By Craig Forcese

Full Professor
Faculty of Law

Email: cforcese[at]uottawa.ca

Twitter: @cforcese

 

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Friday
Apr122013

Flipping the Classroom: The End of the Term Recap

I finished my last session in my "flipped" Administrative Law class on Monday.  In a few hours, the students will write their exams. 

When I started this experiment, a key question for me was whether with a new "flipped" teaching methodology, I could close the "gap" between raw performance on the exam and the upwards adjustment of grades required to meet faculty guidelines.  Put another way, would a "flipped" format that displaced passive learning to podcasts and re-tasked classroom time as very practical problem solving "practices" change outcomes on a classic IRAC exam?

Obviously, I cannot yet gauge outcomes against that criterion.  Along the way, however, other things become more important.  For one thing, whatever the outcome on exams, I believe (although cannot prove) that students completing this course will be roughly one year ahead of most other student I have taught in their ability to grapple with basic real world admin law problems -- and maybe more than admin law problems.  (I hasten to add that past students may have gained this advantage in some other course taught by a more enlightened colleagues. But they didn't in my old style courses.) Let me explain:

My Teaching Objectives

Flipping opened classroom time.  But flipping does not determine how you use that classroom time.  That choice belongs to the instructors.  My choice was to try to address as many of the practical realities of practicing in this area that I could, in response to this key consideration: "When I was in private practice for a few years after law school, what skills/capacity do I wish someone had developed in me while in law school."  The short answer was: I had a good substantive grounding.  I did well in law school.  I had no problem with the bar exams.  But darned if I knew the first thing about the mechanics.  I was a full fledged lawyer who knew less about the mechanics of getting stuff done with law than did a decent legal assistant.

And that made me like basically all the other junior associates.  And we learned through osmosis.  And that wasn't very efficient, and it was sometimes very unpleasant. 

Even the reformed law school will never be able to spit out freshly minted JDs who are the equivalent of today's third year associates -- something at least some law firms think we should do.  We will never be resourced for it, even if we all charged US or Toronto-school tuition levels.  We probably wouldn't be that good at it.  And even more fundamentally, we are in the business of producing architects of law and not just the law's pipe welders.  There is such a thing as a pendulum that swings too far back towards "trade school". 

But I believe that the best architects must know at least a little bit about welding steel.  And so my flip was combined with as much experiential and practically-oriented active learning as I could reasonably deploy in a class of 60.  And that is why I am hopeful the students will have a jump relative to where I was when I was in their shoes.

Key Points of Advice

My students are free to tell me I am naive and all messed up about the virtues of this approach.  But barring that revelation, let me outline some considerations for those who might be considering a similar flip. Elsewhere in my blog entries on the flipped classroom, I have detailed some of the "tools and techniques" I used in my "PIRAC" approach to active, experiential learning.  Here are some of the big picture issues/observations:

1. I Feel Good

Like anyone should care!  But actually, this year was the first in a number (maybe many) where I felt truly useful -- where I felt I was giving value-added that wouldn't be available had someone done all the readings and been given access to a transcript of my lecture notes and a few hours of Q&A time.  Apparently, research shows that students remember about 10% of what they are told.  And so why in heck is our tradition so oriented towards the verbal, bundled with usually an overwhelming amount of reading!

Talk at them: Podcast (check off auditory learners).  Show them: decision trees (check off visual learners).  Work through problem solving hypotheticals: Practice, practice, practice (check off kinesthetic learners, as best you can given the subject matter).

In doing this: I had fun.  It was a lot of work, but I didn't begrudge a minute of it.  Yes, I think I will be able to build on this year to bring the workload into the sustainable range in future years.  But even if in the end it proves to be, say, 25% more work than the "performance" of my conventional lectures, it is 100% more gratifying.

As I have noted elsewhere, the legacy of any professor is his or her students.  I still remember all of my professors, more than 20 years after I had them.  Many I remember fondly, others not so much.  I remember them for their classroom demeanour and their receptivity to student learning and the respect, or lack of it, they demonstrated to students who acted in good faith.  (The students acting in bad faith deserved what they got, and often worse). 

Meanwhile, I remember precisely nothing of what these professors wrote in their scholarship.  Zero.  All that scholarly output is dust, in libraries that few people visit.  Or superseded by events.  Or just really uninteresting, written for a small cadre of like-minded academics who have shuffled off this mortal coil.

What seems permanent -- ink and paper and now bits and bytes -- is actually transient.  What you do in the classroom, on the other hand, persists for a slightly truncated perpetuity period: it lasts for the life in being of the students in the class.

Feeling good about what you do in that classroom is absolutely the only way that anyone can last in this profession.  If you don't, it shows, and you can't sustain your teaching.  So feeling good about teaching is up there with "oxygen in the room" in terms of pre-requisites for a successful law school, or any other teaching institution.  So I do care that I feel good, and so should anyone who ever takes my class, and every associate dean who plans courses.

2. The Importance of Managing Expectations

What I did was radical by local standards.  If it is radical by your local standards, managing expectations is elemental.  I have described this before: the importance of a frank and detailed syllabus and clear expectations that this is not your usual passive experience, and clear messaging that resistance is futile and those inclined to resist may vote with their feet during drop/add, but not thereafter. 

3. Learner Centred Learning

I don't really know what "learner centred learning" really means.  But this is what it meant in my class: explain why it is that you are doing what it is that you are doing.  Nothing I did was "make-work".  Everything I did had a purpose, tied to the overarching objective described above.  And I did my best to explain why it tied to that objective.  And I also invited students into the learning tent: Hello my students who have been reading this blog! This is part of the tent.  We're in this together -- I want every single student who takes my classes to be an ambassador.  Because everything they do from this day on reflects on me.  I want them to be good.  And in that fashion, everything I did in the class was for my benefit, because it was in their's. 

That is true for any proferssor.  And so explain how what you do is in their benefit, oh, and make sure that it actually is.  And yes, they may not actually know what is in their benefit -- this is no insult.  It is true by definition that they lack experience as a lawyer or legal expert.  And so explaining why something is in their benefit is part of the job.

4. Embrace your own silence

In the past, I practiced "helicopter teaching" where I feared silences and swooped in to fill them myself.  Of course, once you do that, the lesson learned is that you are a silence filler.  In the active learning exercises, students were individually and collectively responsible for solving problems.  Yes, we would reconvene.  Yes, I instructed and corrected and guided.  But I tried as best as possible to confine my role to picking people up after the tumble from the bike, but only after they had pedaled on their own for a bit.  One thing I will change next year is to do more of this.

5. Gather intelligence on learning

The two minute essay, described elsewhere in my blog, is a creation of genius.  Thank you to whoever had the idea.  But so too: all the mini exercises -- it doesn't take 20 pages to know someone is struggling.  It can take 2.  And with 2 pages, you can make meaningful comments.  In a class of 60, with anything more than 5 pages, you are lost in a sea and there is no conceivable way you can provide more than superficial observations without driving yourself to exhaustion.  To which I would add: most writing I did in practice was 5-10 pages.  So why would I have them write more in a practically-oriented class?  It's an invitation for them to learn to write ineffectively.

A patter of small, manageable exercises (with NO anonymity) allows one to spot both individual and collective problems, which leads to this:

6. Practice early intervention

With a constant dribble of solid, individualized intelligence on student learning, you can course-correct early.  You can circle back to areas causing common difficulty.  You can intervene with individual students who are adrift.  You can map progress.  You can remember how individuals are doing.  This what one is usually doing in small group courses.  But it can be done in a large setting -- my class was 60.  I could handle as many as 80 before things would start to become more difficult.

7. Be nimble

...and because of your intelligence gathering and ability to intervene, you must be nimble.  In a flipped classroom, I don't need to "get through the material".  The material is on the podcasts.  The classroom practices are about darting about, practicing triage where necessary and administering first aid only to actual wounds. 

And you move laterally -- a totally flipped class will push you in ways that the choreographed classic lecture (or even regimented socratic) will not.  One ancillary benefit of this process is that I was pressed to expand my own knowledge base -- something that hasn't happened in a while when the content of the course was governed by a script, punctuated by some Q&A (usually similar to those from past years).

Some students found this in-class lack of structure difficult.  Success!  Just like the real world, they needed to lift the feet to the beat of an ever changing new rhythm.  And like with any new muscle movement, it's hard. 

More generally, I wonder, given this unpredictable dancing, about the possibility of conducting a flipped classroom in a new subject matter area -- one I have not taught before.  I think it would be harder -- with a very steep learning curve.  But then, I can also see virtue.  I think when I was a young prof in my first few years, I was often a better instructor than in my middle years because a) I remembered not knowing what it was I was teaching and so I could anticipate difficulties and b) I was usually only a few steps ahead of the students, and so I could show them the path I had followed.

If I were to flip a new course, I would deploy these advantages.  And in keeping with my emphasis on expectation management, I would frankly acknowledge my limitations and invite students along for a co-learning experience.  Look at the world's greatest coaches: very few of them are as accomplished an athlete as the person they coach.  No one expects them to be.  But profs are expected to be omniscient.  Speaking personally, I missed omniscience class when I was in grad school.

8.  Be consistent

If you are deploying active learning, be wary of slipping back into lecture mode.  It is hard to keep momentum.  The glaze descends over the class.  It is harder then to revert back to active.  At the very least, carefully partition into clearly demarcated active and passive learning units and displace them in time so that passive, inertness does not bleed into the active sessions.

9. Learn their names

This is huge.  Really.  It improves student experience.  It makes the process human.  I am lousy at names -- and when I mean lousy I mean things like names of close family members.  Have students sit with tent cards.  Active learning on a "hey you" basis is inadvisable.

Conclusion

So will I do it again?  Yes.  Will I expand to other courses?  Yes.  Indeed, some of my lessons from this large format class will now be deployed in my seminars -- a venue which has always been active learning based. 

Do I recommend it?  In a heartbeat.  Will it be everyone's cup of tea?  No. Should it exist in every course?  No.  Part of what might make it effective is novelty.  But more than that, there should always be a few courses law students can actually shuffle through.  Active learning is more work for students (although many of them will find that it true because they are revising well-worn time management skills developed in a passive setting).

Is it a panacea to all that ails legal education?  Of course not.  It is a brick in a larger edifice of reform.  Do I think that brick should be mortared into the fabric of my law school?  Absolutely.  Personally, I believe that the law school that gets this one right -- the mix of active and passive -- will be a place to contend with.