Recent innovations in academic support for LLMs at St. John’s

With each additional year I work at St. John’s Law School, my role seems to evolve increasingly from “legal English” teaching toward a larger umbrella category of “academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students,” with language support of course being a significant component.

This is because, while much of my direct teaching has been with “pre-LLM” students (i.e., our 4-week summer English for American Law School (EALS) course; our concurrent Spring EALS course; and our full semester ALDA legal English program), my colleagues and I have recognized that the majority of our LLM students still have continuing language and academic support needs and areas for improvement throughout their time in the program. This shift has grown in part out of conversations I’ve had with our legal English counterparts at Georgetown Law, who have been offering extensive legal English support to their LLMs for some years now. And it’s also benefited from interactions with our very collaborative Dean of Academic Achievement, Susan Landrum, whose focus is on JD students but frequently has tuned us in to helpful resources and best practices in the field of academic support in general as well as the existence of a large and collaborative community of law school academic support professionals.

Armed with increased awareness and knowledge, the challenge has been to somehow squeeze in substantive ongoing language support while also adapting other forms of academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students (and also for the increasing number of international JD students) without burdening or interfering with students’ already busy schedules and coursework. To that end, here are some of the solutions I and my Office of Graduate Studies colleagues have developed:

1. Conversation Partners Program: Native English speaking JD student volunteers are matched with LLM students who express interest in having a Conversation Partner. (This includes my ALDA students who are required to have a Conversation Partner.) A key “innovation” that I think has helped encourage participation is setting 15 minutes as the amount of time for Conversation Partners to meet (as opposed to an hour or 30 minutes). Also, building relationships with and soliciting JD student volunteers from student groups such as the International Law Student Association and the Multi-lingual Legal Alliance.

2. Written Language Feedback Project: Currently, two Writing Fellows from the law school’s Writing Center are now providing written language feedback to a sample group of 8 students from the LLM Legal Research & Writing course during the semester with guidance and oversight from me.

The idea is that our LLM students still need help improving their written language throughout their time at St. John’s, but their legal writing professors generally need to focus primarily on content and don’t generally have the bandwidth to focus substantively on language-related feedback. And, unlike reading, which can be self-improved by simply reading a lot, it’s extremely difficult to improve one’s written language in a non-native language without corrective feedback.

I actually tried a pilot last semester with me as the written feedback provider. But I just didn’t have the time to actually do it, even for a handful of students. So we decided this year to have Writing Fellows provide the feedback, and for me to provide guidance with respect to corrective feedback approaches for non-native English speaking students. (e.g., Polite language like, “You might want to…” can often be confusing for LLM students as they miss the nuance and view it as a suggestion rather than a polite directive. Also, trying to connect grammar comments with communicative purpose. e.g., “These verbs need to be present tense because you’re talking about the rule.”)

For student writings, we’ve been using early drafts of the LLM students’ assignments from their Legal Writing class (which is taught by my OGS colleague Prof. Kathryn Piper). So by the time the feedback is received by the student, it will not directly help them with their grade on that particular assignment. Though it will hopefully help them indirectly by improving their written language.

To date, it has been a wonderfully collaborative process with the Writing Fellows and the participating LLM students as we experiment with and try to figure out the corrective feedback that is most helpful to our LLM students. Assuming all continues to go well, we will hopefully be able to expand the program in upcoming semesters to include more LLM students and more language feedback providers.

3. LLM Study Support Hour: In the past, I’ve called this “Language Support Hour,” a weekly time when students can come and ask for help with language-related issues in their reading or writing or any other situations. This semester, I’ve re-named it the LLM Study Support Hour, and attendance has seemed to have jumped based on the cosmetic change alone. Additionally, rather than focusing on language, students have come with questions about how to read faster and more efficiently, which prompts a discussion and some practice of reading strategies. Or, questions like: “My professor told me my exam answer was too conclusory and lacks analysis,” which prompts a discussion of what good analysis looks like. Language issues of course come up as well. But we get to them by initially focusing on content and needs. Also, there’s been an uptick in students coming to my office or emailing me with language-related questions. Interestingly, this hour has also become a bit of an entry point for some of the international JD students who are seeking help but still adapting culturally to American law school.

4. Academic Support Workshops: My colleague Prof. Kathryn Piper in previous semesters designed very effective Academic Support Workshops for LLM students available during the semester on:

  1. Study Skills (i.e., keeping organized, note taking, reading strategies, and commercial supplements)
  2. Exam Preparation (i.e., outlining and studying for exams)
  3. Exam Logistics (i.e., Examplify software and “exam mode” procedures), and
  4. An actual mock exam so that students know exactly what it feels like and what to expect.

I’m now responsible for presenting them, and in addition to being appreciated by the students, it’s been a great opportunity for me to get additional feedback on LLM student needs with regard to academic and language support.

5. TWEN LLM Academic & Language Support page: I set up this page about a year ago to house various resources–primarily language-related–organized into categories such as Reading, Vocabulary, Listening, Writing, Pronunciation, Grammar, and Punctuation. But in line with the evolution toward more general “academic support,” I changed the name from “Language Support” to “LLM Academic & Language Support.” And now it also includes categories such as Typing Support, Books About Law School, Academic Workshop PowerPoints,and Interview Practice (which includes interview questions actually asked to and remembered by a number of LLM and JD students plus recordings and transcripts of sample responses to those questions by those same students).

6. LLM Field Trips: As part of the ALDA Program, we take our students on about 8 field trips during the semester. In addition to courts, law firms, and the UN, this semester we’ll also be meeting with lawyers at New York City Council and touring the New York Stock Exchange (which no longer gives public tours). However, since last semester, we’ve opened up the ALDA field trips to any LLM students who would like to join and also invite JD students from the International Law Students Association, Multilingual Legal Advocates, and a few other student groups. Since the trips are on different days of the week, it gives all the LLM students a chance to get some concrete legal experience in a way that fits their schedule and also creates exposure to more legal English forms.

7. LLM Instructor Workshops: In our program, we have 6 professors with both law and ESL experience. Since 3 of them are adjunct professors, a couple years ago, my colleague Katy and I started organizing evening workshops for all of us to get together, trade notes, and focus on topics such as cross-cultural communication, ways to incorporate grammar teaching into law courses, approaches to written corrective feedback, and thinking about student learning issues. In addition to professional development, it was also a great way to build a collaborative culture and sense of community. As our LLM program has grown and more professors in the law school have more non-native English speakers in their classes, we’ve now started opening up our LLM Instructor Workshops to other faculty and staff who are interested in these discussions. The hope is that sharing of ideas and best practices will be for the benefit of LLM students in all aspects of their law school life, and also that we will get a better sense of needs and challenges of others who teach and work with LLM students, which in turn will able my colleagues and I to develop additional tailored support initiatives.

8. Bar Exam Language & Strategies (BELS) Support Course: An optional, non-credit weekly course for LLM students developed by my colleague Kathryn Piper and me that focuses specifically on bar essays gives the students a chance to work on essay writing strategies while getting language and discourse feedback and support. Key innovations have been 1) making it a non-homework class–all work is done in class and feedback is given in class, including while students are in the middle of writing; and 2) creating additional BELS sections for students who have schedule conflicts, even if it means meeting with only 1 or 2 students at a time, because we want to make sure that all bar-pathway LLM students get comfortable and confident in their bar essay writing fundamentals. Note: BELS is in addition to a for-credit course that all bar pathway LLM students take that specifically covers a range of bar-related topics and familiarizes the students with the bar exam formats.

Of course, these initiatives are are not set in stone but rather frequently evolving and being adapted in response to changing student needs and other factors. But the net result is that our students feel very supported throughout their respective programs. Additionally, it feels like in addressing more general academic support needs, we’ve actually created more opportunities for students to seek and get needed language support by removing some of the language-related stigmas.

In addition to all of the above, the shift to thinking more generally about academic support for LLM students has made my job more enjoyable and satisfying because I now have greater interaction with a larger population of our LLM students throughout their time at St. John’s rather than just at the beginning of their program.

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