Guest Post: Connections and Community in Distanced Classrooms

Guest Post: Connections and Community in Distanced Classrooms

Jessica Erickson
Professor & Associate Dean for Faculty Development
University of Richmond School of Law

Law faculty put significant thought into designing courses.  We draft learning objectives, carefully craft assessments, and consider how to engage students inside and outside of the classroom.   When law school courses suddenly moved online, many faculty had to think about a new aspect of course design how to build connections in classrooms where students were remote.  Even in classes that were able to meet in-person, many of us found it difficult to develop a classroom community when students were in masks and seated six feet apart.

When we could no longer have casual conversations with students after class or in the hallways, many of us realized just how crucial these connections are for our students and for us.  In this blog post, I discuss the importance of relationships to student learning and outcomes, as well as how to develop these relationships in online, hybrid, or physically distanced classes.

  1. The Importance of Relationships

Connections and community are essential to student learning.  As I have previously discussed, research from undergraduate institutions shows that a sense of community is associated with increased motivation, greater enjoyment of classes, and more effective learning.  Crucially, data from the Law Student Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) shows that these connections matter to law students as well.  LSSSE data has been used to examine both the inputs and outputs of law students’ sense of belonging.  Using LSSSE data, we can gain insight into what causes law students to feel a sense of belonging (inputs) and the impact that a sense of belonging has on law students’ performance in law school and their career (outputs).

Starting with inputs, LSSSE’s 2018 report Relationships Matter surveyed more than 18,000 students at 72 law schools.  The report concludes:  “Relationships with faculty, administrators, and peers are among the most influential aspects of the law student experience. These connections deepen students’ sense of belonging and enhance their understanding of class work and the profession.”  Connections, in other words, are key when it comes to fostering law students’ sense of belonging.  Law schools are doing a good job at developing connections, with 83% of students stating that they have at least one faculty member whom they could approach for advice or guidance.

When it comes to outputs, we can look at research by Professor Victor D. Quintanilla using LSSSE data.  He found that a sense of belonging significantly predicted three key outputs – (1) students’ overall experience in law school, (2) whether they would choose to go to law school again, and (3) their academic success (i.e., law school GPA).  Moreover, not only does a student’s sense of belonging predict academic performance, but the impact was even greater than other commonly used predictors such as undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores.  This means that, even if students come to law school with different academic backgrounds, we can help close this gap by fostering our students’ sense of belonging.

Unfortunately, the research also suggests that building this sense of community is much harder in online or hybrid courses, which most of us who taught this past fall can probably confirm.  Now we need to think even more deliberately about how to develop these connections in our classes.

  1. Building Relationships in Remote or Physically Distanced Classrooms

This past summer, I wrote two blog posts, one with suggestions on how faculty can connect with students in these new learning environments and the other with suggestions on how faculty can help students connect with each other.  In this post, I want to reflect back on these strategies now that I have tried many of them with my own students.

First, I found office hours to be a key way to connect with students.  I renamed my office hours “student hours” on the advice of a colleague, and I borrowed language from this same colleague to include in my syllabus: “I call these ‘student hours’ for a reason: they are for you. You should come to these student hours if you have a question about the course, but you can also just stop by to introduce yourself, ask any other questions, or talk about your law school experience.  I want to get to know you!”  At the start of each meeting, I talked with students about how law school was going, and it was a great opportunity to get to know them better.

I call these ‘student hours’ for a reason: they are for you. You should come to these student hours if you have a question about the course, but you can also just stop by to introduce yourself, ask any other questions, or talk about your law school experience.  I want to get to know you!

Second, I used technology to connect with students individually.  I asked each of my students to create their own Google Doc and share it with me, and they were required to compete short pre-class assignments in their Google Docs.  I’ve used this strategy in the past, and found it to be a great way to make sure that students understand the reading.  This semester, though, I set aside 1-2 hours before each class to include personal comments on each students’ assignments.  I had 52 students across two classes, so it took a while, but it allowed us to connect more personally. I also gave them “Just for Fun” optional questions to include in their Google Doc where they could tell me their favorite board game or share a picture of their pet.  I featured a few at the start of class, which was a fun way to personalize a class full of masked students.  You can read more about my pre-class assignments here.

Third, several of my colleagues set up individual and small-group meetings with students.  One colleague held individual “office hours” with each student.  Another who taught a hybrid class met separately with all of her students who were fully remote.  A third held online coffee breaks with 3-4 students at a time where the only rule was that they could not talk about course material.

Fourth, optional events allowed me to connect with students in a more relaxed way.  In class, I was often preoccupied with the day’s material and all of the tech challenges of my hybrid classroom.  In optional events, however, we could talk and connect in a lower-stakes way.  I held an optional discussion about a Supreme Court oral argument.  I also held review sessions and a Civil Procedure game night where students competed in an online kahoot!  If you’ve never tried a kahoot!, I strongly recommend it.  It was a great way to let students test their knowledge and have fun at the same time.

Finally, I created opportunities for students to connect with each other.  Many faculty were not sure whether students could work in groups six feet apart and wearing masks. It turns out that students can work together pretty easily even under these circumstances.  Although it was tempting to incorporate more individualized assessments to keep students separated, it’s important to give them opportunities to deepen their learning with each other.  I sometimes felt like a middle school dance chaperone reminding students to stay an appropriate distance apart, but it was worth it.

The final thing I will add is that we need to be careful that our efforts to connect with students do not overwhelm them or us.  It is tempting for these community-building exercises to be added on top of what we already ask our students to do in our courses.  Now that we have some experience in these new classroom settings, we can be a bit more selective in what we choose to include and assess whether we need to scale back in other areas.  At the end of the day, though, as LSSSE data has shown us, relationships matter, and we need to think about how to cultivate these relationships even in these unusual times.


Guest Post: Issue (Blind)Spotting: Using Data to Understand Candidate Motivations to Attend Law School

Guest Post: Issue (Blind)Spotting: Using Data to Understand Candidate Motivations to Attend Law School

Kristin Theis-Alvarez
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
Berkeley Law

Law school trains students to “issue-spot.” This means faculty test whether students can apply general knowledge to novel situations. The approach mimics the day-to-day practice of law: a client walks through the front door and you weave together their particular issue with your understanding of the applicable law in general. This isn’t unlike what admissions office representatives do when presenting to or advising prospective applicants. I’ve been in law school admissions since 2007, and have communicated with countless candidates, read thousands of applications, and partnered with a wide range of organizations that seek to increase access to legal education – so I have some sense of what applicants are asking. Against that backdrop (what admissions professionals believe is generally true about people interested in law school), our role is to offer advice based on specific candidate concerns. Where do we gain that broader understanding? LSSSE survey data is a good place to start if we want to move beyond anecdotal evidence. It can inform our understanding of candidate motivations for pursuing a law degree which then refines our outreach and recruitment messaging.

For example, through LSSSE data we learn that most students cite a desire to have a challenging and rewarding career as the most influential factor in their decision to enter law school. Over three-quarters of respondents indicated this was their primary motivation for seeking a law degree. So, it’s reasonable to suppose that when speaking to a room of prospective applicants, admissions professionals ought to emphasize career opportunities and employment outcomes. We might focus that message to highlight our school’s unique attributes (placing more emphasis on the percentage of our graduates working in public interest law or the number with federal clerkships, for example), but we’re always speaking to that core motivation.

Another significant motivator for law school attendance is the extent to which earning a law degree can lead not just to a rewarding career, but a lucrative one. LSSSE data tell us that many law students are pursuing the degree based on a desire to work toward greater financial stability. Taken together, the ability to get a job – and for that job to be one that provides financial stability – largely informs the decision to attend law school. This leads admissions professionals to frequently reference our school’s median starting salaries, and partially explains why we emphasize a ‘return on investment’ model to justify the cost of the degree.

LSSSE data also suggest that a desire to further one’s own personal academic development is a significant motivator for law school attendance. As a result, admissions professionals might emphasize our school’s leading programs, commitment to experiential education, research centers, and interdisciplinary education opportunities. We explain that law school is one of the few graduate programs where the strong possibility of professional and financial success intersects with that of individual growth. (More people might pursue a PhD in Classics if the academic job market looked different, and we might have fewer law students if instead of teaching through the casebook method we just handed everyone a list of rules to memorize.) We balance employment statistics with anecdotes about student skills being developed and deployed.

At the same time, less than half of LSSSE respondents report that an “inherent interest” in the curriculum or material they are learning is a source of motivation for them to work hard in law school. This may be why most law admissions professionals are not talking to eager undergraduate students about provisional remedies. It’s also why we generally explain a legal education as the opportunity to develop a diverse toolkit that can be used to solve complex problems, and not merely a content delivery method. Instead, more than half of respondents cite being competitive in the job market as a primary motivation to work hard in law school.

 

However, there are assumptions that admissions professionals might make when deploying student experience data in our work. Are we asking who we mean when we say “law students,” and who we imagine when we picture “prospective applicants”? More importantly, how do those assumptions lead to missed opportunities to reach candidates from backgrounds underrepresented in the applicant pool?

One way to illustrate this is to examine the differences between general LSSSE data about motivations for attending law school and what we know about the motivations for particular groups. Within the National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) Report The Pursuit of Inclusion: An In-Depth Exploration of the Experiences and Perspectives of Native American Attorneys in the Legal Profession,” there is a section on the pipeline to law school and the legal profession with a forward written by Stacy Leeds, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas. This section of the NNABA Report indicates that Native American attorneys were more motivated to enter law school in order to give back to their tribe or Nation, to fight for justice for Indians, and to fight for the betterment of Native peoples’ lives, and less motivated by personal or financial benefit. The data suggest that Native American attorneys’ motivation for attending law school is more connected to identity and heritage, and less tied to individual benefit. According to the NNABA Report, “The difference in why many Native Americans may go to law school is fundamental to understanding how to inspire and motivate more Native Americans to consider law school and the legal profession.” Therefore, not talking to Native American candidates about how to leverage a legal education to serve Native peoples is a missed opportunity to build or fortify interest in the degree.

LSSSE survey data can and should inform a law school admissions office’s outreach and recruitment efforts, but aggregate data can’t be the end of the inquiry. Even within LSSSE data lies the opportunity to further disaggregate, dig deeper, and challenge our assumptions. Admissions professional making use of quantitative data must intentionally work to avoid participation in, or replication of, what Professor Victoria Sutton termed the “paper genocide” of Native American students. And as the NNABA data demonstrates, it’s not safe to assume that what’s true for most is true, or even relevant, for all. Furthermore, the 2020 LSSSE Annual Report “Diversity & Exclusion” shows that the contours of these distinctions persist during (and may even be amplified by) the law school experience itself. Law admissions professionals should therefore question our assumptions about the audiences we speak to, and the students we speak about. Like good lawyers, we must hold general information in the back of our minds, but also listen carefully, research meticulously, and make adjustments. Spotting that issue will not only make admissions professionals more effective, it will ultimately contribute to a more diverse legal profession.

 

 


Guest Post: Beyond Enrollment: Why Motivations Matter to the Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession?


Stephen Daniels
Senior Research Professor
American Bar Foundation

 

 

Shih-Chun Chien
Research Social Scientist
American Bar Foundation

 

The upheaval caused by COVID-19 pandemic might change everything we know about legal education. Reports in the legal media have speculated on the impact of COVID-19 on law school applications, enrollments, budgets and, ultimately, even survival. Depending on the timing, that speculation can run from the negative to the somewhat hopefully positive.[1] Some of the uncertainty comes from the disruption in the normal application to enrollment process – like the cancellation of in-person LSAT testing. More broadly, it surely comes from the truly unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves.

The uncertainty provides an opportunity – in fact, it may require us – to think critically about the homogenized aggregate numbers of applicants and matriculants we often see along with the broad environmental factors said to drive them. With just a few notable exceptions, most recently the 2017 AALS/Gallup surveys,[2] one is tempted to agree with the statement made almost a lifetime ago, “Vague notions, old myths, and thought-shrugging generalities are all we have to describe the raw material from which our lawyers come.”[3]

We need to think systematically about the variety of individual motivations or reasons that may help us understand those prized numbers. This means going beyond the following common idea that appeared recently:

[W]e could also be looking forward to another onslaught of law school applicants thanks to the economic downturn that’s been caused by the pandemic, just like what happened with the recession. ‘In the short-term, going to professional school – be it business school, law school or something else – is a good idea because it’s a refuge from an inhospitable job market, and the job market will be better three years from now.’[4]

An “escapist” explanation like this one is an old one,[5] but its vintage does nothing for its veracity or usefulness.

Such explanations strip any real substance out of the idea of motivation, telling us little about the decision to attend law school and nothing meaningful about the choice of law as a career – and ultimately, this is the important issue. The same is true for explanations that look for environmental causes not escapist in character. A recent variant not tied to escapism is the so-called “Trump Bump.” Here it is the idea that opposition to President Trump – and the overall results of the 2016 election – drove more people to law school than would have been expected. In fact, there may not have been much to it. The bump may have been as much a matter of marginal increases and wishful thinking as anything meaningful. It too is a motivation without real substance if we’re talking about the choice of a life-time career as a professional.[6]

What should we make of a profession that, apparently, is made up of people choosing it for short-term reasons of escape or narrow, time-specific political reasons? Or maybe law school is something akin to Marine Corps training that fundamentally changes the varied lives of the recruits into a singular entity with a distinct mission.

Understanding the motivations that underlie aggregate figures is important for two central reasons in addition to any others. The most immediate and most obvious is enrollment. Law schools must have enough students and the accompanying tuition dollars to keep the doors open. All else of importance depends on this and at some points in time the need for students is more urgent. An article reporting on some of the 2017 Gallup/AALS findings opened by noting the sharp decline in after 2010 in the numbers of people interested in law school and saying that “legal education leaders were posing questions that simply could not be answered definitively: Why is this happening? When will it end? Can we do anything to stop it?  … What motivates undergraduates to attend law school or deters them from attending?”[7] Important as these questions are, they are just a beginning.

The more far-reaching reason goes to the role of law schools as the gatekeepers to the profession.[8] They are key in shaping what the profession will look like, what it will be, and even what it will do. Law schools do so through the curriculum, pedagogy and the socialization process – and they do it with the people who choose to attend. Paying attention to general factors in the environment without a good sense of the varying motivations involved in the decision to attend law school is insufficient for performing that role well. That is, unless one is prepared to think those variations – the why, the who, and the interaction of the two – are irrelevant. That the substance of the raw material – beyond LSAT scores and GPAs – is irrelevant so long as the supply chain keeps moving. Literatures in psychology and on organizations suggest that motivations can be important for understanding the outcomes of legal education, especially graduates’ career aspirations. That substance is not irrelevant if we care about the nature of the legal profession and the role it plays or should play in our society.

In short, motivation should not be simplified to provide just so explanations for law school application or enrollment trends. It is time to look more closely at the variations in and the complexities and dynamic components of motivation. This includes topics like shifts in motivations in response to changing environmental conditions or the possible links between particular variants of motivation and career aspirations or how such inclinations may be changed by the law school experience.

Some students may just want to join and prosper in the hierarchical legal profession, but others may want to use their legal training and position to change the world. But perhaps more importantly, many may think they want the latter but end up pursuing the former. Do motivations vary depending on one’s characteristics or background? In the deeper past this question may have been easier to address since law students were almost all white and male and from relatively affluent backgrounds, but no so today with a much more diverse student body. What difference, if any, do such changes make?

The earliest motivation studies go back to the 1960s and 1970s,[9] when the legal education landscape looked very different than today. There were fewer law schools but depending on the year chosen for comparison not necessarily fewer students than today and a decidedly non-diverse student body. This means many of their findings may not be all that relevant now, but some are (and that’s a topic for another post).

Perhaps most importantly, the early motivation studies set the stage for later ones even if they did not literally use the same survey questions. All studies, from two 1961 NORC surveys to the 2017 AALS/Gallup surveys,[10] share an interest in a small but varied set of themes surrounding: making money; prestige and professional advancement; serving the public good; the influence of others, especially family; the intellectual side of the profession; independence; and a catch-all category for those with no substantive motivation like waiting out the poor job prospects in sluggish economy. All find that individuals have a mixture of motivations – some more intrinsic, others more extrinsic – with different degrees of importance or intensity.[11] There are some basic consistencies – money and prestige are always important; yet, so are motivations that speak to the public good and to the kind of career wanted. The picture is a nuanced one.

The extant studies, old and more recent, share something else. In addition to asking about motivation they also asked students a host of demographic questions about the students themselves and their family backgrounds. They remind us that the pool of people considering a career in law has changed over time and suggest that motivations may vary among the different groups making up that pool and change over time.

One source – a data set rather than a published analysis – went farther in asking law students numerous questions about their legal education and the type of law they would like to practice along with the setting in which they would like to work. It allows us to look for connections among motivations, backgrounds, law school engagement, and most importantly what a student hopes to do. Motivations become intelligible and meaningful to the extent they are connected to what students – with different backgrounds – hope to do and how well their law schools meet their expectations.

That source is a group of questions included in the 2010 LSSSE survey of law school students. In addition to the broad set of questions asked in the annual LSSSE surveys the 2010 survey asked students at 22 law schools to rate the level of influence of seven possible reasons for choosing to attend law school (reasons readily recognizably in light of earlier studies). From those schools 4,626 responded. Among other things, the survey found that among first year students, the most influential factor in the decision to enter law school was the desire to have a challenging and rewarding career (figure 1). The survey also found a relationship between student motivation and academic engagement.

Figure 1: Percentage of 1Ls who rate each factor "highly influential" in their decision to attend law school (rated 6 or 7 on a seven-point scale)

 

The 2010 LSSSE is important for another reason. It provides a fascinating snapshot at a critical moment in the contemporary history of legal education: the peak of greatest enrollment, immediately after which came the “great enrollment decline.” The 3Ls in the survey would have made their choice before the Great Recession hit and the 1Ls would have made their choice at a time when the recession was well underway. How might motivations and other student characteristics have differed between these two cohorts – one choosing in better times and the other in worse times?

By 2015 the decline ended and enrollments leveled-off – but at numbers not seen since the 1970s. Students starting this fall will have made their choice as the COVID-19 pandemic – along with its collateral damage – was unfolding, and 2020-21 3Ls would have made their choice in 2018, amidst a robust economy. Are the motivations different? Are the students different?

More interestingly, what would we find if we asked the exact same questions in the spring 2021 LSSSE survey as asked in the spring 2010 LSSSE survey?[12] Are motivations different in this changed world compared to those found in the 2010 data? Are the students different?

While we are working now with the 2010 data to address some of the questions above, we are also working with the LSSSE administrators to include those questions in the upcoming 2021 LSSSE survey. This will allow us to address not only differences at two points in time but changes in motivations, students, and students’ views of their legal educations. Doing so will help provide a fuller understanding of what may underlie students’ reasons to choose law as a career and how well law schools meet those motivations.

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[1] Staci Zaretsky, “Should Law Schools Be Expecting Another Onslaught of Applicants Thanks to the Pandemic?” Above the Law, April 24, 2020, https://abovethelaw.com/2020/04/should-law-schools-be-expecting-another-onslaught-of-applicants-thanks-to-the-pandemic/;  Karen Sloan, “Law School Applications are Down: Will COVID 19 Spur a Late Comeback?” Above the Law, June 3, 2020, https://www.law.com/2020/06/03/law-school-applications-are-down-will-covid-19-spur-a-late-comeback/ : Karen Sloan, “Law Schools See Late Application Boost After Spring COVID 19 Slowdown,” July 14, 2020, https://www.law.com/2020/07/14/law-schools-see-late-applicant-boost-after-spring-covid-19-slowdown/.

[2] See Association of American Law Schools and Gallup, Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School (2018); American Association of Law Schools, LSAC and Gallup, Beyond the Bachelor’s: Undergraduate Perspectives on Graduate and Professional Degrees (2018); Jeff Allum and Katie Kempner, “Inside the Minds of Future Law School Grads: Some Findings from Before the JD,” 87 The Bar Examiner (Winter 2018-1019), https://thebarexaminer.org/article/winter-2018-2019/inside-the-minds-of-future-law-school-grads-some-findings-from-before-the-jd/.

[3] Louis Toepfer, “Introduction,” in Seymour Warkov and Joseph Zelan, Lawyers in the Making (1965); at xv.

[4] Zaretsky, supra note 1, quoting Bernie Burke; see also Sarah Zaretsky, “Law School Applications on the Rise Thanks to Bad Job Market: Law Schools Will Happily Take Applicants’ COVID cash,” Above the Law, July 14, 2020, https://abovethelaw.com/2020/07/law-school-applications-on-the-rise-thanks-to-bad-job-market/.

[5] On escapism, see Barry Boyer and Roger Cramton, “American Legal Education: An Agenda for Research and Reform,” 59 Cornell Law Review 221, 253 (1974); Robert Stevens, “Law Schools and Law Student,” 59 Virginia Law Review 551, 616 (1973).

[6] Stephanie Francis Ward, “The ‘Trump Bump’ for Law School Applicants is Real and Significant, Study Says,” ABA Journal, February 22, 2018, https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/the_trump_bump_for_law_school_applicants_is_real_and_significant_survey_say; Karen Sloan, “Forget the ‘Trump Bump:’ First-Year Law School Enrollment Dipped in 2019,” December 12, 2019, Law.Com, https://www.law.com/2019/12/12/forget-the-trump-bump-law-school-enrollment-dipped-a-bit-in-2019/.

[7] Allum and Kempner, supra note 2.

[8] See Boyer and Cramton, supra note 5, at 224.

[9] See Warkov and Zelan, supra note 3; Leonard Baird, et al., The Graduates: A Report on the Characteristics and Plans of College Seniors (1973); Stevens, supra note 5.

[10] See Warkov and Zelan, id; AALS/Gallup, Before the JD, supra note 2.

[11] Intrinsic motivation refers to the desire to expend effort based on interest in and enjoyment of the task or effort itself – like a motivation driven by the intellectual side of things.  In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to the desire to conduct certain activities to obtain outcomes external to the task or effort itself, such as rewards or recognition – like money or prestige.

[12] See Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences (1992), 39: “question wording matters … The only safe way to identify opinion change, then, is compare answers to identical survey questions.” (emphasis in the original)