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Using Course Webpages to Fill Gaps Within Traditional Law School Instruction
Michael Schwartz
Western State University College of Law

I and many others, including Gerry Hess, Vernellia Randall, Jay Feinman and Marc Feldman, Barbara Glesner-Fines, Paul Wangerin, Greg Munro, Duncan Kennedy, Steve Friedland and Greg Sergienko, have detailed elsewhere the many flaws in contemporary law school instruction. Even putting aside questions of content, current law school instruction provides insufficient opportunities for student practice and feedback, lacks congruence between teaching methodology, instructional goals and testing, ignores differences among learners and their needs, relies on less-than-optimal methods of assessment, relies on instructional methodologies of dubious merit, and fails to teach students the essence of expertise within any professional field, self-regulation of learning.

Even as these criticisms mount, many law professors, dedicated to the improvement of student learning, have begun to create course webpages to supplement their instruction either on their own, through their institutions, or through third-party providers like Lexis-Nexis or West. This development has been met with both enthusiasm and dismay and has generated considerable discussion about the merits of the various webpage platforms/software possibilities, e.g., Blackboard vs. TWEN vs. Embanet vs. self-created webpages.

While this author is an unabashed course webpage enthusiast, it is not the medium (the particular platform) that is the message. It's all about the content.

As the Director of Online Instruction at Western State University College of Law and as a contracts and remedies instructor myself, I have developed - and I and my colleagues have begun to implement - a list of "best practices" for enhancing student learning. Based on well-established principles of learning theory and instructional design, we have put together an across-the-board program designed to harness this resource in the service of student learning. In particular, we have begun to address some of the major deficiencies within law school instruction and have already seen objective improvements in student outcomes. This article addresses the practices we have adopted.

At the simplest level, course webpages provide a mechanism for easy transmittal of information. Most simply, the ability to easily contact an entire class of students (by e-mail) improves communication. Course webpages, however, also provide a mechanism for transmitting important student learning tools. For example, educational studies reveal that disclosing detailed, lesson-by-lesson instructional objectives facilitates student learning because it allows students to measure their learning against their instructors' expectations. For this reason, our faculty post lesson-by-lesson objectives to our course webpages.

Similarly, studies of student notetaking reveal that even the best students record less than 90% of what their instructors believe is important and many students record as little as 9%. When Instructors provide scaffolding in the form of skeletal notetaking outlines, however, student notetaking greatly improves. In fact, studies show students provided with skeletal notetaking outlines learn more and better than both students who receive nothing and students given their instructors' lecture notes. Accordingly, Western State faculty members regularly upload such outlines to their course webpages.

Both because experts - including legal experts - possess more and better-organized knowledge than their novice peers, and to address students' varying learning styles, Western State faculty also upload completed or partially-completed graphic organizers, including mindmaps, hierarchy charts and flowcharts, to their course webpages or require students to develop and post to the course webpage their own graphic organizers. These tools help students develop their schemata for retaining their new learning and help students attempt and evaluate these powerful cognitive organizational strategies.

Most importantly, because our goal is to teach students skills, particularly the bundle of skills we designate "legal analysis skills," each of us has begun to post "cognitive think aloud" analyses of past examination questions. A cognitive think aloud is a technique developed in other educational settings in which the instructor, often prompted by another expert colleague, traces her mental processes while engaging in a problem-solving enterprise such as legal analysis. Think aloud analyses usually include a model answer to the hypothetical being discussed, but they go far beyond providing the model answer. A law school exam answer, as we know, is the product of much more thinking than possibly can be reflected in a bluebook. It includes reading comprehension activities, brainstorming tactics, time and stress management strategies, planning and outlining efforts. It requires making choices among possible approaches, recall and analogizing of knowledge, thinking, reasoning and writing, and editing. Model answers provide only the finished product and require students to try to figure out for themselves how their instructors got there. A cognitive think aloud allows students to see how an expert thinks and to model their thinking accordingly.

Many of us also have found it helpful to post other guides to student learning, such as information about learning strategies, test-taking strategies and stress management.

The testing functions available on most course webpages are also particularly powerful learning tools. Many, if not most, law professors provide students with few opportunities to practice the skills they are expected to display on their examinations or to obtain corrective feedback on their practice efforts. In fact, for many law students, the only concrete feedback they get comes at a time when they cannot learn from it, when they get their final examination grades. Efforts to solve this problem, however, are often burdensome on instructors; most law professors regard the task of evaluating and commenting on 120 students' practice examinations even twice over the course of a semester as prohibitively burdensome. Course webpages provide possible solutions.

First, many instructors at Western State have been able to provide students with productive opportunities for practice and feedback by developing and requiring their students to pass weekly or semi-weekly 10-15 question multiple choice or short answer tests. As my colleague, Greg Sergienko, has persuasively argued elsewhere, well-drafted multiple choice questions can test not only knowledge but also a much wider range of legal analysis skills than most of us have assumed possible, including issue spotting skills, argument evaluation skills, statutory construction skills, legal reasoning skills, and case reading and case evaluation skills. To ensure mastery, we have been requiring students either to achieve a "mastery-level score" or, if they fail to do so, to send us an e-mail in which they reflect on the following topics: why the correct answers were correct, why their answers were wrong and why they failed to master the material and how they will; alter their studying in the future to improve their performance. To facilitate this self-evaluation, many of us use our webpage platform's feedback function to direct students' efforts at re-learning the material. My property colleagues have found that short answer testing is particularly effective for subject areas, such as estates, where there almost always is a "correct" answer. Regardless of the testing format, this ability to assess students much more frequently increases the likelihood that our overall assessment of each student will be more accurate and provides faculty members with important insights into the effectiveness of their instruction and the need for remediation.

Second, my colleagues and I have experimented with a variety of techniques for allowing students to write practice exams without dramatically overburdening ourselves. In addition to the cooperative learning group practice exam experience described below, we have had rotating selected students post analyses of practice examinations and either evaluated them ourselves or required their peers to comment on their work. We also have used our platform's testing tool as a mechanism for delivering such practice exams to all students and then required each student to submit a good faith answer as a condition of obtaining a think aloud analysis or model answer (checking to make sure students have at least submitted a good faith answer is not particularly burdensome and can even be performed by a student teaching assistant).

While each of the foregoing learning tools has support within the instructional design and learning theory literature, perhaps the most powerful tools made available by course webpages are the discussion boards, the ability to allow students freely to discuss their studies with each other, subject to faculty monitoring. At Western State, we commonly require minimal student participation from each student on the course webpage discussion boards. In practice, we have found that requiring minimal participation introduces students to this learning tool and that many students greatly exceed the minimum requirements. Most interestingly, the particular students who choose to exceed our minimal participation requirements are almost always different from the students who participate most in classroom discussions. In fact, informal assessments in several of our classes suggest that students who are members of traditionally disenfranchised groups have tended to participate in course webpage experiences more frequently than they have in traditional law school classroom discussions.

We facilitate successful completion of this participation requirement in one of two ways, each of which has proven productive. First, some of us have created topic-based discussion boards to allow students to identify for themselves those subject areas for which they require additional learning experiences. For example, one of my property law colleagues has simply set up a discussion board for each major topic within his property law course, e.g., estates, landlord-tenant, easements, etc. One civil procedure colleague selects two different students to post their case briefs for each case and requires the rest of the class to comment on the briefs. I and a different civil procedure colleague use the discussion board as a mechanism for causing our students to reflect on their learning. We encourage students in our classes to satisfy their posting requirements by posting their course outlines and graphic organizers to the course webpage, by reflecting on their use of learning strategies or CALI and other exercises, or by commenting on their peers' outlines, graphic organizers and learning reflections.

Second, many of us have assigned our students to cooperative learning groups and created separate discussion boards for each group. Based on insights from the Equitable Pedagogy movement outside legal education presented to our faculty by my colleague, Carole Buckner, we have begun creating online and classroom group experiences. We assign students to groups of 5-6 students that are diverse in terms of race, gender, age and ability (as measured by grades or the LSDAS index), teach them cooperative learning (e.g., positive interdependence and individual accountability) and communication skills and require them to engage in cooperative learning exercises. For example, one of my property colleagues recently required each of her groups to participate in what she called a "relay race" legal analysis exercise. She gave each group member the same hypothetical and required the group to assign one member to develop a detailed outline of an answer, the next member to edit the outline, a third member to write a first draft of an answer, a fourth to rewrite the answer, a fifth to critique the rewrite and the sixth to produce a final draft. All members of the group were encouraged to reflect and comment on each others' efforts throughout the process.

Finally, course webpages also provide a mechanism for providing students with links to helpful learning resources, such as JURIST's exam webpage, Professor Randall's University of Dayton website and Professor Glesner-Fines' University of Missouri website, links to CALI exercises and links to helpful cases and law review articles.

Of course, the measure of any educational initiative is the degree to which it benefits students. Subjectively, students have expressed appreciation for the course webpages, and faculty members have reported improved student class preparation. Most significantly, preliminary assessment of student outcomes show a decrease in overall student attrition and increases in student scores (for courses that have adopted the learning practices described above) on essay tests (10%-34% increase in raw scores), on multiple choice tests (8%-16% increase in raw scores) and on other skills assessments (as high as 106%). While these data are encouraging, Western State is still planning additional, more targeted assessment and consequent revision of its course webpages. What does seem clear right now is that course webpages, with carefully-designed content, can be an excellent tool for student learning.


Michael Schwartz is Professor of Law and Director of Online Instruction at Western State University College of Law.

JURIST's Lessons from the Web series is edited by Professor Patrick Wiseman, Georgia State University College of Law.

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