Learning Curve

Effective Teaching Strategies for 2L Remedial Courses

Azin Abedian

Professor, Academic and Bar Exam Success Program
Santa Clara University School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2019

Citation: Azin Abedian, Effective Teaching Strategies for 2L Remedial Courses, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2019)


In the past twenty years, law school academic support programs (ASP) have transformed from relatively new phenomena to a standard department in law schools across the country. Traditionally, these departments existed to assist students who faced cultural or economic disadvantages, academic difficulty, and those needing accommodations. In recent years, with respect to the wave of technology, ASP departments face an entirely new set of students, with a new set of challenges. Recent students have spent their developmental years immersed in technology, resulting in new thinking patterns and different ways of processing information. As a result, traditional teaching methods are no longer as effective as they once were. ​
Academic support faculty teaching second-year (2L) remedial skills courses face two distinct challenges. The first is bridging the gap between foundational skills students should have learned during their first-year such as IRAC, case-briefing, note-taking, outlining, and legal analysis. The second, and arguably more difficult challenge, is how to teach these skills to this group.  Today’s students are used to receiving information instantaneously. They have smartphones—with a touch of a few buttons they have access to quick music downloads, video streaming, news, text messaging and the internet at their fingertips. They can access information rapidly, resulting in shorter attention spans and little patience for traditional doctrinal course lectures.

The question then becomes, how do we structure skills courses to ensure effective learning outcomes? The answer is variety. I ask students to use my course as a survey, to identify their specific skill deficiencies, and to find a method of learning that works for them. The following is a list of teaching methodologies I utilize in my 2L Legal Analysis course to assist students in learning how they learn.

Lecture-Based with PowerPoints: 
This is the most traditional teaching method I use in my course. Although, contemporary non-traditional students lack the attention span for lecture-based instruction, there is still value in this teaching method. To engage students, I pair my lecture with a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint slides are used only as a visual guide to highlight talking points and provide a roadmap to the lecture. The PowerPoint coupled with lecture helps student engagement while also allowing students to see where the lecture is headed and what to expect.

All PowerPoint slides and handouts are made available as hard copy in-class handouts and are also posted electronically on Canvas after class. This provides accessibility to all students. By coupling lecture with visual guides, and providing accessibility after class, students can then pair all teaching materials along with their hand-written notes in order to connect concepts.

The value of this teaching method is the likelihood of reaching various students. It gives students the option to learn via lecture, the visual use of PowerPoint slides and handouts, as well as the option to take notes on the PowerPoint slides and handouts throughout a class.

Think-Pair-Share: 
Think-Pair-Share tends to be the most collaborative approach I use in my course, and likely the most effective. It involves students reading a hypothetical and writing individual responses. After individually completing the assignment, students then pair-up in order to share their responses and approaches to the assignment.

The pairing-up process promotes learning by broadening student perspectives through engaged conversations with one another. It allows students to compare and contrast their written responses with their peers. The process requires students to evaluate their problem-solving approach and how it compares to their peers. There is great value in understanding how a fellow student approached a singular task similarly and differently.

After students share in pairs, we turn back to the large group. The pairs share with the class things they did similarly or differently, and also share what they liked from their partner’s approach. The group discussion results in idea sharing that encourages students to try new strategies. The goal is for students to learn from one another. The collaborative in-class dynamic inspires students to adopt new practices in exam outlining, creating an attack plan, rule synthesis, and analysis. The value in this process is for students to encourage one another to explore strategies they have not tried before. Students must be willing to explore different approaches or methods that will help improve their writing in order to yield a different result with regards to their legal analysis skills.

Around the World Peer Editing: 
Peer editing is perhaps the most impactful learning methodology I use in my course. I regularly provide individual written feedback to my students; however, I see the most growth in their written organization and analysis skills when they engage in peer editing in the classroom. Most educators are familiar with the peer editing process.  It involves students exchanging papers and editing one another’s work.  The technique I use in my course involves a slight variation, which I like to call “Around the World Peer Editing”.

In my Legal Analysis course, I have my students write on a variety of topics: Constitutional Law, Evidence, Property. Not all second-year students are taking the same courses, so allowing flexibility on which topics they write on is required. In preparing for Around the World Peer Editing, I select two written student responses per topic. For example, I select two student responses for Constitutional Law, two student responses for Evidence, and two student responses for Property. I title the first written response as “Answer A” and the second written response as “Answer B,” then staple them together creating a packet.

The students then get into pairs. The answer packets for Constitutional Law, Evidence and Property are passed around the room. Each pair of students receives one packet (which includes “Answer A” and “Answer B”).  Each student within the pair has five minutes to read the first answer, switch papers, and an additional five minutes to read the second answer.  While reading the answers, I ask students to take notes on overall organization, issue-spotting, rule statements, and analysis. Based on the criteria provided, they are asked to rate each answer as a “good answer” or “better answer.” The groups then continue to switch packets around the room, clockwise, and repeat the exercise above for each packet provided.  Once complete, the class engages in group discussion. Each pair presents common themes in what makes a “good answer” and what makes a “better answer.”

The learning outcome is understanding that regardless of the area of law, the better answer possesses concrete themes. The better answer is a well-written answer that has stronger organization, use of headings, clean and concise rule statements, strong use of facts in the analysis, and counterarguments when appropriate. The value of this exercise is for students to identify that a well-written answer, regardless of the area of law, has common criteria. Using clear IRAC can evolve your writing from a “good answer” to a “better answer.”

Self-Assessment: 
Self-assessment is the ability to reflect upon your own written work and assess areas of strengths and weakness in order to edit and improve, as needed. The skill of self-assessment is crucial for all law students, not only throughout legal education, but also for bar exam preparation and even more so, in the practice of law. Students will not always have the access to individual written feedback, so mastering this skill of providing feedback to oneself is invaluable.

In law school, it is okay to get things wrong. It is okay to make mistakes. When we get things wrong, we learn. We turn our weaknesses into areas of growths. I ask my students to imagine if all their areas of weakness became their areas of strength. The process of self-assessment is the tool we use to make this transition.

When teaching self-assessment, I provide a general self-assessment rubric along with a sample answer to the hypothetical. The rubric asks the student to self-assess their overall organization, issue-spotting, rule statements and analysis as it compares to the sample answer.  For example, under “rule statements,” the student will write down the rule statement they used as compared to the rule statement the sample answer used. Once the side-by-side comparison for each category is complete, the rubric prompts students to rate themselves on a scale of “great” “good” or “needs improvement” for each area. The deliberate process of comparing their written answer to a sample answer in a precise manner is what moves students to prepare a more meaningful and effective rewrite. It is the process of grading one’s own work. My overarching goal is to get all students to the point of being able to self-evaluate. It is an invaluable tool and process.

Conclusion 
The approaches I provide are only the beginning of exploring teaching practices that will result in effective teaching in remedial courses. Each semester brings a new set of students to the classroom with different needs. Understanding the needs of students is crucial in developing effective teaching strategies and meaningful learning outcomes. My goal is to effectively implement a variety of teaching strategies in each class; however, when I find a method that yields the most effective results for a specific class, I will repeat that method. It is a time where the needs of our students are changing, and it is important that we try to change with them.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING 
Marc Prensky, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1, 9 ON THE HORIZON 1 (2001).
Richard Cabrera & Stephanie Zeman, Law School Academic Support Programs—A Survey of Available Academic Support Programs for the New Century, 26 WM. MITCHELL L. REV. 205 (2000).
Reichi Lee, Returning to the Basics: Rethinking the Meaning of “Practice” in Law School, THE LEARNING CURVE, Winter 2014, at 17.
John F. Murphy, Teaching Remedial Problem-Solving Skills to Underperforming Law ​Students, 16 NEV. L. J. 173 (2015).
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