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Are law schools coming up short in teaching reasoning skills?

Study finds students' question-asking, reasoning skills don't improve during law school

2/17/2012
Associate Professor James Stratman


By Chris Casey | University Communications

DENVER - A study conducted by a University of Colorado Denver professor and several colleagues suggests that law schools may be encouraging students to memorize content rather than develop the reasoning skills that are essential to the practice of law.

The study found that students' question-asking and reasoning skills do not improve as a result of law school instruction. The data were collected through a series of tests given to first- and third-year students at five law schools, ranging from top-tier to lesser-known institutions, across the country.

James Stratman, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at CU Denver, was joined by principal researcher Dorothy Evensen, Penn State University, as well as Laurel Oates, Seattle University School of Law, and Sarah Zappe, Penn State University. The study was funded by grants from the Law School Admissions Council.

In general, law school students are given extensive reading material and then tested once or twice a semester on whether they absorbed the content and can apply it in essay problems, Stratman said. "But there's not much ongoing or formative feedback to students about reading, critical thought or understanding. There's no supportive assessment of those skills."

The researchers developed a test that mimicked real-world legal scenarios. About half the questions in the multiple-choice format asked students to choose the best question to ask in a case.

The premise, according to researchers, is that there's value in learning the relationship between cases and having a purpose in reading a case involving a legal exigency. In other words, it's as important for law students to formulate effective questions during or after a case as it is to simply understand a case's issues, reasoning, policy and facts.

As part of the study, law students were asked about the style of instruction they receive.

"The students said, 'Nobody ever teaches us stuff like this. Nobody teaches us about our reading skills or critical-thinking skills, or gives us real-world problems like this,'" Stratman said. "It was striking to us that the ability to pick out specific information in cases is one skill, but it doesn't predict very well students' ability to ask effective questions in a case."

Some law schools offer classes in legal reasoning and writing, but many don't require the class, he said. Another problem is that when such a class is offered, it's not well-integrated with the rest of the curriculum. In general, other related research has found that empirical data about the effectiveness of teaching, and whether students are developing reasoning skills, is lacking in law schools.

Medical schools, in contrast, devote considerable time to testing skills, giving feedback and benchmarking student progress, Stratman said. "There's a lot more research into the learning skills the students need to have."

The Socratic method of teaching - where a professor dispenses information and asks questions of students - is common in law school instruction, he said. The teaching style was dramatized in "The Paper Chase," a film about a first-year student in the Harvard Law School.

This approach puts the professor, rather than the students, in the driver's seat.

"Students don't learn to ask questions; they aren't empowered to ask questions," Stratman said. "These were things we tried to tap into with the tests."

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Contact: christopher.casey@ucdenver.edu

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