Putting Students at the Center of Modern Legal Education

Michele Pistone Michele Pistone
Director of Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services and Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
June 21, 2021

"group of six people in a sunny room, collaborating on a project"The COVID-19 pandemic required the entire legal education system—along with every other educational institution—to move to online teaching overnight. By necessity, this required using existing technology tools, such as online conferencing and learning management systems (LMS), which were largely used to move an existing legal educational framework (lectures, classroom discussion, and exams) to the web.

As I’ve learned from many years practicing and advocating for innovative design changes in legal education, teaching online does not and should not involve doing what professors have always done—lecturing, leading discussions, and delivering exams—through internet-enabled platforms. 

In my own work developing a program to train immigration legal advocates, the Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA), I have created courses designed to be delivered asynchronously, allowing for the scaling of training of legal advocates. Many of the design principles that informed my work on VIISTA became the basis of a series of bootcamps delivered during the COVID-19 crisis, and which helped over 150 law professors redesign their courses for more effective online delivery.

As noted by professors who took those bootcamps, the principles that go into effective online course design are universally applicable to teaching and learning in any educational environment. This led us to revise the bootcamp (which will be delivered again this week, June 23–25) to help law professors reimagine and re-engineer their courses for delivery in any modality—classroom, online, or blended.

Those principles include:

User-Centered Design: This approach has been used successfully across many industries, including education and educational technology, to develop products and services created with the end user in mind. Traditionally, this involves observing and talking with end users to best understand their needs, patterns, behaviors, and pain points. By engaging in this process, designers can begin to see and experience what they want to create from a user’s point of view. From the perspective of legal education, this involves understanding what our students want to get out of our courses—and what we want them to become as the result of learning from us.

Backwards Design: This instructional design methodology involves starting with well-defined goals, for a course as a whole as well as individual components of the course, and then creating and structuring learning content, learning activities, and assessments that ensure every student meets those goals. This goal-centered, student-oriented approach is very different from traditional course structure organized around professors delivering content, largely through lecturing, then discovering whether students have learned what they have been taught at the end-of-term final exam.

Deliberate Practice: In addition to content, lawyers need to develop skills that improve through repeated practice. In order for this practice to pay off, it must be learning-goal-directed and carefully constructed to ensure students are provided the opportunity to hone their skills in safe but challenging environments. Deliberate practice is a methodology for providing students increasingly complex tasks with decreasing levels of scaffolding, each of which is designed to give them opportunities to practice skills that meet the goals of a course.

Formative Assessment: Those high-stakes final exams students take in many of their law courses are summative assessments, and by the time students fail such exams it is too late to impact their learning. In contrast, formative assessments use evaluation techniques designed to pinpoint which students “get it” and which do not, with remediation resources developed alongside assessments to allow teachers to immediately close learning gaps before moving on to the next topic.

So, what would a law course designed around these principles look like?

To begin with, course design would start by carefully articulating the knowledge, skills, and abilities/values students should learn and develop by taking the course, with each goal crafted to provide direction as to what learning experiences will get them to each goal. Tools like IAALS’ Foundations for Practice and Bloom’s Taxonomy (which we modified to center on legal-education principles) provide key insights into competencies and a hierarchy of thinking skills, each associated with a set of verbs. For example, an effective learning goal for a unit of a course might include: By the end of this unit, students will be able to draft and orally deliver a persuasive opening statement.

Note that this goal provides direction as to the kind of learning content and learning activities that will be required to help students achieve this goal.

While lectures and assigned readings will continue to be a primary source of learning content, online tools allow professors to expand their content horizons through guest lectures or interviews with experts, conducted through the same conferencing software they used during COVID-19. Professors can also curate content from a wide range of sources, such as free videos collected at LegalEDWeb, an online library of recordings of the world’s leading law professors and lawyers that professors can use to supplement their own content.

While students interact with learning content by reading, listening, and watching, learning activities require them to learn by doing. Socratic questioning is a commonly used methodology that requires students to put their learning to work in the context of classroom interactions. But technology provides a number of ways students can do rather than read or view—for example, by practicing skills such as client interviews and cross examinations that can be recorded and posted for feedback from professors and peers. 

In my own work in clinical legal education, I’ve made use of a wide variety of innovative technology tools that give students the opportunity to practice skills on their own. In addition to being a better way to learn, this also helps “offload” important practice opportunities from classroom time to time of the student’s choosing.

Finally, assessment in a student-center course provides professors numerous opportunities to “check in” with individual students to ensure they understand what they are being taught. This might include frequent use of formative assessments that pinpoint who gets it and who might require additional help. It may also involve summative assessment experiences (including performance-based assessments that measure student’s ability to perform skill-based tasks) broken up across the semester, rather than measurement taking place entirely through a final exam.

Those excited about IAALS’ latest Foundations for Practice resources for legal educators should be able to see how the principles built into this approach offers ways to incorporate the research-based foundations into legal education. Those foundations, which identify what is required to be a successful practicing lawyer, contain within them learning goals that can be used to add activities in your law school course to prepare students for what they will experience in the legal profession.

As I stress to the many professors excited about this approach, teaching and learning are two different verbs. And to teach most effectively, we should all be concentrating first and foremost on student learning.