prompt with this goal in mind.  Of course, you can switch between goals from week to week, but it’s important not to try to have a single thread do too much.

Craft prompts that require engagement.  Unless you are only looking for a short answer response, try to use prompts that require your students to engage with the material.  Avoid prompts that call for objective responses or open-ended questions that ask students “What do you think about….”  Instead try prompts that start with action verbs such as “compare,” “explain,” “identify,” or “describe.”  You can also use prompts that require students to contribute information that hasn’t been contributed yet, so they have to dig into their classmates’ posts.  For example, in a Civil Procedure class, the prompt might say, “Choose a discovery tool that has not previously been used by one of your classmates and explain how the plaintiffs could use this tool to find evidence to support their claims.”  This only works if the groups are relatively small (see below).

Be clear about your expectations.  Many of our students have not used discussions boards in their classes, so you will have to be clear about what a good discussion post looks like.  Do you expect them to include citations to the reading?  Do they need to do outside research?  If you give them credit simply for posting or hitting the required number of words, you probably won’t get the thoughtful posts you want.  Similarly, if they are responding to another student’s post, let them know what a good response looks like.  For example, let students know that simply restating and/or affirming another student’s post isn’t enough to get credit.  Instead, tell them that they will be graded on whether they advance the discussion.  If students know up front that they have to move the discussion forward to get credit for their post, they will engage more with the material.  You can also use the 3CQ approach, which requires students to include two of the following elements in their response--compliment, comment, connection, and question--with each element including supporting details.

Use separate threads.  If you have a big class, consider creating separate threads for different groups of students.  In a 70 person class, you wouldn’t expect all of the students to be able to have a single in-person discussion that includes everyone, so you probably shouldn’t expect them to have a conversation on a discussion board that includes everyone either.  Instead, create 10 different threads and assign groups of 7 students to each one.  Most learning management systems allow you to place students into groups for discussion threads pretty easily.

Stagger initial and response posts.  Professors often ask students to make an initial post and then respond to at least one other student’s post, but this can lead to a flood of posts right before the deadline.  Instead set up two different deadlines – one for the initial posts and one for the response posts.  This is such a simple switch, but it makes a real difference in the quality of the posts. 

Consider whether to allow students to view others’ responses.  Most learning management systems allow you to decide whether students can see each other’s responses before they post.  The right approach likely depends on your objective.  If you want students to get to an objectively right or wrong answer, then you probably want to hide other responses, so they can’t see how other students approached the problem before they try it.  On the other hand, if your goal is to start a discussion, you need to allow them to see each other’s responses. 

Participate, but not too much.  A discussion board is one place where the professor can interact and build connections with students, so it is important for the professor to participate by responding to student posts and pushing the discussion in new directions.  On the other hand, if the professor participates too much, they can chill the discussion and keep students from talking to each other.  So carefully consider how much engagement you want to have with students in the discussion threads. 

Advanced Tips:  If you want to get fancy, here are a few advanced tips:

  1. Use the fishbowl approach to allow a small number of students to have a discussion while other students observe the discussion, similar to what you might do in class. Most learning management systems facilitate this technique.
  2. Consider alternative forms of responding. Rather than having students write out their responses, let them get creative.  Encourage them to post video responses or create a concept map or PowerPoint.
  3. Have them respond in role. Ask them to craft a discussion post from the perspective of a client or a judge or opposing counsel. 

In my next post, I’ll talk about group work in physically distanced and remote courses.    

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 21, 2020 at 02:58 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, July 17, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Discussion and Socratic Dialogue in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and 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.  Over the next two weeks, I will focus on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

One of the biggest challenges professors face this fall is how to spark discussion and conduct Socratic dialogue in their courses.  Anyone who taught this spring knows that it is so much harder to get students talking over Zoom than in a traditional classroom.  There’s something about staring at a bunch of faces on a screen that makes people more hesitant to join in.  I’ve never tried to hold a discussion in a physically distanced classroom with everyone in masks and six feet apart, but I can’t imagine it will be any easier.  So how can we generate meaningful discussions, especially around difficult topics, when we are distanced from one another?

I don’t have any techniques that will magically erase these challenges.  It will be hard.  But I do have some tips that may help.  The key, I think, is setting the stage for the discussion in more deliberate ways. Consider the following strategies:

Reflect on your implicit norms.  As you look to build more opportunities for discussion into your courses, you might start by reflecting on the implicit norms of discussion in your courses. This article from the Chronicle is great on fostering discussions more generally, but it also unpacks the social norms around discussions in higher ed classrooms.  The article discusses two specific norms that you may recognize from your own classes:

  1. “Civil attention. In a typical classroom, students aren’t required to ‘pay attention,’ only to pay ‘civil attention.’ What that means: So long as students appear to be listening, they can expect that the professor won’t call on them unless they signal a willingness to participate. How do students demonstrate civil attention? By nodding their heads, taking notes, chuckling at the instructor’s attempts at humor, or making brief eye contact. And by the things they don’t do: sleeping, texting, whispering to classmates. Students who are paying civil attention aren’t necessarily listening: They may, in fact, be daydreaming or deciding on their lunch plans. They may be writing a paper for another course when they appear to be taking notes. But by paying civil attention, students perceive that they have met their obligation to the course and to you, the instructor. Engage in discussion? They see that as optional.
  1. Consolidation of responsibility. Regardless of class size, only a small number of students — typically five to eight — will account for 75 to 95 percent of the comments made in a discussion. It’s easy to be deceived into thinking that you helped facilitate a great discussion when, in reality, you had a great discussion with five students, while the majority were spectators. The ‘consolidation of responsibility’ norm means that a few students assume responsibility for most of the discussion.”

If you want to foster discussion in these new learning environments, you might start by analyzing whether these norms are present in your classes and whether you are willing to disrupt them.  If you are open to new norms, think specifically about the goals for your discussions.  What percentage of the class do you want to participate each class?  What types of participation count? 

Acknowledge the challenges.  Be candid about the difficulties with your students and discuss strategies to address them as a group. For topics that might be controversial or difficult, use class time to develop shared norms for these conversations. 

Direct the conversation more than you normally would.  In a physically distanced or remote classroom, you may need to use more direct prompts and follow-up questions.  For example, you might assign a discussion leader for each case or class.  Alternatively, you can assign panels so a group of students is officially on call for each class.  Practice active moderation by interrupting interrupters and making space for those who have not participated.  You might also try to amplify voices that may not otherwise be heard.  Professor Tiffany Atkins has a short article that provides some helpful tips on amplification in the classroom. 

Allow more pre-discussion reflection.  Give students time to think about the topic before starting the discussion.  You can do this in a number of ways.  In the simplest form, just give students a minute or two to think through their answer before asking for volunteers.  Or have them write down a few notes about the prompt first.   For deeper questions, you might give them more time to reflect on their thoughts.  For example, if you know the discussion will center on one or two specific questions, ask the students to reflect on these questions and write 1-2 paragraphs about them before class.  They can turn in these questions through Blackboard or a Google Doc.  In remote courses, you can send students into breakout groups and have them discuss the question on their own first, so they are then more comfortable then discussing the issue with the larger group.  In physically distanced courses, you might ask the students to discuss the issue with the person next to them first. 

Many professors are also worried about how to conduct Socratic dialogue in these new learning environments.  Socratic dialogue is more difficult in a physically distanced or remote classroom, although the reasons may have more to do with us than our students.  Socratic questioning can feel awkward for professors in the best of times, but it feels even more awkward when the students are behind screens or masks.  Personally, I am just more hesitant to call on students in these circumstances.  I don’t think I’m alone.  I’ve had several professors tell me that Socratic questioning “just doesn’t work” in these new settings.

But I think it can work.  We had professors here at Richmond Law who carried on their classes remotely just like they had before, calling on students and engaging in Socratic discussion over Zoom.  And in general, the students really liked it.  In evaluations, several students remarked at how much they liked the fact that class felt “normal.”  It may feel awkward to us to call on students who appear on a screen while in their apartments, but if we push through that awkwardness, we can recapture some of what we’re used to in traditional classrooms.  So I don’t think we need write off Socratic discussion entirely.

That said, we might want to think about how to use this method more effectively.  During this semester especially, we may want to soften our Socratic questioning.  Consider acknowledging the initial awkwardness, discussing with the class that it can feel a bit weird for everyone when they are called on but also explaining why you think it has pedagogical value.  You can also give students times when they know they are not on call, perhaps by assigning panels or providing clear rules on how and when students can opt out. 

I’ll end by saying that this discussion assumes that Socratic dialogue is a good thing.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not sure it has as much pedagogical value as we assume.  Done right, it can lead to active learning, but we need to put in a lot of work to make sure that we are actually engaging all students using this approach.  I’ll leave that debate for another day though! 

In my next post, I will delve more into the topic of discussions in remote courses by providing some ideas on how to use discussion boards more effectively. 

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 17, 2020 at 02:56 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Assessment Through Comprehension Checks in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and 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.

In an earlier post, I laid out a five step approach to redesigning your courses for a physically distanced, hybrid, or remote semester.  Over the next two weeks, I will be focusing on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments.  I covered the basics of assessment theory as it relates to these new learning environments in my last post.  In this post, I will begin to talk about specific assessment techniques.

Aside from all of the other challenges of teaching in a distanced classroom, we will all have to figure out whether and how to change the ways in which we engage and assess our students.  The techniques that we’ve used in the past may not work in these new learning environments.  As we have seen, it can be much harder to get students to participate in discussions when they are participating remotely.  You can’t just put people on Zoom or in a room with masks and trust that conversation will naturally develop.  Group work is similarly a lot harder in a physically distanced classroom, as is peer editing.  You have to thoughtfully and deliberately re-engineer interaction from the traditional classroom to fit the physically distanced, hybrid, or remote space. 

Over the next two weeks, I’ll talk about six different assessment and engagement techniques – comprehension checks, Socratic dialogue, discussion, group work, community-based learning, and reflection & metacognition.  I also hope to include a few guest posts from legal analysis & writing faculty and clinical faculty on specific assessment techniques used in these classes. 

The rest of this post will focus on comprehension checks – i.e., quick assessments to make sure that students understand the material and can apply it.  I am going to break down comprehension checks into those done before class to make sure that students have completed and understood the reading and those done during class to check that students understand the class discussion and are able to apply it to new situations. 

Pre-Class Comprehension Checks 

I’ve used a number of techniques to check students’ comprehension before class, and I’m considering a few new ones this year.  The benefit of these techniques is that I can move some of the analytical work into students’ before-class preparation, leaving more class time for deeper work.  I can also easily gauge whether students understood the material, allowing me to correct common misconceptions in class.

Google Doc Assignments.  My Civil Procedure syllabus often includes a brief assignment that students must complete before each class session (see here for a few examples).  The assignments are designed to take no more than 15-20 minutes.  The logistics are pretty simple and are designed to (i) keep students from emailing their assignments to me and flooding my inbox, and (ii) make it easy for me to review and comment on students’ answers.  Each student has their own google doc for class that they share with me; they are all based on the same template that I provide them.  I grade their answers for completion (i.e., they get full credit if they made a reasonable good faith effort), flipping through them before class so I can see the common mistakes or points of confusion.  I try to comment on approximately twenty percent of the submissions before each class through comment boxes, mixing up who receives personalized feedback each week.  If you use this approach, make sure you have the students order their responses in reverse chronological order so the most recent answers are always at the top and share the document with you so that you can both view AND edit the document. 

LMS Quizzes.  In other classes, such as Business Associations, I assign short quizzes for students to complete before each class.  My law school uses Blackboard, which allows me to create quizzes right in the learning management system (LMS).  Your LMS probably has something similar.  The questions are usually objective, which Blackboard can grade for you, although I’ll occasionally include a short answer question that I grade manually.  I call these quizzes, “Are You Smarter than a 1L?” with the idea that our 1Ls are quite smart but they typically do not know business law.  I thought students would complain about the quizzes, but they don’t seem to mind them at all.  Students often comment that reading the questions ahead of time helps them pick out the relevant issues as they do the reading.    I briefly review the questions and the right answers when we get to the relevant issues in class. 

Video Assignments.  I’m contemplating a new approach this year.  The Google Doc assignments and LMS quizzes work well in a typical year, but this year I’m scheduled to teach in a physically distanced classroom where everyone is in masks.  So I’m thinking of more assessments where we can see each other without masks on.  I’ve been looking at Flipgrid, which allows instructors and students to post short videos.  So instead of having the students answer a question in a Google Doc, I might ask them to answer it through a short recorded video in Flipgrid.  Flipgrid is free for educators, and there’s an option where you can initially keep student responses hidden and then decide whether to reveal them all once all students have turned in their assignment. 

Embedded Questions in Asynchronous Videos.  I hesitated in the spring to use too many asynchronous videos to cover course content because I didn’t want to spoon feed everything to my students.  I don’t want to tell them what the case is about or what the statute says.  Instead I want them to read carefully and find these answers for themselves.  In class, I’ll frequently pause during my discussions and ask them to re-read a statute, for example, and answer a specific question about the language.  I thought I would lose that ability if I relied on asynchronous videos.  It turns out, however, that there are pretty easy ways to embed questions into these videos.  My law school uses Panopto, an online video platform, which I recently learned allows instructors to embed questions right into the video.  Here’s a tutorial.  If you don’t use Panopto or if this feature isn’t enabled at your school, you might check out edpuzzle.  Angela Upchurch at Southern Illinois University School of Law has a great video that was part of CALIcon on how to embed questions into videos uploaded to edpuzzle.  I tried it out, and it was incredibly easy, although you do need a paid account if you want to upload more than 10 videos. 

In-Class Comprehension Checks

In class, whether physically distanced or remote, you can see whether students understand the material by asking questions of individual students.  But this approach is limited—you know whether those particular students understand the material, but it’s harder to get a broader sense of the class.  There are many tools, however, that allow you check the comprehension of the entire class, and most of them work regardless of whether the class is physically distanced or remote, so they are a good choice if you may have to transition between class formats at some point this semester. 

Polling Software.  If you haven’t tried polling software before and you teach a large doctrinal course, now is the time to check it out.  Polls are a great way to see whether the class understands the material and can apply it to new sets of facts.  I embed polls into my PowerPoint slides, and students can answer them using their browser or phone.  I use PollEverywhere, but Mentimeter, iclicker, and many more companies have similar products.  Zoom also has a polling feature, but I find it very clunky and far prefer other options.  In these other options, you can require students to register so you can see which students are struggling or you can make poll questions anonymous if you want students to be able to share their thoughts without attribution.  I typically use standard multiple choice questions, but I’ve also used surveys, which allow students to move through several questions at once, such as when they are working through a statute, or word clouds, which allow them to answer a question in a few words.  You can see the various types of questions that PollEverywhere offers here

Kahoot.  I’ve never tried this tool, but my teenage daughter highly recommends it!  Apparently Kahoots are like PollEverywhere, except that students get also points based on whether they answer the questions correctly and how quickly they answer them.  There is a leaderboard that shows the top five students, so it is like a gamified version of PollEverywhere.  There are Kahoot accounts that require the instructor to pay, but the free version (which isn’t prominently advertised on their website) should work for most people.  See the different account types here.

Jeopardy.  Again, I’ve never tried this one, but it turns out that there are lots of tools out there that allow instructors to create their own Jeopardy games.  Here’s a free Google Doc template, but there are also sites like Factile, Jeopardy Labs, and Flippity that offer easy-to-use templates.  I wouldn’t put up a customized jeopardy game every class period, but it could be a fun way to structure a review session or inject some fun learning into the flow of the semester. 

This set of suggestions is pretty tech-heavy.  In my next post, I’ll get away from tech and focus on ways to spark discussion in these new learning environments. 

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 15, 2020 at 02:43 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 13, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Assessment Theory for Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and 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.

In an earlier post, I laid out a five step approach to redesigning your courses for a physically distanced, hybrid, or remote semester.  This post introduces the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments.  I’ll cover this step in a number of posts over the next two weeks.  In this intro post, however, I want to review the basics of assessment theory, especially as it relates to these new learning environments.

First, the good news – assessment theory is largely the same in physically distanced, hybrid, or remote courses as it is in traditional courses.  The same principles still apply, so we aren’t reinventing the wheel from a theory perspective.  The bad news though is that we may not always follow this theory perfectly in our own classes.  So before diving into specific techniques for the fall (they’re coming in future posts – I promise!), I want to highlight some of the key principles from assessment theory that will be especially relevant as we redesign our courses for the fall. 

Alignment:  In my last post, I discussed integrated course design and how defining your learning objectives should be the first step of any course redesign.    Your learning objectives should then inform your assessments and learning activities, with all three tightly aligned.   This visual shows the interdependent relationship between these three parts of course design.

Integrated course design

So go back to your objectives before you start redesigning your assessments.  What is the best way to assess if the students have achieved the learning objectives?  How can you use class time to prepare students for these assessments?  Legal education has sometimes had a mismatch of objectives, assessments, and learning activities, so your redesign this summer is the perfect opportunity to create better alignment.

Formative & Summative Assessment:  Legal education is used to thinking about summative assessments, but many of us don’t think nearly as much about formative assessments.  Summative assessments are the assessments we provide to audit student learning and determine what grades to assign, often at the end of the semester.  Our final exams do a good job sorting students into grade categories, but they don’t do as much to help students learn along the way, especially when students receive little feedback on their exam performance other than the grade itself.  

In contrast, formative assessments are designed to be part of the learning experience.  They provide feedback on student learning throughout the course so both students and faculty can assess whether students are meeting the course objectives.  They also provide students with frequent opportunities to practice what they are learning, along with immediate feedback on their efforts.  The most effective formative assessments are ones that are (i) aligned with the course objectives and (ii) accompanied by feedback that is frequent, immediate, based on clear criteria and standards, and delivered empathetically (see here for more information on feedback guidelines).

Developing and using these assessments does not need to be overly time-consuming.  We tend to think of assessments as tests, papers, or quizzes that professors have to grade.  But there are plenty of ways to provide quick graded or ungraded feedback to students to help them reflect on their learning.  For graded assessments during the semester, consider using rubrics that allow you to quickly assess student performance (see here for sample law school rubrics) or multiple choice or true/false assessments that can be graded in your learning management system.  For ungraded assessments, instructors can provide feedback to the class as a whole by discussing the answers in class or through polling software that provides instantaneous feedback.  Instructors can also use peer assessment where students provide feedback to each other using rubrics from the instructor.  Or they can use self-assessment where students assess their own work using model answers.  With formative assessment, the grades are not the point; instead, the assessments themselves help students learn the material and guide their future learning.  

Offer a Variety of Authentic. Higher-Order Assessments.  Authentic assessments ask students to apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios.  How would a practicing lawyer use the information that you are teaching?  Try to have your assessments match how the law is used in the real world.  If you are teaching pleading standards, have students evaluate and/or draft real complaints?  If you are teaching elements of specific torts, have them look at real jury instructions. 

Learning activities should encourage students to apply the content and make connections using the content.  These connections can be internal (across the course content) or external (from the course content to the students’ experiences and/or the world).  These connections are crucial because new learners can have trouble seeing how all of the different elements of a course fit together.  They tend to focus on isolated facts or checklists instead of gaining the big picture.  Understanding the connections underlying the course material can advance their knowledge in important ways.

Finally, think about how you can build assessments to scaffold student learning.  If you want students to become proficient at more complex legal analysis or skills, you may need to start with easier formative assessments at the start of the semester and slowly build up to more complex assessments. 

The principles above focus on principles of assessment theory that apply to any course design.  But there are a few additional principles that apply when designing for physically distanced, hybrid, and remote courses. 

Engage More.  We are going to have to work harder for students’ attention this fall.  Think back to your last Zoom meeting.  How long did it take you to check your email or click over to social media?  Probably a lot less time than it would have taken you if you were physically in a room with the other meeting attendees.  There’s something distancing about sitting behind a screen or a mask, so we will need to design our classes to bring in even more opportunities for them to engage with the material.  If you used to lecture for 15 minutes before switching to a learning activity, you might want to make it 10-12 minutes now.

Don’t Try to Just Replicate Your Old Techniques.  If you are used to having your students learn through in-person Socratic discussions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to find a way to have the same type of discussions in a physically distanced classroom or through Zoom.  Your goal is not to replicate your old learning activities in these new teaching environments.  Instead, go back to your course objectives and figure out what types of assessments and activities work best given how you will be teaching in the fall.  Maybe it’s replicating the Socratic method online, but maybe it’s an entirely different technique that better accomplishes your learning objectives.  

Consider How Remote Students Will Participate.  At many schools in the fall, students will have a choice regarding how they attend class – either in-person in a physically distanced classroom or remotely over Zoom or a similar platform.  This blended approach will allow students to participate in class even if they are sick, immune-compromised, or quarantined. It will, however, make designing assessments even more challenging.  With every assessment or learning activity, consider how you will include students participating remotely over Zoom.

Beware Extraneous Tech: When it comes to engaging students remotely, there are lots of tech tools out there.  Resist the urge to try new tech just to try it.  Every use of technology should connect back to your pedagogical goals.  You also don’t want to overwhelm your students (or yourself!) with lots of new tech in your courses.  I’m aiming to incorporate no more than one or two new tech tools this fall, so I’ve been evaluating the various options to see what might work best for me.   

In future posts, we’ll turn to assessment techniques, building on the assessment theory outlined here.  If you tried a great assessment technique or if you’re curious about a particular technique, let me know!   

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 13, 2020 at 12:25 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 10, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching– Identify Your Learning Objectives

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here.

In my last post, I laid out a five step approach to redesigning your courses for a physically distanced, hybrid, or remote semester.  This post covers the first step, which is to identify your learning objectives. 

I’ll fully admit that this step is the least exciting of the five.  We have so much to learn about distanced and remote pedagogy that we are eager to dive into the new stuff.  We don’t want to spend our precious time this summer on more general pedagogical work.  I get it, but if you’re going to spend time overhauling your courses, you have to know what you want your students to get out of them.  It’s the foundation for all of the other steps. 

Pull out your old learning objectives from past syllabi, and take a hard look at them.  Do they still represent your learning goals for the course?  My learning objectives represent a constant battle between depth and breadth.  It feels so satisfying to cover lots of content in a course, zipping through the chapters in a casebook.   This satisfaction dissipates though when you see the same students in a year or two, and they remember little of the content.  Three weeks of personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure becomes “um, minimum contacts?”

This isn’t a critique of our students.  It’s just how the human brain works.  Our brains are not designed to remember lots of information if we don’t regularly use it.  That doesn’t mean that content is irrelevant—I still teach personal jurisdiction!—but I need to do more in the classroom to get it to stick in students’ minds.

Just as importantly, most of us have pedagogical goals that extend beyond our students being able to remember and parrot back the content.  We want our students to be able to use the content in various ways, and it takes time to develop these deeper skills.   So deciding on your learning goals is a balance between covering lots of concepts and developing students’ ability to use these concepts in various ways.

To develop these deeper learning objectives, take a look at the various learning taxonomies that instructional experts have developed.  You might start with Bloom’s taxonomy, a  staple for many of us.  The list of verbs that often accompany each level of Bloom’s taxonomy are a helpful start to drafting learning objectives.  I aim for fewer objectives that start with the verb “understand” and more objectives that start with specific and measurable verbs that represent what students will be able to do with the content.  Here are the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy along with some corresponding verbs for each level.


Some faculty balk at the hierarchical nature of Bloom, however, and there are plenty of other good learning taxonomies out there.   Dee Fink, who wrote one of the foundational texts on integrated course design, has a good taxonomy that incorporates the human side of learning, including learning how to learn and developing self-knowledge, empathy, and an understanding of one’s own values.  Davis & Arend have a similar framework that may be appealing to many law professors because it includes components for building skills, cultivating problem solving abilities, and developing professional judgment. 

It’s also worth thinking through the broader questions you want to tackle in your course.  What are the deep questions that run through your course?  Phrased more broadly, in your deepest, fondest dreams, what kind of impact would you like to have on your students?  That is, when your course is over, and it is 3-5 years later, what will your students still value, know, and/or be able to do?  These questions come from a course design workshop I took with Professor Michael Palmer from the University of Virginia several years ago, and they are a helpful reminder that not all learning objectives need to be objective and measurable. 

For those professors who already review their learning objectives on a regular basis, here are three ways to go a bit further.

First, use this moment in history to think about how your course treats issues related to oppression and racism.  If you are rethinking content, ask yourself some hard questions about the traditional content in your courses.  Which issues and voices are you prioritizing in your selection of readings?  Do you acknowledge and discuss the interests and perspectives that the law is protecting or ignoring?  Do you provide space in the classroom for students to explore the broader social and historical context of the doctrine?  As I rethink my learning objectives for  Civil Procedure in the fall, these questions will be at the center of my thinking.  The AALS had a good webinar last week on racism and justice in our fall courses, and the video is available here if you want to check it out.

Second, consider partnering with faculty teaching similar courses to develop common learning objectives.  We often design our courses in a vacuum, but many law professors are working this summer to rethink their courses, which presents a great opportunity to collaborate and share ideas. I’ve met a few times with the other professors here at Richmond Law teaching Civil Procedure, and it’s been so helpful to hear what they are planning and be able to learn from them.

Finally, look for opportunities to share your learning objectives with your students.  I’ve traditionally included my learning objectives in my syllabus, but we all know students don’t always read the syllabus with as much care as we might like.  It turns out that students perform better when they take the time to reflect on how the learning objectives connect to their personal goals for the course.  You might think about an assignment in the first week of the course asking students to read the course objectives and submit a brief video or written response discussing how these objectives relate to their own objectives for their career or the course.  You might also ask students to reflect at the end of the semester on whether they achieved the course objectives and the advice they might have for students taking the course in the future.

I’ll end by noting that we already have many tools to address the challenges of the fall semester.  Yes, we still have so much to learn about online pedagogy (and physically distanced pedagogy, which appears to be entirely new), but course design all starts from the same basic principles.  So before you dive into all of the new stuff out there specifically about online pedagogy, spend some time reflecting on integrated course design and rethinking your learning objectives.  I really like Dee Fink’s primer on integrated course design and the accompanying self-directed guide available here.

My posts next week will focus on assessment & engagement techniques in physically distanced, hybrid, and remote courses, so feel free to share any specific questions on these topics in the comments below.    

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 10, 2020 at 10:35 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Five Steps to Designing a Physically Distanced/Hybrid/Remote Course

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the first post in the series, see here.

As I mentioned in my first post, I’ve spent a lot of time this summer reading books and attending webinars about remote teaching.  A week or so into this deep dive, however, I found that I was overwhelmed.  Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience.  There are lots of great tips out there, but it can feel like drinking from a water hose.  We’re told to learn more about our learning management systems, keep our videos short, offer flexible options for students, have a good online presence, experiment with new assessment techniques, caption our videos, along with so many more tips.  They were all good ideas, but it was too much.  I wasn’t sure where to start. 

I needed a broader framework, so I took a step back and tried to fit this information into five concrete steps to redesigning a physically distanced, hybrid, or remote course.  This post introduces these steps, and I’ll go into each step in more detail in future posts.  Approaching the fall using these steps feels a lot less overwhelming, at least to me.

Here are the five steps I will be talking about:

Step 1: Identify your learning objectives. This isn’t the most exciting step, but it’s hard to design a good course in any learning environment without being really precise about what you are trying to achieve. 

Step 2: Figure out how you will assess and engage students in these new learning environments.  This is a staple of integrated course design, but it’s particularly challenging when we are teaching in new environments that may well change during the course of the semester.  Some tried and true techniques won’t work, so it’s important to have a robust plan.

Step 3: Determine how to build connection and community in your courses.  Connections develop more organically in traditional classrooms, which means we’ll have to work harder to build these connections in the fall.

Step 4: Develop a communication strategy.  This fall will continue a period of upheaval for our students, both personally and in the classroom, so we will need to make our expectations and agenda for the course even more visible to them.

Step 5: Create a plan to support all students.  Students fall through the cracks more easily when we are not in traditional classrooms, so we need to be more deliberate about supporting students in these new learning environments.

I’m a visual person, so I created this image, which sets out each step as a separate layer in redesigning our courses.

Layers of Distanced Course Design

These steps intentionally take a broader view of course design than a lot of the other resources out there.  I’m not starting with the choice between synchronous or asynchronous or the details of particular tech tools.  That information is important, but it has to fit into the bigger picture of your course design.  I’ll include some of this information in the various steps, but I don’t think it should drive the discussion. 

My next post will focus on the first step of identifying your learning objectives.  If there are specific topics or ideas you want me to cover in the future, let me know in the comments!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 8, 2020 at 10:34 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 06, 2020

A New Series of Posts on Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching – Preparing for the Fall and Famous Last Words

In January, I had lunch with a law professor who teaches primarily online, and I told her that I knew nothing about remote teaching.  It just wasn’t something I saw myself getting into, I told her.  I can now file that under “famous last words.” Like most of you, I got a crash course in remote teaching this spring when I had to suddenly take my Securities Regulation course online.  The plan is for me to teach my Civil Procedure classes this fall in-person in a physically distanced classroom, but I obviously need to be prepared to take both classes online if the health conditions change. 

With that in mind, I’ve spent a good part of the summer trying to prepare for whatever the fall will throw at me and the rest of the legal academy.  I’ll admit that I may have gone overboard on this task, reading more books and attending more webinars than is probably healthy.   I’ve done a deep dive into this topic because I’m the Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the University of Richmond School of Law and I want to be a resource for the faculty at my school.  I’ve now collected a lot of good ideas from across the academy and other available resources, and I’d love to share them more broadly.  My series will try to summarize the most helpful ideas I’ve come across and create space in the comments for people to share other ideas as well.

To be clear, I’m certainly not an expert on online pedagogy, and I would never hold myself out as one.  But I am in a similar position to a lot of you – I’ve been a law professor for a while, I care a lot about teaching and pedagogy, and I’ve had to get up to speed fast on how to convert my classes for these new learning environments.   My goal is to share my learning so that we do not each have to recreate the wheel on our own this summer.   

Finally, a word about terminology.   I’ve seen a variety of terms used to describe the new learning environments that we may see in the fall.  For the sake of consistency, I plan to use the following three terms:

  • Physically Distanced Courses: These courses are taught in traditional classrooms with students physically distanced from each other, likely wearing masks.  There may also be a few students participating remotely through a monitor in the room.
  • Remote Courses: These courses are taught fully online through Zoom or another platform.  The sessions may be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of the two.
  • Hybrid Courses: These courses are taught through a combination of physically distanced and remote class sessions. 

Stay tuned for a post later this week introducing five steps for creating a physically distanced/remote/hybrid course!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 6, 2020 at 05:30 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)