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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Summer Fun in Carbondale: "Experimental Design" with Diagnostic Trials, Acclaim Software, and a Music-Based Storytelling Exercise

My father-in-law was infamous within the family for something he called "experimental design." What that meant was any time he felt like he needed to put in some new landscaping, refinish a room, or start any kind of major or minor remodeling project, he'd go ahead and launch the project by, say, tearing out a wall or digging up part of the yard. There would be no advance planning, no blueprints, no cost estimates, and no time limits. Projects could take anywhere from an afternoon to several years. Some of the experiments were successful, others less so, but he was always happiest when he was working on one of his projects.

I have adopted a similar philosophy for my summer trial advocacy class, where I have the luxury of a low enrollment cap and no requirement to coordinate in advance with six adjunct faculty members. In the summer, it's just the students and me. The class usually starts about two weeks after the end of the EATS conference, which means my mind is brimming with new ideas inspired by presentations or conversations during breaks or meals.

This year, I integrated a couple of new "experimental design" elements into my summer class. Following are some preliminary observations about each of them.

Diagnostic Trial. Two weeks before the start of class, I paired the students up in partnerships and gave them a short case file. I assigned each partnership a side, prosecution or defense, and told them to show up the first day of class in courtroom attire, ready to try the case. I gave all of them a hyperlink to Hugh Selby's recently posted instructional videos for beginning trial advocates.

I then crossed my fingers and hoped no one would drop the class and spoil my plans. Luckily, no one dropped, and all 8 students showed up, having worked with their partners the previous week preparing to try the case.

We put each partnership's name on a paper slip (prosecution 1, prosecution 2, defense 1, defense 2) and drew from a hat to see who would go first. I gave the trial attorneys ten minutes to coordinate with their witnesses, played by the other set of attorneys for their side who would be trying the case the second day of class.

My purposes in holding the diagnostic trials were threefold: 1) to see what the students were capable of preparing on their own, without direct instruction from a professor; 2) to create a video record of their performances to compare with their final trials at the end of the term so they could have a basis to measure their improvement; 3) to start the course with a common bonding and initiatory experience that would also give the students a contextual foundation for the individual advocacy skills we will work on the rest of the semester.

Did the diagnostic trials achieve these purposes? I think so. I was pleasantly surprised by how well prepared the students were for the trials. Their performances indicated they had analyzed the case file, figured out viable case theories, and created workable openings, witness examinations and closings. Every student experienced some successes at trial, but overall their performances were rough enough to show them there was plenty of room for improvement. I recorded their performances and posted them online using Acclaim software (more on that shortly) to preserve a record of their first performance and also provide a way for them to engage in dialogue with each other and me about their performances.

I was disappointed that only one of the students watched Hugh's videos all the way through. This student performed well--in fact, one of the better overall performances in the class--but I am not sure whether that was due to the videos or native talent on the part of the student. Most of the other students

At this point, I'm not sure whether I will integrate the diagnostic trial into my future classes. We just finished the first week of class, equivalent to the first two weeks of a regular semester, and most of it was diagnostic trials. If the common experience of trying a case the first week helps ensure the rest of the term runs smoothly, the experiment will have been worth it. If not, and I find the class struggling to learn things that I've left a bit less time for in the schedule because of the diagnostic trials, then the experiment will not be worth repeating. For now, however, I am cautiously optimistic.

Acclaim Software. Those of you who attended EATS saw a demonstration of Acclaim's new software (here's a link to the software). The software permits you to post videos of student performances and make time-stamped comments about the performances on the videos. For instance, if a student asks a compound question at the 3-minute mark of an examination, you can type in a comment box: "Look what happened when you asked a compound question. The witness was confused and did not know what answer to give." When the student reads the comment, she can click on the time stamp and go directly to the point on the video where she asks the compound question. It's amazing software.

I decided to use it for my summer class. I contacted Aksel Gungor at Acclaim through the customer service contact box on the Get Acclaim page linked above, and he called me within a half hour and helped me set up a plan that would work for the class. Basically, you can purchase packages that permit you to post various amounts of video, kind of like buying cell phone minutes.

I recorded the diagnostic trials in segments and posted those segments on the course Acclaim account. The students have been assigned to watch their performances and make comments on them. I then review their comments and can reply, make additional suggestions, and so forth. The cool thing for me is that I'm out of the country for a few days and was able to get online today and review a set of student comments from thousands of miles away. It's an exciting program, perfect for advocacy teaching, and I highly recommend that you use it.

Here's a screenshot of one of my students with comments:

As I said, I'm very excited about the possibilities for using Acclaim, both in teaching trial advocacy courses and in coaching trial teams. The software seems perfectly suited for what we do, and it provides the perfect platform for asynchronous performances and critiquing. If it works as well the rest of this term as I think it will, I intend to use it as part of an experimental distance-learning trial advocacy basic course next summer term.

1 comment:

  1. The idea of benchmarking skills before a student begins a course is great. It helps the instructor establish a base line to compare future performances against. It helps the student determine areas where they need to concentrate so they can truly improve.

    I'm not sure you need to run a very sophisticated trial to make these determinations. A shorter problem that only has one witness per side and a couple of exhibits could be enough to make some determinations. These mini-trials could be set for an hour or less and certainly provide enough information for an instructor.

    There is the danger of a student trying to "fool" the system by performing below his or her level of competence. I believe it would be pretty easy to see through such a ruse.

    Recognizing the time constraints Chris talks about, you could schedule a full day where you do these trials back-to-back. You could also recruit trusted adjuncts to assist so you could run multiple trials at the same time.