Learning Curve

Crisis Inspires Innovation

Haley A. Meade

Interim Senior Director of Academic Skills and Director of the Skills Center
City University of New York School of Law

Yolonda Sewell

Interim Executive Director of Bar Support and Licensing Programs
City University of New York School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2022


Quarantined and thrusted into remote teaching, the pandemic and the nationwide racial unrest spurred an empathy for students’ humanity, which propelled law professors to rethink the way they teach. This forced reimagining culminated in ideas and techniques that mostly centered around fostering inclusion and community. But the need for inclusion in law school is not new. Law schools have never been a place known for their inclusivity,1 and this is a cause for concern because research shows that a sense of belonging, or lack thereof, impacts academic success and well-being.2 While it is unfortunate that it took a global health pandemic and a racial revolution to shine a spotlight on the great disparities that exist in our country and our schools, it has also provided us with a tremendous opportunity to make some vital and long overdue changes.

As we prepare to enter a post-COVID world, it might be tempting to get back to “normal,” but, before we do, it is imperative that we consider a “new normal” that centers on inclusivity and a sense of belonging in law schools. We implore law schools to employ curb-cut thinking. The curb-cut effect is a concept rooted in years of disability activism. Cuts were initially installed in curbs in an effort to be more inclusive of wheelchair users, but this change benefited society at large — travelers with wheeled luggage, bike riders, and those learning to walk to name a few. Angela Glover Blackwell explains it this way:

[t]here’s an ingrained societal suspicion that intentionally supporting one group hurts another. That equity is a zero sum game. In fact, when the nation targets support where it is needed most—when we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully—everyone wins. The corollary is also true: When we ignore the challenges faced by the most vulnerable among us, those challenges, magnified many times over, become a drag on economic growth, prosperity, and national well-being.3

Here are some basic changes to traditional law school teaching that professors (hopefully) made during the pandemic that must be permanently ingrained into our academic culture if we want to continue to promote a more equitable and inclusive law school experience for students.

Build community.

One of the simplest ways to build community with your students is to open up a little; to humanize yourself. Nowadays, Haley includes a candid picture of her and her family at the Women’s March in 2017. Sure, it’s a little outdated, but it gives students a window into her life, her family, and what’s important to her. Likewise, Yolonda includes a video entitled “Introducing Professor Sewell.” The video provides a snippet of who she is: her background, interests, and values. Rather than perpetuating the idiomatic expression “sage on the stage,” these images highlight that beyond the tough exterior and underneath the fancy garb is a person — a human.

It is equally important to learn your students’ names and how to pronounce them correctly. It is said that a person’s favorite sound is the sound of their own name.4 If you have trouble remembering names, have students use name tents. If you have trouble with pronunciation, ask students to submit an audio clip before the semester begins.5

Another way to foster inclusivity is to start strong and maintain course. Start strong with your syllabus. The course syllabus is likely the first interaction you have with your students. Lay a solid foundation by paying particular attention to the language and tone used in your syllabus. Including a statement of diversity, inclusion, and belonging in your syllabus is one the most obvious additions you can make. Consider adding discussion ground rules to democratize the classroom environment. Share your pronouns and ask students to do the same if they are comfortable doing so.

Once the semester is up and running, maintain course by continuing inclusive practices. Though our noble profession demands professionalism, bypass the archaic policy of calling students by their last names to avoid the gender binary prefixes of “missus” and “mister.” Instead, try using “counselor.” It works to dismantle imposter syndrome and stereotype threat while reinforcing a belief in our students.

Last, use an icebreaker to help students get to know one another. Haley’s current favorite is the “ricebreaker exercise.”6 You simply put students into small groups and ask, “How does your family/culture cook rice?” The answers often vary greatly because rice is a universal ingredient. This exercise helps to model that students’ answers to questions will be different depending on the background they enter law school with, which helps illuminate the notion that background can influence perspectives. It illustrates that the same topic can have different meanings to different people. It can serve as a fairly benign, yet important, reminder that the way we engage with differences matters. Yolonda’s favorite is “A Little About Me.” Students are instructed to write three things about themselves. Without exposing student identities, commonalities are revealed. Inevitably, in completing the exercise there are expressions of isolation and fear. Being the first or the only is historic and exciting while simultaneously paralytic. This endeavor is uncharted territory. There are no footprints in the sand. It is natural to proceed with some fear or trepidation. But this icebreaker normalizes student feelings by showcasing that everyone is afraid of something. In acknowledging they are not alone, the apprehension subsides, and students realize that FEAR is merely false evidence appearing real.

Incorporate structure.

Adding structure to the learning environment can reduce inequities, create inclusion, and improve student success.7 Harkening back to curb-cut thinking, these steps are actions from which all students can benefit. Begin by sharpening the structure of your pedagogy, syllabus, assignments, and assessments. Set clear expectations so students know what to do before, during, and after class to be successful. Students need dependability around due dates. Students need to know how to do well in your class, so be transparent about the format of your assessments and how students will be graded. Rubrics and sample answers are a must.8

One of the most overlooked areas vis-à-vis structure is small-group discussions. In the Updated Survey on Law Student Well Being, students indicate a need for less competition and more collaboration.9 Small-group discussions are a great way to achieve this end. After all, we are training lawyers who collaborate by partnering or working in law firm sections. Provide added structure and organization to your breakouts rooms to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Consider giving clear, written instructions that include a time limit and an assignment of roles. You may want to assign a task that makes the small groups accountable for their work, such as submitting a Google form with the names of group members and their answers.

Polls are another great tool for adding structure to the learning environment. Remember the gunner? The slightly less eager extrovert? Polls are multifaceted in encouraging engagement, fostering self-regulated learners, and affording professors the ability to be the guide on the side. This engagement facilitates learning in a low-stakes environment and brings diversity of thought and perspective to the forefront.

Be flexible.

During the pandemic, law schools and professors showed their ability to be flexible in countless ways—whether it was offering credit/no-credit rather than letter grades, relaxed attendance policies, or open-book exams. Because law schools exhibited the capacity to be flexible during what is being termed “zoom school,” students are now expecting the same flexibility as we make our return to pre-COVID policies. Certainly, not all pandemic-inspired policies should continue, but there are some that you may want to incorporate into your repertoire, namely, flexible deadlines and fewer high-stakes assessments.

We must change our collective vernacular from law students to lawyers-in-training. As legal educators, we are charged with equipping our scholars with essential skills for the practice of law. Our accrediting body committed to this effort by requiring experiential education for graduation. Could we not do the same by being flexible with our deadlines? It has been a long while for many of us, but in our practitioner era we used Rule 11 agreements to give counsel flexibility with a deadline. Greater still, many of us have sought extensions for syllabus, exam, or grade submissions. Could we not extend the same grace to our lawyers-in-training? Perhaps, we could institute a “due week” where assignments are due during a specified week rather than a particular day. In anticipation of the collective law professor gasp, breathe. Such policies exist across the educational spectrum and, contrary to our anecdotal thinking, most students do not wait until the last minute.10 By incorporating flexible deadlines, we leverage the power of flexibility on fostering an inclusive environment as well as achieve the added benefit of reducing stress and increasing productivity.11 Our lawyers-in-training would benefit and be appreciative.12

Like flexible deadlines, low-stakes assessments are essential. The ABA issued guidance on the need for formative assessment. These assessments more accurately reflect the learning cycle and permit lawyers-in-training an opportunity to identify their strengths and evaluate areas that require additional growth before the conclusion of a semester. This is especially true when courses are progressive. The paramount concern with more low-stakes assessments is time, time to administer as well as time to grade and provide quality individualized feedback. Polls are one excellent way to alleviate the concern and achieve the goal. Much of the rigidity in legal education is born out of ritualistic hazing behavior. The pandemic has caused an extreme overhaul, and the resulting curb-cut effect is that all involved benefit from the changes.

Now, the hope is that law school teaching and culture will be forever changed for the good. As the old adage goes, when you know better, you do better. The pandemic gave legal education a schoolyard-bully shove into the twenty-first century. Now we can and should do better. As we shed our proverbial mask, let us shed our old way of thinking, of teaching. The changes discussed here can have an immediate, positive impact. They are not herculean tasks, but a concerted effort is required. Be intentional. Let’s right the wrongs of the past.

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1 According to the 2020 Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) survey, 26% of Black women see their schools doing “very little” to create an environment that is supportive of different racial or ethnic identities, compared to just 5.5% of white men.  M. E. Deo & C. Christensen, Diversity and Inclusion (Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, Sep. 2020) 7.

2 Victor D. Quintanilla, Guest Post: A LSSSE Collaboration on the Role of Belonging in Law School Experience and Performance, LSSSE Understanding Legal Education Blog (Jan. 25, 2019), https://lssse.indiana.edu/blog/role-of-belonging-in-law-school-experience-and-performance/.

3 Angela Glover Blackwell, The Curb-Cut Effect, Stanford Soc. Innovation Rev. (Winter 2017), https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_curb_cut_effect#.

4 Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster ed. 2009).

5 See, e.g., NameCoach, https://cloud.name-coach.com/. See also Integrating NameCoach with the Blackboard LMS, https://name-coach.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/115010463368-Integrating-NameCoach-with-the-Blackboard-LMS.

6 For a description of Dr. Ambry Spry’s “ricebreaker” see Evan Kleinman, host, Using a “Ricebreaker” to Start a Conversation About Cultural Identity, Good Food (KCRW, Dec. 31, 2021).

7 Beckie Supiano, Traditional Teaching May Deepen Inequality. Can a Different Approach Fix It?, The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 6, 2018), https://www.chronicle.com/article/traditional-teaching-may-deepen-inequality-can-a-different-approach-fix-it/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in.

8 Vijay Sathy & Kelly A. Hogan, How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive Advice Guide, The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 22, 2019), https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-make-your-teaching-more-inclusive/#4.

9 Katherine M. Bender, David B. Jaffe, & Jerome M. Organ, Updated Survey on Law Student Well Being.

10 Erik Ofgang, Flexible Due Dates: How it Works in College & K12, (Jan. 3, 2022), https://www.techlearning.com/news/flexible-due-dates-how-it-works-in-college-and-k12

11 Id.

12 See generally, Bender, et al., supra note 9.

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