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Friday, July 1, 2011


This post is courtesy of Mark Caldwell, Senior Director of Education: Specialty Programs for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy.

The Carnegie Report on legal education is generating waves of change throughout the United States as many law schools seek ways to bring practical experience to the doctrinal classes. I am privileged to be working with Professor Roberto Corrada at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law as he brings new ideas to the faculty of law. Over the past year members of the faculty have exchanged ideas through presentations on methods they are employing in their substantive courses.

This spring I attended a presentation by Deborah Zalesne, Professor of Law, & David Nadvorney, Director of the Professional Skills Center, CUNY School of Law. Their presentation, "Rethinking the Syllabus in Core Courses: Dismantling the Hierarchy Between Theory and Skills," related a number of exciting ideas about collaborative teaching. Included in the process they employ for first year students is the use of a highly detailed course syllabus. Many teachers make use of this tool to show direction in their classes. What makes the syllabus employed by Professor Zalense so innovative is how she weaves each day's work with how it relates to the practice of law and what tools the students should be employing as they bring the substantive knowledge learned in class to practice. Professor Zalesne and Director Nadvorney are working on a book that should be released later this year from Carolina Academic Press titled Teaching for Every Student, Integrating Skills and Theory into the Contracts Class . I expect it will be an interesting read for those interested in course design.

I was truly taken by this very creative idea - wishing that my law teachers had done something similar for me all those years ago. As I sat listening to the presentation I had one of those "Cosmic Whacks on the Side of the Head." At NITA we teach through a process that has four parts - Tell the student what our comments will focus upon; Play back the words they used that could be improved upon; Offer a means to "fix" or change their behavior; and give them a reason why changing their behavior would help them be more effective. My epiphany was a connection between providing learning objectives in a syllabus and telling people why we feel it important to include specific skills in a class session. In essence, taking what we do on a focused basis and make it more global.

Recognizing that many of the things we diagnose and fix are universal, why not present them in advance. Students often ask if they may have our notes of their performances. They are seeking a means of memorializing our suggestions for improvement. Some teachers even use a prescription form as a means of sharing their comments. (See the attached form that I sometimes give to my teaching teams at programs). By providing up front, and before student performances, specific learning objectives and reasons we offer added guidance to students, suggest where they focus their performances, help them understand the building block process of teaching skills, and makes the instructor accountable for what is taught. Some might find this a frightening concept while others might welcome the guidance. In either case it makes the process measurable.

Those who miss a class session are now afforded specific information on what they have missed and must now acquire to catch up with the rest of the class. It assists instructors by limiting the universe of what they must diagnose and fix.

The process in no way limits how an instructor must teach. There is still a huge degree of flexibility in terms of working with individual students. It does not suggest how a skill should be taught. It simply lays out a class focus and helps everyone appreciate how the course is designed.

In crafting my Learning Objectives and Reasons for a recent trial skills program - The Rocky Mountain Basic Trial Skills Program - I borrowed liberally from the work of Professor Peter T. Hoffman. His Building Blocks for Advocacy are a great set of learning objectives that any advocacy teacher should read before they offer a trial skills course.

For my current crop of skills courses I am writing detailed learning objectives and goals. I currently have no evidence that anyone reads these documents. I have heard from some members of my teaching teams they find the guidance helpful. I have no comments from program participants.

Before providing my first set of Goals and Reasons to a class I shared the idea and my draft with a number of colleagues. All liked the idea. A number commented to me the document was far too long. My good friend and colleague Terre Rushton suggested I was overly ambitious and that each workshop should only have three or fewer learning objectives. The teacher in me says Terre is right - it is foolish to expect students to take away more than a few points in each class session. My compulsive self says - set the bar high and offer more. Each student may only take away two or three points but those points may be different for each person in class. Give them a broad range and let them take away those points that best fit their needs.

Following is an example, excerpting a portion of a program schedule and then the Learning Objectives and Reasons for the session:

2011 Blog on Learning Objectives and Reasons

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