Overcoming Barriers to Teaching “Practical Problem-Solving”


Although many faculty agree that it is desirable to integrate PPS in their courses, there are many reasons why faculty are reluctant to do so.  The following chart summarizes some common objections, underlying concerns, and possible responses.  It provides a brief summary of possible “talking points” that faculty can discuss individually with colleagues in their school who might be interested in incorporating PPS in their courses.


Common Objections

Causes and

Underlying Interests

Possible Responses

“It’s not our job to teach PPS in doctrinal courses.”

“It’s not the proper role of law school to train students in skills.”

“My institution doesn’t value problem-solving skills.”

* Resistance to change

* Traditional preference for Socratic method and lack of appreciation for other educational approaches

* Lack of legitimacy because teaching is often viewed as secondary to scholarship, particularly skills teaching

* Perceived intrusion on faculty autonomy

* There is a nationwide movement emphasizing importance of increasing skills instruction, particularly integrated with doctrinal instruction.

* Faculty can make adjustments without overhauling an entire course or curriculum. Faculty can incorporate PPS as “seeds” in courses, e.g., discussing cases from lawyer’s perspective when interviewing or counseling clients or negotiating with opposing counsel.[1]

* Law schools need to respond to the profession’s demand that law students be practice-ready and law schools need to make their students more employable.

* Outside constituencies (such as judges, recent alumni and recruiters) believe that problem-solving is important. Employers increasingly demand that students have PPS skills.

* Increasingly, casebooks include some PPS exercises.

* The ABA is revising its standards to increase emphasis on teaching skills.

* Accreditation site visitors may look for Carnegie-related teaching innovations.

“I don’t have the practice experience or skills to teach PPS.”

“I don’t have time to learn new teaching methods.”

* Lack of practice experience

* Fear of the unknown

* Inertia

* Competing time constraints, e.g., scholarship

* Additional time required to prepare new material and assess small group exercises

* Lack of extra pay for extra work

* Faculty can use problem-based learning, especially with texts that have suitable problems.

* Faculty can collaborate with practitioners or colleagues with practice experience, possibly as guest speakers.

* Faculty can get advice from colleagues at other schools who teach the same subject. LEAPS Consultants are available to help on many law school subjects.

* Faculty can seek their dean’s support to develop PPS aspects of their courses.

“I don’t have time during the semester to fit in PPS to my already packed syllabus.”

* Too little time to cover existing material already

* Dilemma about tradeoffs in covering subject in more breadth or depth

* Faculty can assign students to do exercises outside of class as homework.

* Faculty can use materials from teachers’ manuals to incorporate into existing coverage

* Faculty can seek their dean’s support to develop PPS aspects of their courses.

* Some students learn both breadth and depth of doctrine better by practically applying the concepts in concrete problems.

“This won’t help students pass the bar.”

“I don’t know how to measure PPS.”

* Not familiar with variety of assessment methods and student learning styles

* Not comfortable outside of standard exam structure with correct or best answers

* Most bar exams require students to take the Multistate Performance Test, which covers PPS skills.[2]

* Some students learn legal doctrine better by practically applying the concepts in concrete problems.

* Many students are very interested in learning PPS skills.

* LEAPS Consultants and others can give advice about practical methods of assessing students’ performance.

“The students will resist.”

* Passivity

* Lack of initiative and imagination

* Uncertain assessment standards

* Students’ fear of effect on grades

* Instructors’ fear of effect on course evaluations

* Faculty can explain to students why they are doing exercises or other activities.

* Faculty can use small-group activity to avoid student passivity.

* Faculty can distribute assessment rubrics in advance.

* Many students think problem-solving exercises are fun.

* Faculty can get testimonials from students who already have learned with PPS elements, as they may provide more credibility.

* LEAPS Consultants and others can give advice about methods that students will accept constructively.

“It’s too difficult logistically.”

* Large classes

* Lack of teaching materials

* Difficulty in organizing students

* Difficulty of assessment

* Faculty can use materials from teachers’ manuals and get advice from LEAPS Consultants or other colleagues.

* Faculty can use technology to create efficiencies in teaching.

* Faculty can limit the amount of PPS instruction to what is manageable.

* Faculty can use a variety of assessment techniques, including self-assessment and peer assessment. Some activities can be ungraded. Other activities can be assessed through group work, limiting the need for individual feedback.

“I cannot assure that students are doing high-quality work in small groups.”

* Accountability

* Difficulty of assessment

* Unclear expectations

* Law school undervalues group work

* Faculty can set clear and realistic expectations; establish straightforward ground rules.

* Faculty can use grading rubrics to assess quality of student work.

* Faculty can require students to report on group work, telling them in advance about this requirement.

* Faculty can instill a classroom culture that values group work by explaining learning benefits of group work in advance.

* Faculty can include group work assessment in overall course assessment.

* Faculty can assign each individual in a group a specific task to heighten sense of responsibility to the full class.

* Faculty can encourage students to work on their weaknesses in their groups to enhance learning for individuals.

* Faculty can be strategic about group composition.

* Faculty can consult with LEAPS Consultants or other colleagues and can read expert advice.[3]

“I don’t know how I will assess the students and give useful feedback.”

* Difficulty of assessment

* Law professors’ traditional reliance on a single final exam as sole means of assessment

* There are multiple assessment options including self-evaluation, peer evaluation, teaching assistants; online surveys, “clickers,” group reports or debriefs of exercises, adjuncts helping assess performance, e-portfolios, pass/fail exercises, journals, and scored exercises.

* Faculty can use grading rubrics to explain learning goals to students in advance.

“I cannot ensure I am teaching cultural competence in problem-solving.”

* Lack of confidence in teaching skills

* Lack of understanding of law as a liberal art

* Faculty can ask students to discuss their own culture and values as a way to be more aware of others’.

* Faculty can show videos or give reading assignments to cover cultural issues.

* Faculty can assign readings or tell “back stories” to provide greater context of cases in doctrinal courses.

* Faculty can discuss use of ADR as way to bridge gaps related to cultural differences.


[1] Michael Moffitt, Islands, Vitamins, Salt, Germs: Four Visions of the Future of ADR in Law Schools (and a Data-Driven Snapshot of the Field Today), 25 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol. 25 (2010); John Lande & Jean R. Sternlight, The Potential Contribution of ADR to an Integrated Curriculum: Preparing Law Students for Real World Lawyering, 25 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol. 247 (2010).

[2] See National Conference of Bar Examiners, http://www.ncbex.org/multistate-tests/mpt/mpt-faqs/description1/ (33 states and District of Columbia require students to take the MPT).

[3] See, e.g., Sophie Sparrow, Team-Based Learning: An Overview, 16 L. Tchr. 1 (Spring 2010) (and other work); Barbara Glesner Fines’ website, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/profiles/glesnerfines/bgf-edu.htm.