Bar Exam Language Support Course: Things we learned

Professor Kathryn Piper and I just finished the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course this past week and we wanted to share a few takeaways and things we learned given that this is a new course and, we believe, the first ever bar prep course at a law school that incorporates language learning pedagogy and perspective.

  1. Working with familiar topics: By using bar exam prep questions that the students had already studied and written answers for in a separate bar preparation course, we cleared away most of the obstacle that is background knowledge. This meant that we had the luxury of being able to truly focus on helping them with their writing. If we had used unfamiliar questions, and they in turn wrote poor answers due to lack of comprehension of the question or topic, or inability to remember the rule, then we would not have been evaluating their writing, but rather their knowledge or their comprehension. And it would have meant that we would have spent time teaching the relevant bar exam topic rather than working on writing. Working with familiar topics to enable a better focus on writing opened the door to identify and work on the actual writing issues faced by our non-native English speaking students (NNES).
  2. Speed is king: By the end of the first day of class, discussion of the bar exam writing process with our students made clear to us that speed and language processing were the biggest challenges for our students, all of whom were NNES. The speed issue manifests itself Continue reading

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.
Continue reading