Legal Education: A Problem of Learning from Text


In the spring of 1996 I participated in a panel discussion of pedagogical theory and gender diversity at the New York University’s School of Law: A Public Discussion of Voices in the Classroom. To this panel discussion I did not bring experience as a lawyer, a law professor, or even a law student. My experience with the law was limited to a few traffic tickets and some moderately extensive case studies of law students who were struggling to learn the material in their case books. These students sought my help as the director of a university reading clinic when they believed that reading disorders were hindering their efforts in law school. From this experience with struggling law students I found that what educators know about reading comprehension could be used to improve the text learning of law students.

To the panel discussion at New York University I brought knowledge of reading theory and instructional practices that support the reading of complex material like legal case books. My comments at the symposium were not focused directly on issues of gender, but rather on what cognitive theory has to say about reading and learning with text. Educators have learned a great deal about how knowledge is created from text and how instructors can aid this learning process. In this article I will first explore some characteristics of reading with an emphasis on reading in complex domains like law. Next, I will discuss what we know about the differences in reading between successful and less successful law students. Finally, I will situate the reading assignments of law students in their classroom and suggest what instructors might do to improve their students’ learning with text. These suggestions will require an examination of the case method and the Socratic method of questioning that often accompanies the reading of appellate cases.

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