Noticing: A subtle yet powerful tool for teaching LL.M. students

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“Didja ever notice…?”

Just like with self-improvement, you can’t change something about yourself unless you first notice and are aware of it. The same is true for learning language skills as well as skills for law school.

Law school is notoriously sink-or-swim. And the teaching approach tends to be very top-down with students expected to intuitively know how to absorb, analyze, and synthesize large amounts of information and then figure out how to present it in ways that match professors’ expectations.

This carries over into teaching international students who need language support.
They are frequently asked to do things like read cases, write case briefs and IRAC memos, and understand and recognize plagiarism. We ask them to take notes, summarize, paraphrase. But we don’t always recognize that these are in many ways actually vaguely defined tasks.

What does good note taking, summarizing, or paraphrasing look like? How can we expect this from our students if they haven’t had opportunities to see models of what we’re picturing?

This is where noticing can be a very potent tool for making the vague into something more concrete.

  • Before asking LLM students to read a court opinion, give them several court opinions and ask them to treat the opinions like pieces of art: What do they notice about them? What similarities? What differences? All without actually reading the case. Or, give them a variety of court reporters and ask them to find a case and compare their cases. Then give them some case books and ask them to compare with the cases they find in there.
  • Prior to reading and briefing their first court opinion, give them a few case briefs about the same case and ask them to notice similarities and differences in the form and then the content. Do they all include the same sections? Do the sections have the same names? Are all “Issue” sections phrased as questions? By the time they’re done noticing a variety of briefs, the students will have answers to these questions plus a better sense of how to organize their reading of a court opinion along with the meta-language for discussing it.
  • Before asking students to write a legal memo, give them legal memos on the same topic and ask them to look for and identify the IRAC parts. Then have them compare the form and content of the memos. Or have them notice the discourse used in making arguments or even just the kinds of language used for transitions or any other aspect of language you anticipate students to struggle with (e.g., If you see a lot of mistakes with tense and aspect, then have them notice the use of tense and aspect and in an IRAC memo in order to connect it with the writer’s purpose).
  • What about plagiarism–always a challenging cross-cultural topic to teach? You can admonish students all day about the evils of not citing, and you can browbeat them with explanations of how anything that’s not “your own idea” needs to be cited. But they’ll have a more concrete sense of what is and isn’t their own idea–what that actually looks and feels like–if you give them a chance to notice it first.
  • So give them a legal memo or a law review article and ask them to notice the number of sentences that have a citation. The high percentage of sentences with citations should in itself should have a significant impact on the students’ perception. But don’t stop there. Have them also notice which sentences do not have citations. Then pick a few of each and have them try to explain the difference.
  • Take it a step further and notice the language used in each category, e.g., more referential language (e.g., reported speech or phrases like “according to”), and perhaps more frequent use of first person, stance language, or value statements in sentences without citations. All of this gives students language to look out for and even steal in good conscience for use in their own writing.

Hopefully these examples are helpful to readers for noticing the power of awareness.

If you have approaches you’ve tried that incorporate noticing, please feel free to share in the comments section of this post. Or email me directly and I can incorporate into a future post.

Stay tuned for more posts on “Noticing” in the future.

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