Teaching to Different Learning Styles in Law School

By nature, I am a highly verbal, nonvisual person. I learn best by reading books or listening to lectures. I rarely benefit from looking at tables, charts, pictures, and the like. I’m the kind of guy who can’t drive to an unfamiliar destination without a detailed mapquest itinerary telling me exactly which turns to take; otherwise, I’m sure to get lost. This learning style is hardly unusual for a law professor, or indeed for most humanities and social science academics (with the exception of those who regularly use quantitative methods in their work). Unfortunately, when teaching, we lawprofs often assume that all the students have the same learning style as we do. Most of the time, we operate either in pure lecture mode or use the Socratic method. Yet at least some of the students are not like us. They may be visual learners, or otherwise diverge from the pure oral learning style. For visual learners, it helps to have handouts, tables, graphs and other tools that go beyond oral lecturing. Yet, in my experience, many law professors either don’t use these at all, or only do so very rarely.

The traditional law school reliance on the the Socratic method, which I criticized on other grounds in this series of posts, is part of the problem. Many professors and students assume that it is the only correct way of teaching law classes, especially large intro courses, and therefore don’t bother with anything else. Not only is SM a purely oral method of teaching, it is a particularly difficult one for non-oral learners to follow. Even for the orally gifted, it is often hard to pick out the really important information from the morass of indeterminate questions posed by the instructor and often flawed answers given by the student in the hot seat.

Fortunately, there are many possible solutions to this problem, not all of which involve giving up the Socratic method entirely. For example, professors can use SM during only part of the class, and use handouts, tables, power point or other visual displays during other parts. I find that the simple practice of summarizing the key points about a case or article at the end of the class discussion of it also helps students who might otherwise be lost catch up. I also use handouts with tables and draw on the board more than most law professors do, though probably not as much as I should. There are many different ways to skin this particular cat, and mine aren’t the best for every professor. But the beginning of wisdom is to at least recognize that there is a problem. Fortunately, many lawprofs have begun to move away from SM in recent years, and some have also begun to make greater use of visual materials.

Of course all of this proceeds on the perhaps naive assumption that the goal of class is to convey the subject matter to the students, and get them to understand it as well as possible. I know that SM and other purely oral teaching methods are sometimes defended on the very different ground that they teach students to “think like a lawyer.” I addressed these arguments here and here. In brief, I don’t believe that legal reasoning is fundamentally different from other types of logical reasoning; I don’t think that SM is a particularly good way to teach legal reasoning, relative to other methods. Finally, I believe that the primary objective of law school subject matter classes should be to teach the specific subject at hand rather than general legal skills such as trial advocacy, which are better conveyed in specialized courses taught by experts or in extracurricular activities such as clinics.

At bottom, I don’t want to teach my students to “think like a lawyer.” I’m not even convinced that any such thing exists. Instead, I want them to be able to think in an informed, rigorous way about the subject I’m teaching. That is the best contribution a subject matter expert like me can make to their legal education. Achieving that goal requires paying attention to different learning styles in order to ensure that as many people as possible come away from my classes with a genuine understanding of the material we covered.