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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Advocacy Across the Curriculum: Integrating Team-Based Learning and Application Exercises in an Evidence Class

In keeping with the blog theme for January-February of Advocacy Across the Curriculum, I've decided to continue the discussion on advocacy teaching across the curriculum and write about an experiment with team-based learning and advocacy application exercises in my evidence class this semester.

Let me first express some disagreement with some of the more cynical views expressed by my good friend Hugh Selby in an earlier post (available here) about the future of skills training in law schools. I think Hugh is right about the resistance of the law school professoriate to experiential learning and skills training. The current focus of many faculty members is scholarship. This confers a benefit on students because their professors are intellectually engaged with the larger legal and academic community. But, as Brent Evan Newton points out in a forthcoming piece in the South Carolina Law review (abstract available here; previously mentioned in this blog here), there may be a problem if law school faculties focus on theoretical scholarship to the exclusion of experiential learning and training. Faculties with little or no practice experience may be too disconnected from the bench and bar to prepare graduates for the practice of law.

It seems to me that we might well see greater demand for experiential learning and skills training in law schools in the very near future. The MacCrate report (now dated, but still valid, link here), Carnegie report (link here), proposed ABA standards on outcome-based learning (discussed here, here and here, NITA's white paper on law schools (here), the shifting business model for law firm that leaves fewer resources for training new associates—all suggest to me that the future may be just a little brighter than Hugh suggests. Of course, five or ten years from now, I could be proven wrong and join Hugh in his cynicism, but for now I am optimistic.

For now, I've decided to integrate advocacy training into my doctrinal classes to the extent that it's appropriate. I have my criminal law students give opening statements, for example. I include courtroom advocacy exercises in my evidence classes. I also teach classes where this sort of thing doesn't work. For instance, in my military law seminar, which is a theoretical "paper class" there's no skills-training, nor have I included any in the international criminal law class I occasionally teach.

Personally, I think the integrated advocacy training is paying off. I've been pleased with the flexibility and adaptability that I've seen from students who have had to actually apply evidence principles in courtroom exercises as part of the basic evidence course.

Before this semester kicked off, I looked at my evidence course to see how I could more effectively integrate my application exercises. The biggest problem I had noticed was that, to save myself the work of making individual assignments, I had asked all the students to be prepared to play all the roles in any given advocacy exercise: counsel for both sides, witnesses, or judge. I found that the students tried hard, but were not quite as focused as I wanted them to be.

Luckily for me, at about the same time I was reassessing my evidence course, our law school hosted a teaching forum on team-based learning, taught by Barbara Glesner Fines of UMKC. This revolutionized my application exercises. My class is now divided into 5-person teams. Each class session, several teams are assigned to prepare for the application exercises. They are responsible to figure out who will play which roles for the day's exercise. They work together to produce a plan for the application exercise. When I call on a team, they have already decided who will do what. They've also frequently coordinated a script that, if not entirely correct, at least gives me something to work on them with during class. Sometimes I mix and match teams (I might use one team for advocates and another for witnesses, for example), but there has been no problem doing this because the overall level of preparation is so much better.

The team-based learning principles have given me a way to help the class elevate its learning. First, as frequently happens in an actual litigation setting, the students are working and preparing in teams. Second, they are able to pool their resources and create a better integrated product than the fragmented individual efforts before. Third, they come into class with an advocacy plan and try to execute it—which is quite similar to what we want them to do in the courtroom. Overall, I feel that the learning experience has improved by integrating team-based learning with advocacy application exercises in a doctrinal class.

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