esmith@flglobal.org

Flipping the Law Classroom: Lessons Learned

Flipping the Law Classroom: My Journey

The Initial Experiment

My fall 2013 flipped class experiment yielded a seismic shift away from the traditional lecture and Socratic Method of law teaching. A siren-like calling had lured me onto the flippedlearning coastline.[1] I was about to reinvent my teaching persona, for the second time in my 36-year teaching career.[2] My 2014 TED talk summarized my launch into the why and how of class flipping.[3]

The post-mortem you are now reading assumes you are already familiar with the general flip-your-classroom paradigm. It shares some of the lessons learned from developments resulting in my fall 2016 Flip 2.0 class. Although limited to a law school setting, some common themes are applicable to other disciplines.

This essay presents just one experimenter’s flipping perspectives. Many differences you will read about have nothing to do with right or wrong. It’s all about personal preference. There’s no magic bullet for, and no one-size-fits-all approach to, how to flip your course.

Lesson Learned #1: Size Matters

The period preceding my fall 2013 Flip 1.0 breakout was triple-booked. My pursuit of the flipped learning paradigm was less fulfilling than might have otherwise occurred. I was then simultaneously: (1) creating an electronic course book; (2) shoehorning the faculty-dictated squeeze of the Federal Civil Procedure course—from a 6-unit two-semester course—into a 4-unit one-semester course; and (3) grasping for that flipping brass ring adjacent to the merry-go-round I was then riding.

My first lesson learned was that flipping an entire class, for the first time, left almost no class time to introduce new in-class activities. As a novice flipper, I had to acknowledge that the size-nature-complexity of course subject matter impacts the degree to which one can introduce new features into class time.

Once I recalculated my expectations, I knew not to bite off more than I and my students could chew. Paraphrasing an ancient proverb, a journey of a thousand miles begins with but one step. One should thus carefully consider whether to flip an entire course—as opposed to a few selected modules (as I did for Flip 2.0).

Lesson Learned #2: Videos Again?

My school’s technical equipment, and I.T. support, were (and are) excellent.[4] When launching Flip 1.0, I smugly convinced myself that I had digested the sound advice of the flipped class gurus: “consider whether or not a video is the appropriate instructional tool for the desired educational outcome.”[5] I was going to outdo Hollywood. I was convinced that I would immediately produce a treasure trove of cosmological videos. They would instantly eclipse any pedagogical success I had previously achieved in my first 36 years of law teaching. I would soon be flaunting my work product while traversing the Oscars red carpet.

In Flip 1.0, I did not include a Video on Videos (as I did for Flip 2.0). You should carefully consider whether to use such a video to cultivate your students’ first impression of your pedagogical persona. This novice presumed that since he was enthused about this new learning approach, talking about it in the first week of classes—without students actually seeing an example—would click for them. As of four years ago, less than a handful of my law students had had a flippedlearning college experience, as I learned from one of my brief in-class flippedlearning surveys.[6]

I now believe the course kick off should be a pre-first class Video on Videos.[7] It is the coach’s introductory training film. That video should explain what results you envision, what students should expect from the videos, and some indication of how to incorporate your videos into their studies. I would not use this occasion to cover Day One administrative matters. Limit it to the why and how of your flipped learning initiative.

The next topic is your recording venue. I used one of my school’s cramped recording studios to do my first round of videos. On a day when neither studio was available, I stumbled onto my Flip 2.0 film-making venue of choice: my comparatively huge classroom. This preference may sound counterintuitive. But my preferred recording venue actually depended on the degree of script memorization.

I have always aspired to draft, and redraft, neatly packaged videos. But I have never memorized my script. That would not be the best use of the time that one can devote to this project. A series of high quality mini-TED talks would, at least for me, unnecessarily drain my energy and impact my spontaneity. There’s much to be said for pursuing excellence, as opposed to perfection.

Absent teleprompters, my school’s (typical) half-office-sized recording studio required me to look up and down—from my lectern bullet points, to the nearly overhead camera. The classroom camera was, instead, seemingly miles away—in the back of my ginormous classroom. That comparatively spacious venue, with its greater distance between speaker and camera, effectively upgraded my video persona. When I first recorded in the typical claustrophobia-inducing, Munchkin-sized studio, I was noticeably bobbing my head up and down. But when I shifted the recording site to my large classroom, I was no longer Bill the Bobble Head Doll. I could almost simultaneously see both the camera and my notes—often moving just my eyes up and down, from script to camera. May we all one day have teleprompters when recording our videos.

Bergmann and Sams would likely cite me for contempt of class. I do not employ an informal chat for my video watchers. As the Flip Your Classroom bible suggests: “We do not write a script … [preferring] an outline that we … can simply improvise … [because] a script would simply hinder our spontaneity and creativity.” For me, my videos offer a somewhat polished, ready-to-incorporate-into-outline introduction to substance. Perhaps my bullets and the above-quoted improvisation are quite similar. My bulleted nutshell does not box me into what or how I present in class.

As Bergmann and Sams predicted, I was not satisfied with my first round of Flip 1.0 videos. I (fortunately) had to create new videos for a different version of that (Federal Civil Procedure) course. I also had to create new videos for my discrete Flip 2.0 (California Civil Procedure) course.[8]

As soon as I rolled out my second round of federal course videos, I had my student teaching assistant watch them all. With my draft reading syllabus in hand, he could confirm whether I had inserted the video-watching assignments where they best fit into the course. He could confirm whether he could fully embrace their content. Make sure that you do this, so that you have student input on your work product.[9] But be sure to encourage candor from your student employee. Put another way, the Emperor should have clothes.

Armed with substantive video introductions, the students’ in-class questions were qualitatively superior to the times when I was the one doing most of the question asking. Exposure to the basic concepts before class also minimized the in-class coverage pressure I had experienced in my pre-flip years. I now make fewer legal concept corrections in class, given the value that flipping has added to my work product. My sense of “mission accomplished” was significantly upgraded. I now feel like I am serving in a responsive role—comparable to that of the White House Press Secretary, rather than the one-on-one Spanish Inquisition interrogator.

The final video lesson learned (that space limitations permit) was my Flip 1.0 failure to provide any video interactivity with my students. My revised videos satisfactorily summarized course content. My better students, however, were subliminally annoyed by the lack of opportunities to test their comprehension of my brief but far-ranging summaries.

Now, I present end-of-video narrative questions—a couple short answer interrogatories—to ensure they’ve digested the particular video. The talking head professor then admonishes that, if they cannot briefly answer the review question(s), they should review the video, or portion that may have confused them. Note that one who opts to include diagrams, or other non-narrative illustrations, could therein present/zoom in on review questions appearing on a whiteboard or easel.

Unlike some fellow flippers, I avoid in-video whiteboard or easel diagrams. I feel that it would be an imposition, to require I.T. staff availability to zoom in on such illustrations (from the recording studio) at the distant classroom lectern. Those who, instead, record in a diminutive studio can more readily incorporate easel or whiteboard diagrams into their video presentations.

Lesson Learned #3: Class Time Activities

In the above confession of a legal heretic, I unabashedly admitted my Flip 1.0 sin of failing to fully achieve the key ingredient in the flipped learning process: using class time to engage in new activities that the professor always wished s/he could do, but never had the time. But I did do something novel—akin to dry run rehearsals—via small group discussion breaks in each class before jumping into course substance. That actually turned out to be a surprisingly productive improvement over my prior 36 years of teaching.

In the Flip 1.0 and 1.5 federal course, I allotted three of these 5-minute timeouts per 75-minute class. Students then privately discussed the assigned materials (cases, problems, or videos) for that class. I would circle the room, to stealthily answer individual or small group questions. While perhaps not a mainstream flipping activity, this homework on homework was my initial thrust into the in-class domain of flipped learning. That was my fix, when attempting to shoehorn a challenging 6-unit course into 4 units, in the first semester of law school.

As a result, those students had two opportunities to consider the assigned materials, before commencing the substantive in-class debates and case discussions. Their first flipped learning experience was the short video I had assigned for most following-day classes. Their second preview was the several small group exchanges with one another—in retrospect, a remarkably noticeable student confidence booster. The quality of the ensuing debates and Socratic dialogue improved. After each 5-minute preview, I returned to the front-of-class lectern. Now poised at the traditional starting gate, students were effectively engaging that day’s substance for the third time.

Another lesson learned was that the professor could literally reach many more students than the daily handful in past classes. During these class “interruptions,” I was physically in their space, as opposed to honoring the traditional oceanic divide—between the professor’s sacrosanct lectern, and the student body on the peasants’ side of the classroom. My between-the-rows presence thus inculcated their sense that this course was a student-focused enterprise. These in-class collaborative learning chats, before getting down to serious business, promoted a far more active learning environment than had ever occurred in my pre-flip classes.

But the bulk of each remaining class segment (the other 55 of 75 minutes) did not seem to achieve any new pedagogical plateaus. The videos had helped. The in-class individual and small group chats had improved my “street cred”—to the point of earning my first Student Bar Association Teacher of the Year Award in a decade. Yet I felt that I had not really arrived at the Bergmann-Sams Flip Your Class mountaintop.

For Flip 2.0, I redirected my flipped learning compass toward an upper-division course, where students were not as professor-dependent as my first-year classes. My fresh target became the 3-unit one-semester, upper-division California Civil Procedure elective. I was comparatively free to structure that class as I saw fit, bearing in mind: (1) my school’s penchant for achieving good bar exam results; (2) intervening accrediting body Outcome and Assessment measures, which had recently been added to ABA-accredited law school expectations;[10] and (3) my desire to upgrade my already popular state practice course.

The general lack of realistic oral advocacy experience in law school long ago led me to promote oral advocacy, professionalism, collaborative teaching, and legal skills in my advance level procedure course. My Flip 2.0 class now ventures far beyond the professor-centered Socratic Method. My students run the class. The professor is perched in a student seat in the back of the classroom, acting as a judge. The “judge” thus poses questions to the advocates in a moot court format. The “professor” subsequently provides debate-by-debate feedback on each presenter’s performance. Nothing limits this format to a legal environment. One can foster such critical thinking, in many disciplines, by teasing out discrete views from multiple students.

My actual in-class instruction is minimal. That chore has been somewhat transferred to the videos—but primarily to fellow students. They now teach one another via their respective presentations on the issue at hand. This format yields the opportunity for the students to apply the underlying substantive principles—by arguing them in class, as if they were in a real courtroom. My limited teaching role is to supervise debates that tweak their performance, encourage observer questions, and produce outline-friendly takeaways. Students have thus exponentially improved their oral presentation skills, confidence, and experience base, by arguing and observing how cases can be best presented (by the advocates to their classmates). To keep them honest, I grade their presentations.[11]

Another positive result of Flips 1.5 and 2.0 was my introduction of end-of-class quizzes. I now place each day’s review quiz on the overhead projector during class—then on my course webpage,[12] at the end of most weeks. These are ungraded multiple choice reviews of the day’s substantive materials. I correctly anticipated that the pre-class flip videos would yield at least a half-dozen minutes for a concluding quiz. Having implemented my flipped class learning modules, including my adoption of in-class review quizzes, I feel no need to also grade them. Students are thus fully in the moment, without the attendant anxiety of yet another graded event.

Another lesson learned: give due consideration to each of your in-class activities. Unlike me, a former colleague gave weekly in-class quizzes in her procedure course. They were administered, instead, at the beginning of the class and were graded. But we each had excellent reasons for what is—when taken out of context—a distinction without a difference. In my case, I opted for a no-pressure, in-class activity that sums up the day’s work.

Prior to baptizing my course with the flipped learning rinse, time was my enemy. The remarkable value added to my Flip 2.0 (one-semester) course included a week of professionally prepared CD videos on depositions. I also added a week of attorney presentations on key practice subjects. In an earlier Flip class, I had found the time to have a federal judge do two classes (over the course of a year), offering practical insights on key motions. I thus learned that, for very different state and federal procedure classes, such in-class applications breathe life into what is critical practice matter disguised as a really boring course.

Conclusion

Reinventing myself, via flipped classes, resulted in the best teaching evaluations of my career. As my hallway and office conversations have confirmed, my students would like more classes to be flipped. The student responses to my rejuvenated courses reflect the use of flipped learning applications. Representative examples from several semesters include the following:

  • “The format of this class is extremely unique. This method of teaching smashes the traditional model of mindless case briefing. In application, I learn more, prepare less, and comprehend the material in a much more comprehensive manner. Ask Prof. Slomanson what he is doing differently & improve the performance of the school.” [Fall 2016, Flip 2.0]
  • “The videos were effective learning tool[s.] Pause, rewind, listen again is much better
    than traditional lecture. Great format.” [Fall 2015, Flip 1.5]
  •  “Professor Slomanson uses many different teaching methods to get the concepts
    across (videos, audio, mini-skits, items, student participation, etc).” [Fall 2014, Flip
    1.5][13]

At present, I’m alone in this endeavor at my institution. But it’s not hard to predict that flipped learning will one day be de rigueur in American law schools. MEF is leading the way, in its institutional capacity of being the first university in the world to adopt the flipped learning paradigm for all university departments. As more universities and their faculties climb aboard this bandwagon, more applicants will apply to such innovative institutions. Academicians must move beyond traditional cattle-class offerings, in the pursuit of educational relevancy in today’s excruciatingly competitive market.

My final lesson learned is that a 36-year leopard was able to change his teaching spots. Without flipped learning, I would have merely faded into a rather dense pedagogical jungle. Those of us, who have invested the time and energy to adopt the blended learning paradigm, can readily appreciate its value added to our courses. Of course, not everyone is currently aboard. But, quoting Harvard’s Justin Reich: “Like everything disruptive, online education is highly
controversial. But the flipped classroom is a strategy that nearly everyone agrees on. ‘It’s truly
the only thing I write about as having broad positive agreement.’ ”[14]           

 

[1] William R. Slomanson, Blended Learning: A Flipped Classroom Experiment, 64 Journal of Legal Education 93 (2014), online at <http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381282>.

[2] The Problem Method was my earlier, mid-career reincarnation.

[3] William R. Slomanson, Why Flip and Macro Design, American University College of Law, LegalED Igniting Legal Education Conference Wash, DC, April 4, 2014, online at <http://media.wcl.american.edu/Mediasite/Play/f573a9aa58454f2bac0cbd027030a3fb1d>.

[4] I could not have done my flipped learning project without the staunch support of Multimedia Specialist John Snay—and I.T. Director Gilbert Susana, the supervisor who authorized that assistance, and helped me with web uploading problems.

[5] Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day, p. 35 (Int’l Society for Technology in Education, 2012).

[6] If you consider yourself “the” professor—who has little to learn from “mere” students—hit the delete key now, before I waste any more of your time.

[7] See, e.g., <http://www.tjsl.edu/slomansonb/flipclass/FED_CP1_index.htm>, click Video on Videos. I plan on following my own advice, when fine-tuning Flip 2.0. I did follow my own advice—by not doing all possible videos for my fall 2016 Flip 2.0 rollout. The reasons include that one does not need to hold the hands of upper-division students, to the extent necessary for first-year students.

[8] For the intervening Flip 1.5 federal course, I most willingly switched from teaching the 4-unit one-semester day course, to the 6-unit two-semester night version of the first-year procedure course. I could have bitten off smaller course segments for my Round One Flip 1.0 videos. Then, I would have had far less video downsizing to do in the same course—when I fled the 4-unit class to teach the 6-unit version. On the other hand, I would not have developed the experience I gained from flipping the entirety of both federal courses. In Flip 1.5, for example, I first introduced the end-of-class quizzes described below.

[9] A fellow flipper may be preferable. If your faculty has no other flipping aficionados, other university departments or institutions will likely have someone who is anxious to associate with your work. At present, there is a small but growing cadre of US law school professors engaged in flipped learning projects. A handful presented various blended learning techniques at the 2014 American University Igniting LegalEd Conference, online at <http://legaledweb.com/schedule-igniting-law-teaching-april-4th>.

[10] One might profit from reviewing the Learning Outcomes I had previously developed for Flip 1.0, and those dictated for my Flip 2.0 course. Compare <http://www.tjsl.edu/slomansonb/FED_CP1-2_Learning_Out> with the outcomes I identified (under new accreditation guidelines) at <http://www.tjsl.edu/slomansonb/OutcomesTable.docx>.

[11] The second of three graded events is an exercise not employed in most required law school courses. It is a take-home midterm which is a practical drafting exercise. The vast majority of other classes employ a multiple choice and/or one-hour graded in-class essay midterm (in line with the bar exam format). The third graded event is a bar-oriented final examination consisting of multiple legal documents. Examinees must do what real lawyers do: analyzing the impact of these documents on the problem presented. My testing thus tracks the flipped classroom environment, and the Performance Test segment of the California Bar Examination.

[12] The method to my madness may be further revealed by visiting that resource at <http://www.tjsl.edu/slomansonb>, scroll to CAL CIV PRO, then click In-class Quizzes.

[13] I did not teach in spring 2016. I do not have my fall 2013 (Flip 1.0) class evaluations. They were no doubt less positive, for two reasons: (1) I was doing flipped learning for the first time; and (2) that was the first (and last) semester that I taught the then new, first-semester, 4-unit Federal Civil Procedure course—which had previously been a 6-unit doctrinal course.

[14] Tina Rosenberg, Turning Education Upside Down, N.Y. Times (Oct. 9, 2013), quoting Justin Reich, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard who studies technology and education, and available online at <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/turning-education-upside-down/?_r=0>.

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