I wrote an article last week about advice for students in Make It Stick: The Successful Science of Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.
The book also contains sage advice for teachers, much of which is especially pertinent to law school educators and administrators. With declining law school enrollments and falling bar passage rates, the American Bar Association in 2014 revised its Standards and Rules of Procedure for Law Schools relating to learning outcomes, credit hours (including provisions for student out-of-class coursework) and objective policies and procedures for determining the credit hours to be awarded for coursework. Making It Stick describes dozens of practices to help legal instructors remove obstacles to learning, facilitate understanding, and promote success in achieving student learning outcomes.
They advise teachers to (1) explain to students how learning works, (2) teach students how to study, (3) create desirable difficulties and provide a high level of structure in the classroom, and (4) be transparent. I incorporate all of these practices into my classes.
1. Explain to Students How Learning Works.
Students often arrive at law school with the belief that you either have innate talent or you don’t. This fixed mindset is generally reinforced by the first year curriculum. Most first year first semester courses involve a steep learning curve that requires students to learn to read cases, extract legal rules, reason by analogy, identify legal issues in complex fact patterns and write coherent, persuasive analyses about those issues. While the first year student may get feedback in her legal writing class, most first year classes are taught in lecture format or using the Socratic method. The students have no interim assignments and receive no feedback to help them evaluate whether they are on track. Only with the release of the first semester grades do students receive any concrete information about whether they have learned the material to the necessary standard, mastered the essential skills to succeed in law practice, or even attain the knowledge base pass the bar exam. At that point they are often well into the next semester with its new demands and feel like they do not have the time to re-hash their past performance even though this is the most important part of the learning process.
At this point, their perceptions of themselves as either the ones who have “got it” or the ones who “don’t” begins to harden. The ones who have “got it” sometimes begin to avoid challenges that would draw into question whether they have “got it” (or negatively impact their GPA) and the ones who believe that they “don’t” sometimes lose faith that hard work will get them anywhere.
As the authors of Make It Stick explain, students need to be taught at the very beginning of classes that:
• Learning requires that chemical changes take place in the brain. The more effort and the more challenge, the more effective the learning process.
• When learning is easy, it is often superficial. It is also easily forgotten.
• We learn more effectively when we wrestle with new problems before being exposed to the solution. Even though it’s emotionally unsettling, it’s also more effective to think hard about how you’d answer a question before you have access to the answer.
• Learning necessarily involves setbacks and failures. This feedback is often precisely what we need to adjust our strategies and to achieve mastery.
• To achieve mastery, we must surpass our current levels of ability.
Therefore, I share excerpts from The New Science of Learning and Make It Stick with my students at the beginning of the semester and connect that information about how we learn with the organization of the assignments, the graded exercises and exams, and the learning outcomes identified in my syllabus. I especially encourage students to adopt a growth mindset. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right!” I explain that struggle increases your intellectual abilities in the same way that exercising or lifting weights increases your physical strength.
2. Teach Students How to Study.
Students may arrive in law school with the belief that re-reading the texts and highlighting or underlining key material is sufficient engagement for them to remember and use the material. They may have habits of procrastinating and then pulling an all-nighter and cramming to meet a deadline. These practices are, of course, ineffective in professional education. First, cramming doesn’t last. The material is not retained for the long term. Second, rote memorization does not help students apply the material, which is what they’ll be asked to do for their course exams and for the bar exam. Third, distributed learning is far more effective. Student recall and mastery improves when questions are asked several times over increasing periods from the date the material was first presented and when different topics or problem times are alternated. Fourth, interacting with the material is the key to learning. When students are required to perform some task associated with the material they are more likely to remember it. If the practices are identical to key skills they will be using in a professional capacity, then the students can see their progress over time and master practices that will ensure their long-term success.
3. Create Desirable Difficulties and Provide a High Level of Structure in the Classroom.
As the authors of Make It Stick explain, high structure classes with weekly and daily low-stakes exercises provide students with opportunities to practice their skills. The best book I have read on classroom structure was written for elementary school teachers. Nevertheless, The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong, provides a succinct and valuable set of guidelines for anyone who has begun their teaching career without any prior formal training.
Other effective classroom practices promoted in Make It Stick include requiring the students to generate answers to problems they do not currently know how to answer, and asking them to elaborate, to remember older material and connect it to new material. Finally, spacing out the material, interleaving the material, and varying the topics and the problems has been very effective in enhancing student learning. All of these practices reinforce the neural pathways of learning.
In my classes, I have weekly assignments. In a class like Income Taxation, students must learn several essential skills as well as learn key material. I have divided the course into units based on the types of material to be learned. I assign sections of the tax code and regulations that the students must read. This is challenging, especially for students who have completed only the first year curriculum, which case-based and seldom involves statutory reading and interpretation. To facilitate this work, I have developed worksheets that ask students specific questions about each code section or regulation and direct the students’ reading. By the end of the course students often express surprise at how much their skills have improved in reading the code and the regulations. It’s gratifying for them (and for me) to see how daily practice can so quickly lead to accomplishment.
I also assign tax problem sets each week. I ask the students to attempt the problems and I give them credit for giving the homework a good faith effort and turning it in. As the authors of Make It Stick explain, students learn more effectively when they attempt to do the problems before they’ve been shown how to solve those problems. They are also more attentive when I go over those problems in class.
Finally, as the authors of Make it Stick indicate, while high stakes tests can be stressful and anxiety provoking, students accept quizzing when the stakes are low and when they know in advance the dates the quizzes are going to occur. I give multiple choice clicker quizzes either at the end of a unit in class or in review sessions I provide every other week. When the technology is available, clicker quizzes give students anonymous feedback about their performance. Students want to see how they are doing, but not at the expense of embarrassing themselves in front of their professor or before other students. Clicker quizzes also allow the students to contextualize their performance by giving them feedback about how the rest of the class is doing as a whole.
Spacing out the material, interleaving the material, and varying the topics and the problems has also been very effective in enhancing student learning. The review sessions, which I hold every other week, give the students another chance to apply what they’ve learned in prior weeks. By working through another round of problem sets or past mid-term or final exams, they reinforce their learning and develop a higher level of mastery. Occasionally, I will send students to the blackboard to let them collaborate on the review problems.
4. Be Transparent.
Finally, Make It Stick encourages teachers to be transparent. The syllabus contains the information on their weekly assignments, information on way they will be graded, and a rubric with respect to class participation and how that will be evaluated. When I give midterm examinations and finals, I post prior exams and at least one example of the rubric I used in grading that exam or a copy of the “best of” student answers that I delivered to the prior class. When I grade, I use a rubric and key the student points to the rubric. After the exam, I either go over the rubric in class or provide a copy to the students so that they can compare their answers to the rubric.
Finally, reflection is important. It’s important for professionals to use the feedback they’ve received to improve their performance over time. I ask students to spend a few minutes reflecting on what they learned from their exam and ask them “What would you do differently next time?”
These reflection questions are the most important part of every semester for me when I evaluate my own teaching. As I grade my students’ exams I ask: “What did all of the students get correctly? What did most of the students miss? How can I explain this more clearly? What problems can I assign that will help the students master this material?”
This, and the information I receive on the student feedback forms, is what sticks with me.