Academic success, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, goes beyond just getting good grades. While that’s an important part of it, success also depends on the student’s willingness to invest in themselves as learners and to develop critical-thinking skills, a growth mindset, intellectual curiosity and self-confidence.
At Capital University Law School, professors recognize the extreme rigor of the second-year program and are taking steps to ensure that each student has the strong skills necessary to handle the stress of an extremely challenging curriculum.
With that in mind, an ad hoc committee was formed to examine ways that skills instruction could be strengthened in the second year of studies, identifying critical-skills weaknesses for those students –known as “2Ls” – who were under-performing in the areas of reading complex cases, reading and interpreting complex statutes, and legal analysis.
“The difficulty of reaching second-year law students is an ongoing conversation in the law school academic success community,” says Halle Hara, professor and director of Academic Success at Capital University Law School, who chaired the committee on 2L learning. Before joining the law faculty, Hara had been a litigation attorney and a law clerk for four U.S. federal court judges. She also helps new lawyers through the Ohio Supreme Court’s Lawyer to Lawyer Mentoring Program.
“As an institution, we recognized that some students completed the first year without the strong skills necessary to handle the very challenging second-year curriculum. We wanted to create something to serve those students. Additionally, we wanted to provide resources for students hovering around the middle of the class to do more than just get by. We wanted to inspire those students to keep pushing and keep developing their skills to reach their ultimate potential.”
After six months of study, committee members decided on a two-part approach: a 2L Welcome Back Day introducing students to the rigors of the second year; and a variation of a “flipped classroom,” a blended learning instructional strategy that reverses the traditional learning environment.
Out of that came “The Law School Playbook,” a course with podcast instruction, integrated exercises and academic coaching that would inspire students – specifically 2Ls – to keep developing the skills to be successful in school and, ultimately, in practice.
Launched in 2019, the course grew out of a philosophy that it’s students themselves who have the greatest impact on their own learning and subsequent success. The Playbook details best practices on law school study techniques based on empirical field research, as well as educational psychology and cognitive science.
A similar online skills course for first-year Capital Law School students also is available.
“Because so much of what we do today is based on cognitive science, we approach academic success from the perspective that we can all be better learners and thinkers,” Hara says. “Some students need to improve their self-efficacy (their belief in their ability to perform well on law school exams), while others need more targeted coaching on, for example, memorization or multiple-choice questions.”
After examining different platforms for reaching 2Ls and polling the students on their preferences, it was determined that the best way of delivering instructional information was through podcasts, supporting broader research that teachers at all educational levels are utilizing podcasts as an effective instructional tool.
“When originally considering 2L academic success programs,” Hara says, “I started with the idea of adapting the autonomous learning method I developed for the first-year course; however, I faced the hurdle that all academic success professionals do: engaging second-year law students in what is arguably the busiest year of their academic lives.”
Each podcast consists of short lessons read in a letter format, with series on advanced case reading, reading and interpreting statutes, critical thinking and mind matters. It encourages them to actively engage with the material.
The episodes are supplemented with asynchronous online learning through exercises based on the students’ current doctrinal material, testing their ability to implement the podcast lessons. Hara then provides feedback on each exercise.
“I recognize that academic success coaching is not a one-size-fits-all undertaking,” Hara says. “Long ago, when academic success was in its infancy, it was targeted toward at-risk students. That is no longer the case.”
The Playbook offers law school study techniques based on empirical research done in the field, as well as educational psychology and cognitive science, Hara says. The website includes links to social media posts about skills topics such as best practices for notetaking; understanding multiple-choice questions; utilizing practice exams; distinguishing between material facts and non-material facts; and time management.
The individual coaching sessions, which Hara does in person, assist students in engaging in the metacognition necessary to discover and remedy weaknesses in their own learning, equipping them to gauge their progress and to develop a personal plan for their own success. Given work and family obligations outside of Law School that may make it difficult to meet in person, Hara also will coach students via email, phone or digital platforms.
Hara points to technology as a possible reason behind a change in how students learn today.
“We all use technology day in and day out; it has become an essential part of our lives. When I went to law school, we did research in books and looked to pocket parts for updates. Today, all of the research any lawyer needs can be found online,” Hara says.
“Research shows that as helpful as technology is, it is taking a toll on our intellect as a society. It prompts engagement in very short intervals and at a surface level. This is in direct contrast to the type of thinking that needs to happen in law school: deep, critical thinking.”
The Law School Playbook acknowledges that technology is a good way to engage this generation of law students, Hara says, but it encourages deeper thinking in reading cases and in reading and interpreting statutes.
Many of The Law School Playbook podcasts and exercises address purposeful reading and reading strategies that will be useful not only in Law School but in everyday legal practice throughout an attorney’s career.
“Reading is what lawyers get paid to do. It is essential to our profession,” Hara says. “Critical reading is the backbone for all legal reasoning, whether it is deductive or syllogistic, inductive or analogical. Thus, shortcuts like canned briefs may get (students) through class, but they deprive (them) of the skill set (they) need to practice law.”
Hara called The Law School Playbook a team effort: the committee determined the skills to be taught; Law School students determined the delivery format; research assistants helped with proofreading and citations; her husband, Josh Hara, did the illustrations; and a college friend developed the website.
The Law School Playbook services are free to Capital University Law School students, but non-Capital students can pay an hourly fee for personal coaching. Law firms and other organizations can hire Hara to improve their associates’ skills in areas such as legal research, writing and editing.
Hara’s approach to improving success for 2Ls through academic support content recently was selected by the AALS Section on Teaching Methods for a conference call presentation concerning online/hybrid law courses with a skills component.