by Prof. Sophie Sparrow
Moving away from the theme of advising students on how they can make the most of their legal education, Prof. Sophie Sparrow writes for law teachers this time. This column suggests steps law teachers can take to help students learn, based on the current research on teaching and learning
What should students learn?
Teaching any law course presents significant challenges. Each subject has more material than we can possibly teach, even when students are in classes six days a week, every week. And even when we have a particular focus, such as concentrating on legal theories, comparative approaches, or practical applications, we don’t have enough time for students to learn all we seek to teach. Many of us fear that the lack of time or credits given to our course significantly hampers our ability to do justice to the subject.
This challenge – not having enough time for us to teach students all we seek them to learn –will remain. New legal complexities arise on a regular basis, in every subject. In addition, as we learn more about our area, we see more important nuances we want to impart to our students. At the same time, students seem to face increasing demands on their time, participating in any number of moot court and other competitions, working on a journal, and completing projects to help themselves stand out as candidates for future legal employers. Paradoxically, the more we learn about our area and the more it expands, the less time it appears we have to teach the material.
As a result, each semester we have to make difficult choices about what material – knowledge, skills, and values – we will include in the course. How do we make intelligent judgments about what material to include, and, more painfully, what to omit? How do we justify these choices to ourselves, our students, our colleagues, and our superiors?
Focus on what’s important to lawyers in the field
One way to make those difficult choices about what to include and exclude each semester is to ask colleagues practicing law what knowledge, skills, and values they find most essential for legal success. For example, a law professor teaching environmental, patent, tax, etc. law might learn from practicing lawyers that most clients’ legal matters involve state and national statutes which are resolved at the administrative level. This would suggest that the law course should, at the very least, introduce students to the relevant administrative rules and procedures. Studying administrative decisions and processes in the context of that doctrinal are would be more effective than focusing primarily on litigation.
Similarly, a law professor could ask those who supervise new lawyers in law firms, government and administrative services, corporations, and NGOs which skills were most important to enabling these lawyers to succeed. Similar studies in the US have shown that acting with integrity, communicating effectively, having humility, being creative, working with others, and writing well are generally ranked more important than substantive knowledge in determining success. Substantive knowledge can be gained, and every lawyer needs to know how to research and learn on their own if they are to remain current in an evolving profession. Having a proactive attitude, being creative, and acting with integrity, however, are essential to developing and maintaining effective professional relationships.
Of course, lawyers will vary in what they consider most significant in their field. This too is revealing. Consider, for example, that a property law professor learns that real estate lawyers’ practices are incredibly diverse, but all of them require excellent contract interpretation, drafting, and negotiating. This suggests that the property law professor could include a sampling of different real estate sub-topics, but include the contract drafting and negotiating skills within some of the sub-topics. On the other hand, if some issues discussed at length in conventional legal texts very rarely occur in practice, a professor might chose to omit those issues, or only address them very briefly in class.
Gathering information from colleagues practicing law is not that difficult. Many lawyers really enjoy talking about their fields, and can provide a wealth of information about well they were prepared for practice when they graduated. A call to a former classmate, other alumni or lawyers in the area can provide valuable information. While a statistically sound survey would be ideal, even a few conversations with a limited number of lawyers can yield insights that guide curricular choices.
Focus on what’s important to colleagues at the law school
Our colleagues often rely on us to ensure that most of our students have developed solid foundational skills, values, and knowledge. A colleague teaching fourth semester students may expect that students understand basic research, organization, writing, analysis, and citation. That colleague may also expect that students will understand the concept of plagiarism and been instructed about how to prevent it. Conversely, a colleague teaching first semester students will expect to have many basic principles reinforced in students’ later semesters.
As with talking to practicing lawyers, it helps to discuss students’ learning with our colleagues. What are our expectations about what students should be learning from required courses? How might we reinforce that material in later semesters?
Ideally, the entire faculty would engage in “mapping” the curriculum for a law degree, identifying the knowledge, skills, and values students are learning in each course. This way, students would encounter a progressive, learner-centered, course of instruction. For example, a law college might identify that one of its important learning goals would be for all of its graduates to be able to competently negotiate a moderately complex contract. With this in mind, students could be introduced to the basic principles of negotiation in their first year. In subsequent years, instead of re-introducing the topic again, other professors could develop more sophisticated and rigorous simulations and problems that would enable student to practice applying their skills in new doctrinal areas and kinds of contracts.
Even without a comprehensive curricular approach, however, at the very least we can talk to colleagues who teach the same semester students, and those who teach students the semester preceding or following. We can ask about their expectations for what students should have learned in our courses, and engage in a conversation about what is most important for students to master. We may strongly disagree about what students should learn, but having the conversation will help us become more intentional about what we teach and why.
Use student learning to shape all teaching
Once we have a sense of what might be important to at least some lawyers in the field, and some of our colleagues, we can design our courses with that in mind. Even if the course syllabus is set by outside boards, we can decide how much time to spend on the required components. We should spend more time on the most important material when we refine our syllabi, create assessments, evaluate students’ end-of-semester performance, and teach individual classes. Focusing on these important learning goals facilitates all other decisions. When we engage students in a class discussion, assign reading, or give a test, in the back of our minds should be the question, “How will this discussion, reading, or test, help most students in the class master important learning goals?” If we don’t have an answer to that, or if the answer is in the negative, we need to revise the design of our course.
Make manageable changes
If you haven’t already tried it, shifting the focus of your courses from, ‘What should I cover?’ to “What should students learn?” and seeking to achieve that, is a big change. My advice to all teachers whenever implementing change, is to start small, take incremental steps, pay attention to what works, and don’t hesitate to ask for help. You may not revise an entire course this year, but even if you make student learning more in your awareness of how you approach the course, you will have a better sense of why you do what you do and why it is valid. And, as more and more new material joins the doctrine, you have a blueprint for how to continue to revise your course moving forward.
Sophie M. Sparrow, Professor of Law, University of New Hampshire School of Law, Visiting Fulbright Scholar, National Law University, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Professor Sparrow is a nationally recognized expert on teaching and learning law in the USA, is the Consultant for the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning, has conducted over 75 presentations on teaching and learning, and has authored and co-authored books and articles on the topic, including Teaching Law by Design (Carolina Academic Press 2009), Teaching Law by Design for Adjuncts (Carolina Academic Press 2010), and Techniques for Teaching Law 2 (Carolina Academic Press 2011).