Seven Tips for a Succesful Flip!

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Seven Tips for a Successful Flip!

By Karen Skinner and Cindy Guyer

Legal education is undergoing a dramatic transformation due to a variety of external and internal factors. Two primary factors are the push for more apprenticeship opportunities in law schools and the changing learning preferences of millennials who require new pedagogies. Both of these factors call for more experiential teaching in law school.

One experiential teaching method that has gained much attention in higher education and now in law schools has been to “flip” the course. A “flipped” or “inverted” course is where traditional classroom components, such as lecturing and reviewing concepts, are removed from class sessions. This allows traditional outside activities, such as creation tasks and assignments to explore and practice learned concepts, to be moved into the classroom.

The law librarians at the University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law began to flip their legal research course in the fall of 2010. There have been many positive results and, of course, lessons learned in the past three years. Following, we offer seven tips for a successful flip.

1. Ensure All Components Are Integral

When developing any course, instructors know that all components of their curriculum are necessary for students to gain maximum learning. But students will often skip or devalue certain components—especially assigned readings. However, in a flipped course it is particularly crucial that students understand that all components are integral and also connected. If they fail to complete the outside assignments, then they won’t be prepared for the in-class activities. For example, if a student didn’t watch a pre-class online tutorial, then he or she won’t be able to fully engage with classmates on an in-class research problem. 

To help students understand that all curriculum components are integral and connected, you should distribute a detailed syllabus before the first class session that clearly lists all their pre- and post-class assignments together for a particular class session. All components will be viewed as having equal weight and not merely as supplements for a class. Additionally, they should be posted on a course management system (CMS) to provide a central location for all components. Posting them together by class session will also show component connectedness. An added benefit to posting the components is that they are easily accessible in the event a student misses a class and needs the materials distributed during that class session.

Presenting the components as integral and connected provides a good first impression of a flipped classroom. However, this presentation doesn’t always ensure student compliance. How do you ensure that students complete their pre- and post-class assignments according to the syllabus?

2. Grade Your Students

The primary way to ensure students complete their outside-class assignments in a timely fashion is to grade them if you can. Although the American Bar Association requires that all accredited law schools teach legal research, how this is implemented differs widely among law schools. In our past experience, the best way to maximize genuine student effort in a legal research course is to grade students on performance. This is because students care greatly about their grades. We previously offered a legal research course and graded particular class components on a pass/fail (credit-only) basis. However, this led to minimal effort, where students submitted the least amount of work to obtain credit for the course or assignment. Recall your own days as a student when you practiced law school triage: sometimes you had to prioritize tasks, and that depended largely on whether you were being graded on particular tasks.

Students need to feel their time and effort are being invested into something worthwhile. The best investment is a grade based on performance. The legal research course at the USC Law School is a year-long required course. A student’s grade in legal research consists of 25 percent of their overall grade in the Legal Research, Writing, and Advocacy program (five units total for both semesters). While students do complain the units are not enough for the workload, it does confirm they take this grade investment seriously. Being graded on performance helps ensure that students complete all the outside-class components of the curriculum as assigned and are ready for in-class activities, thus facilitating a better flipped course.

3. Don’t Repeat Yourself

Part of making sure students feel that their time and effort are worth something is making each activity meaningful. When we first started flipping our legal research course, we thought we could use different mediums, like readings, tutorials, and lectures, to repeat important information. We thought the repetition would help with student learning. We quickly found that this method wasn’t welcomed by our students and rather irritated them. Furthermore, they discovered they didn’t need to do the readings or the tutorials because the content would be repeated inside the classroom. The next year we began minimizing repetition as much as possible.

Now we don’t repeat information more than twice. We put our stable content in the course readings and then use outside class tutorials and in-class lectures to provide unique content. By stable content, we mean unchanging, traditional, lecture-type knowledge. For instance, the stable content of California statutes and administrative law, such as publication names, organization, and finding tools, are only taught via online tutorials. Students get to practice researching California statutes and administrative law in their weekly assignments and are then expected to be able to research these laws even though we don’t teach them in class.

Students aren’t going to do the outside preparation if they know they can learn the same lessons in class. Relying on course readings or tutorials to convey new information puts students on notice that they have to come to class prepared. This also lets the instructor hit the ground running in the classroom with practical application.

4. Provide Active Class Sessions

Millennials learn best by practicing what they’ve learned in a collaborative environment. We use active class sessions where students can work with partners to practice problem-based content in class. We try to limit teaching-centered approaches by ensuring lectures make up no more than 20 percent of the class, with the majority of classroom sessions consisting of students connecting with other students to complete in-class problems. The problems consist of hypotheticals that students are required to work through. The instructor walks around observing the student work efforts and provides ongoing feedback and redirection as necessary. This learning-centered approach means that instructors serve as “guides by the side.” In essence, each class operates as a lab where students can try out what they’ve learned.

There are plenty of other active learning options. If possible, incorporate student response systems, or clickers, to review what students learned by completing their pre-class components. Call on someone who got the correct answer to tell the class why he or she selected that answer. Use a short quiz at the beginning of class to recap information. Have a student come up to the front of the classroom and run a terms and connectors search on Lexis or Westlaw. Comparing and contrasting search results are also insightful. For example, compare results from natural language and terms and connectors searches, and contrast results using different citators. There are many options for making class sessions active—the key is to maximize students’ participation, putting them at the center of class instead of the instructor.

5. Encourage Student Accountability

Making class sessions active also encourages student accountability. Students need to be held accountable for completing the outside-class components and coming to their class sessions prepared. It is vital that you, as the instructor, behave in a manner that tells students you expect them to come to class prepared and that you trust them to do so. Your first impression should be that outside pre-class assignments are required, whether that’s readings, a tutorial, or a video, and that students will be required to execute what they’ve learned in class. For example, prior to our first class session, students watch a tutorial that instructs them on how to retrieve a case by citation and case name on both Westlaw and Lexis. As such, they are expected to do this during their first class without any direction or reminders.

Additional ways to encourage student accountability include asking questions in graded weekly assignments that can be answered only after students watch an assigned video or tutorial. Consider reviewing the outside-class components by calling on students for answers. And don’t be afraid to actually call on students—just asking for volunteers won’t cut it. The fear of being called on has long been a good motivator. Set the flipped course tone in that very first class. You won’t regret it!

6. Keep Track of Your Students

Along the same lines of student accountability is keeping track of if and when your course components are being accessed. We use Blackboard for our CMS, which allows us to track when and how often students view the components posted on our CMS. This allows us to post tutorials, worksheets, and in-class problems on Blackboard and then check up on the students. Don’t be afraid to let students know you can tell whether or not they viewed the outside components. Students will think better of skipping outside work if they know you’re watching. Hello, Big Brother!

7. Offer Diverse Assessments

Millennial students are used to instant gratification, gaining access to information at any time and place. For legal education, this translates into wanting more feedback. A flipped course should provide feedback both outside and inside the classroom. Thus, assessments must be diverse and include both formative and summative types.

Formative assessments can include weekly graded assignments, interactive tutorials with quiz questions and click boxes where correct answers will advance the tutorial, and instructor and peer feedback during class sessions while researching an in-class problem. Traditional summative assessments that work well in a graded legal research course are research projects and exams. Tutorials could also be used as summative assessments. We provide two review tutorials, one at the end of each semester, to help students gauge their knowledge of the content they’re responsible for knowing for the exam. These review tutorials also provide sample exam questions so that the students can assess their readiness themselves.

Although summative assessments prevail in legal education, it is the formative types of assessments that are most significant for a flipped classroom. Providing students with feedback throughout the entire course, especially on outside-class assignments, encourages students to complete all components so that they can receive that feedback and ensure they’re on the right track with their learning. Furthermore, when they complete all the integral components, it maximizes their in-class practice and learning experience.

Get Flipping

These seven tips are not limited to teaching legal research in law schools only. Legal research is taught in all legal settings and, when we consider the constant changes in the law and research platforms themselves, it is an ongoing learning process throughout one’s legal career. Depending on what and how you teach legal research, we hope you can incorporate some or all of these tips to increase learning.

 Karen Skinner (kskinner@law.usc.edu) and Cindy Guyer (cguyer@law.usc.edu) are research services librarians at the USC Gould School of Law.