Contracts I and II

Washburn University School of Law

The only meaningful measure of effective teaching is student learning. If my students learn, my teaching has been successful. If not, I need to find a different way. I regard my students as colleagues, and I take a personal interest in every student I teach. Students learn best when they think, do, write, speak, collaborate, and reflect. If I am doing most of the talking, my students are unlikely to be learning much. I have the best job imaginable, and I want my efforts to demonstrate how grateful I am for the opportunity.

Techniques I Use
Techniques I Use
If They Aren't Learning
If They Aren't Learning
Course Description 

80 students per semester
First use of this course: Autumn Semester 2002
Last use of this course: Autumn Semester 2011

Contracts is a required first-year, two-course sequence. I began changing the course 11 years ago. My approach addresses: the need for 1L courses that integrate all three Carnegie apprenticeships, the absence of explicit self-directed learning instruction, and the paucity of 1L formative assessment. The approach is also grounded in fundamental principles from the Instructional Design Field. Course work trains students to self-direct their learning by supporting their efforts with hints and cues. This scaffolding allows students to experiment with various strategies and evaluate the efficacy of each. Most doctrinal topics are introduced with law practice problems so students read in context and with professional purpose. Frequent quizzes, contract reading tasks, and drafting assignments create authentic practice opportunities. I provide formative feedback, train students to self-evaluate, and assist their efforts to reflect on these assessments. Professionalism exercises ask students to express a personal understanding of professionalism, discuss values implicated by the doctrine and cases, and envision themselves as lawyers who practice according to their personal values. The approach links the cognitive apprenticeship to the skills and practice and the professional identity apprenticeships. I teach the course this way to prepare my students for practice.

Course Design 

Course goals, learning objectives, and content.

This two-course sequence includes affective and values objectives, focusing on students’ personal and professional development; skills objectives, focusing on students’ development in: legal reasoning, statutory interpretation, contract reading, interpretation, professional presentations, and basic principles of contract drafting; and doctrinal objectives, including goals in all the typical contract law doctrinal categories: formation, defenses, remedies, contract meaning and interpretation, performance and breach, and third party rights.

Development history.

The development of this approach began more than eleven years ago when I took a course in learning theory and instructional design, and the course continues to evolve to this day. As I researched how students learn, I added exercises to scaffold their development of self-directed learning skills, legal reasoning skills, and statutory construction skills. When former students and practitioners told me what the students needed for practice, I began adding the law practice and professionalism components. Most recently, this year, I am providing students with detailed rubrics and training students to self-evaluate their development of legal reasoning and related skills and to learn from those assessments by reflecting on successes and strategies for improving.

Lessons learned.

The most important lessons I have learned are the importance of being as explicit as possible about my teaching methods, giving students choice where possible, and carefully crafting my formative assessment feedback to provide a healthy mix of positive comments and suggestions for improvement; I need to communicate to the students that they are capable and that any issues with their work are temporary and remediable.

Teaching Methods 

Lectures Collaborative / Cooperative / Team Learning / Group Discussion / Simulation / Peer Teaching / Socratic Inquiry / Legal Writing

Prior to their final exams, students take two essay quizzes, at least four multiple-choice quizzes, and an essay midterm. They also draft four or five contract clauses, and they read and evaluate, based on based on the doctrinal principles studied in class, a contract of their choosing. I provide individualized feedback on all essay quizzes, the Contracts I midterm, all drafting assignments, and the contract reading/evaluation. The quizzes, the drafting exercises, and the contract reading/evaluation, are pass-fail. Those who do not pass may raise their grades by completing a reflection exercise that engages them in evaluating the causes of their errors and in planning how they will improve their performance. In both courses, each class session begins with two randomly-selected students teaching(from the front of the room) a review of what the class learned in the previous session. In addition, students’ weekly assignments require them to write analyses of the practice problems and hypothetical questions to be discussed in class, to engage in self-directed learning strategies, and to find real-world examples of the principles they are learning. I use clicker questions and other classroom assessment techniques to provide more immediate feedback to both my students about their learning and data I need to assess the effectiveness of my teaching.

  1. Start small. If you wish to change how you teach, make one small change and then evaluate its efficacy.
  2. Give students a role. Have your students give you input into the teaching methods and assessments you use in the course. Students are much more invested when they have a say in the process.
  3. Give high-quality, low-quantity feedback. Students become overwhelmed and some may even disengage if your feedback gives them the feeling that they are incapable. Feedback should make it clear how students can do more of what you say is good and how they should address any deficiencies.
  4. Take risks and explain yourself. Taking risks is inherent in departing from the established models of legal education. If you are trying something new or just different from the norm, let your students know you are doing so and why you think it will benefit them, and then ask for their feedback.
  5. Implement what I call the two Rs of teaching. The most important things you can do to be successful with your students both start with the letter R. Build a personal relationship with each of your students, and manifest respect for your students as often and in as many ways as possible. If you have a good relationship with your students and manifest respect, they will be more willing to forgive you any errors or missteps that occur when you take teaching risks.

In 2002, the year after I first made wholesale changes to how I teach Contracts, I administered the same final exam I had given the previous year. My 2002 students, whose entrance credentials were indistinguishable from those of their 2001 peers, scored an average of 10% higher on the multiple-choice test and 33% higher on the essay test. In 2004, I designed and participated in a study comparing the law school performance of two sections of law students, one trained to be self-directed learners, and one that did not receive the extra training. The students trained to be self-directed learners had weaker entrance credentials than the students who were not so trained. Nevertheless, on their first semester exams, they scored 20% higher on a civil procedure multiple-choice test and 3% higher on a criminal law essay test. By the end of the year, the cumulative GPA of the students in the experimental group was 20% higher than the cumulative GPA of the students in the control group. This year, having introduced rubrics and expanded self-assessment to my teaching practices, I will evaluate the effectiveness of these innovations by using the rubrics to compare my students’ performance on my 2010 and 2011 final exams. I also plan to survey the students about their experiences in using the rubrics and refine the rubrics based on student input.