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Asynchronous Teaching Methodologies: Pandemic Reflections and Best Practices

WMU-Cooley Law School Professors Matthew Marin and Amanda Fisher’s article, "Asynchronous Teaching Methodologies: Pandemic Reflections and Best Practices,” published in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of The Learning Curve, a publication of the AALS Section of Academic Support.  It includes well supported advice for the use of asynchronous methods, even after the return to the physical classroom.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic forced legal education online. As a result, professors are holding classes using online synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of methods.1 Professors have many choices to make when designing an asynchronous course, and a variety of tools that they can use in many different ways; therefore, professors who are new to the process may find it intimidating or overwhelming when trying to find “best practices.” WMU-Cooley law professors had been employing these teaching methods even before the COVID-19 pandemic and now have increased the efficacy of these methodologies. Even though many schools are moving back to in-person or hybrid teaching, various aspects of asynchronous teaching will remain beneficial and should continue to be used even beyond the pandemic. This article discusses best practices for asynchronous teaching including video lectures, discussion boards, one-on-one meetings, and more.2 The authors draw on successful approaches that have been used and implemented in two courses at WMU-Cooley Law School.
 

Bar Exam Skills as an Asynchronous Course

Bar exam preparation has been worked into WMU-Cooley’s curriculum, and students must take a required Bar Exam Skills course to graduate. As with most law-school bar-prep courses, its primary focus is on building MBE, MEE, and MPT skills for success on a state bar exam. When WMU-Cooley went remote, it was a smooth process for Bar Exam Skills to transition to an online format, because the course was asynchronous before the pandemic. Following are some best practices that have been incorporated into that class.
 
One of the first reasons that transitioning Bar Exam Skills to 100% asynchronous was so easy is because the majority of post-graduate bar-exam preparation is asynchronous. Graduates don’t usually get to attend live, in person bar-review lectures over substance or skills.3 Instead, with the technology that is available today, graduates watch online video modules anytime that fits their own schedules. So, it comes as no surprise that one of the first changes we made was to record short videos on each week's substantive topic. Over the course of seven weeks, we cover Torts, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Evidence, Criminal Procedure, Real Property, and Criminal Law, each with four to seven videos.4 Each of the videos includes a series of embedded quizzes spread throughout the recording. That way, we can tell whether or not the student watched the entire video.5 In addition, the quizzes allow for immediate follow-up on a legal concept and test the student’s understanding of the covered materials. This, in turn, forces students to see areas where they need to review. In addition to watching the videos and completing the embedded quizzes, the students are also given a fill-in-the-blank big-picture outline. Thus, they can see the big picture of the class, while being directed to fill in the holes for important terms of art that they must memorize.
 
After the students watch the weekly videos, they are required to write through an old bar exam essay question on that week’s topic. At the beginning of the term, students are encouraged to use their notes; later, we suggest that they try to complete the essays under timed, simulated conditions. Like when the class was in person, students receive written feedback and are graded on a rubric.6 In addition, students are encouraged to reach out and discuss their essays (and other questions) with the professors.7 At the beginning of the term, the professors give their contact information to the students (including cell phone number), and they make a point to let them know they can text or call with any question. This, in turn, fosters open communication with the hope that the students will keep in contact (and feel free to reach out with questions) even after they graduate. This is where one of the big changes was made to the format of this class. Now, the professor takes on the role as a coach for each student, which has resulted in more customized, individual attention to each student’s needs, rather than lecturing to the class as a whole. For those students who are initially apprehensive about reaching out in this format, a built-in course mechanism prompts them to feel more comfortable: each student must complete a mandatory meeting with one of the bar-prep faculty members approximately halfway through the term. The professor and student discuss areas of strength and areas that need improvement, and together they form a plan for the rest of the term and for after graduation.
 
While studying for the bar, many graduates fall behind in their bar-review courses because of problems with time management. WMU-Cooley's bar-exam skills class requires that certain videos and assignments must be completed before the middle of the week, others must be completed by the end of the week, and the attendance and point structure of the course provides both carrots and sticks as an enforcement mechanism. This builds in the idea of structure and deadlines even when the students are on their own in an asynchronous environment. Because they get used to the discipline of meeting deadlines to earn both attendance and points, the idea that students cannot leave work until "the last minute" is reinforced. It seems to be carrying over into when full bar-prep mode begins.8
 
Before the term is done, the students are given the option to select a faculty member as a bar coach. In many instances, those meetings begin while the student is in the course and continue until the student sits for the bar exam. Even though the course itself is asynchronous, it includes multiple live contacts with students. With the advent of technology, videoconferencing, and learning-management platforms, live contacts have become more accessible. Moreover, many of those live contacts are more beneficial to the student’s overall progression in the course, because the conversations and coaching sessions are tailored toward the individual student’s needs.
 

Drafting as an Asynchronous Course

Teaching a skills course, and especially a writing course, online may be ill-advised. After all, a skills course requires actual practice of the skills being taught. However, when COVID-19 struck and courses were shifted online, professors were left with no choice but to teach skills online, and with the difficult problem of how to do so effectively. Many professors chose synchronous online methods, but others were drawn to asynchronous methodologies because it gave the students more flexibility. In legal education, asynchronous methods were not widely used prior to the pandemic.9 Fortunately, the pandemic allowed opportunity for further teaching innovation, including teaching a skills course asynchronously.
 
At WMU-Cooley, Drafting is an upper-level, required writing course covering practice-focused writing tasks, such as drafting and editing contracts and legislation. There are several benefits to teaching this course asynchronously. Students focus more on the       content of the course because they are able to complete it on their own timeline each week, giving them the flexibility to work around their many obligations.10 Additionally, students may revisit any and all material that does not make complete sense the first time around.
 
In the physical, synchronous classroom, a Drafting skills lesson usually involves a short lecture to introduce a new skill or concept. Then the students are given the chance to try out the skill in small groups. Next the professor asks for volunteers to share their work. Finally, the professor guides the class in a discussion about what each group did well, and what each group can improve on in the next task. Every exercise is followed by a deconstruction and a model answer provided to the students, so that they can all self-assess.
 
In the online classroom, lectures are recorded videos, eliminating the need for the professor and the students to be present at the same time. Multiple short videos (20 minutes maximum for each video) are used if there is more than one skill or concept that needs to be covered in a given week. One long video would be less effective because the students’ attention will inevitably wane.11 After watching a lecture video that introduces the skill, the students practice the skill via discussion board exercises.
 
The professor has designed the discussion board responses so that students must post their own original responses first before they can see any other responses. Once they have posted, they can see any other student responses and are required to comment on two other posts to receive full credit for completing the task.12 In the virtual Drafting classroom, credit is attendance. These settings have removed the temptation for a student to just scroll through the first responses to repeat what someone else has said or done. Moreover, requiring the students to respond to one another has helped the students engage with one another throughout the course rather than just posting and moving on. Maintaining human contact in the virtual classroom is important because students feel more supported and comfortable communicating when they need help.
 
This method also helps to showcase student work: it emphasizes that though everyone's writing looks different, it does not mean that only one person can be correct. It demonstrates that a single problem can have different, excellent solutions. The online platform has been ideal for this type of assignment. While some students may be hesitant to put their work on display, this professor has created normalcy in sharing work for the benefit of critique rather than for competition. For example, in the first week of class the professor sets the tone of professionalism and for creating a safe space for learning even in the online classroom. This has helped students feel more confident in posting their work for the whole class to see.
 
While the majority of the tasks for Drafting can be completed individually, without any additional contact from the professor, the regular scheduled class period is reserved for an optional question-and-answer drop-in session for the students. This ensures complete access to the professor at a time when the students are presumably available – after all, the day and time of the class meetings were listed on the schedule when the students registered for the class.
 
Students are also encouraged to schedule one-on-one meetings with the professor to go over any task, exercise, or graded assignment. Although these meetings are not required, the professor offers to meet with students repeatedly and to review multiple drafts. Again, this helps to preserve contact between the student and professor.
 
Furthermore, this approach provides flexibility for the students13 but also places the responsibility on students to take charge of their progress and become self-regulated learners,14 which will make all of them better attorneys.
 
Student response to the asynchronous version of Drafting has been positive. The asynchronous version of this course remains in high demand each term, and students have expressed appreciation for the flexibility built into the course and the availability of the professor. Part of Drafting’s success has been the professor’s time, attention, and dedication to ensuring the course effectively achieves the learning objectives set out for the students. In addition, the professor has worked hard to avoid common pitfalls with asynchronous teaching, such as the unavailability of the professor, students feeling isolated, and uncertain expectations.
 

Asynchronous Teaching Post-COVID-19 Legal Education

Asynchronous teaching has a place in legal education –in particular academic support, bar prep, and legal writing—even after all law schools return to in-person teaching. For example, a professor can flip a classroom by assigning short videos to be completed prior to attending class in person. This lays the substantive foundation for the students so that they come to class prepared for a robust discussion and ready to practice the skills they are developing. Short lecture videos not only allow students to re-watch when needed, but it also gives professors a sense of quality control over the material. A live lecture does not always go as planned, but with lecture videos a professor can scrap a version that did not work out well and recreate a more effective version. Additionally, discussion boards can be a valuable resource in showcasing student work and helping students learn to peer-edit and critique others in a professional environment. Further, asynchronous teaching helps students learn time management, discipline, and prioritization. Ultimately, this means that students will be better educated in substance and in critical skills necessary for becoming a successful attorney. Although the pandemic was the motivation for adapting asynchronous methods, the methodology will remain sound even when the global emergency has passed.

Marin_Matthew_squareMatthew Marin

Professor Matthew Marin joined the WMU-Cooley full-time faculty as a Visiting Professor in 2019. He also serves the law school as the Director of Academic and Student Services. Professor Marin teaches Contracts, Research & Writing, Florida Bar Exam Skills, Bar Exam Skills, and Drafting. Previously, Professor Marin served the law school as the Academic Resource Center Coordinator and as an adjunct professor teaching Bar Exam Skills, Florida Bar Exam Distinctions, BarPlus, Florida Bar Workshop, and Introduction to Law I and II.

fisher_amanda_squareAmanda Fisher

Professor Amanda Fisher joined the WMU-Cooley Law School full-time faculty as a Visiting Professor in 2019. She has served as an Adjunct Professor at the law school’s Florida campus, teaching Drafting and Introduction to Law. Previously, she was a teaching assistant at the University of California in Irvine, where she is pursuing her doctorate in Criminology, Law & Society. While in law school, she earned full tuition remission with the John E. Ryan Scholarship, received the Excellence in Business Law Award for highest GPA across the business law curriculum, was a member of the Law Review and of the Moot Court Honor Board.

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1
Gabriel Kuris, The Impact of the Coronavirus on Legal Education, U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 24, 2020, 9:24 AM), https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/lawadmissions-lowdown/articles/the-impact-of-the-coronavirus-on-legal-education.

2 Yvonne M. Dutton et al., Assessing Online Learning in Law Schools: Students Say Online Classes Deliver, 96 Denv. L. Rev. 493, 513 (2019). See also id. at 520 (stating that data collected “suggests that online classes have a place in the law school curriculum . . . [and s]tudents generally expressed the view that at least some of the online classes they have taken deliver a learning experience that is equal to or better than the learning experience they had in some traditional live law classes.”).

3 The option to attend live is very rare, if it in fact ever happens. See, e.g., BARBRI Bar Review FAQs, BARBRI (last visited Dec. 14, 2020), https://www.barbri.com/barbri-barreview-faq/ (stating that “[f]or a summer BARBRI Bar Review course, depending on the option you select when you enroll, when you attend a classroom, you may either experience 1) a live professor delivering the lecture or workshop content; 2) a live stream of a professor who is physically in another location; or 3) in some instances, you may watch a pre-recorded video in a classroom environment. For the winter bar review course, when you attend a classroom, you will watch a pre-recorded video in a classroom environment.”).
 
4 See Cynthia J. Brame, Effective Educational Videos: Principles and Guidelines for Maximizing Student Learning from Video Content, in CBE Life Sci Educ. Vol. 15, No. 4, at 4 (2016) (discussing “the median engagement time for videos less than 6 minutes long was close to 100% [where] median engagement time with 9- to 12-minute videos was ~50%, and the median engagement time with 12- to 40-minute videos was ~20%.”). Currently, students in the Bar Exam Skills course are given an average of 6 videos per week that range from 4 to 20 minutes each.
 
5 Another point of interest in crafting the course makeup was how to track weekly attendance, per ABA standards. Students are given from Sunday at 12:00 a.m. until  Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. of that week to complete the videos and embedded quizzes for attendance purposes. If they fail to do so, then they are marked absent for the week.
 
6 Another component of the class is working on the skill of self-assessment. A weekly assignment includes the students’ self-assessing their essay response on the same grading rubric before the professor gives the feedback. Students then compare how they graded themselves versus how the professor scored them so they can see where they are in evaluating their own work. In addition to the other assignments already mentioned, students must complete weekly concept maps/outlines of topics, they must solve weekly multiple-choice sets, and they must track their deconstruction of those multiple-choice sets. The deconstruction requires them to record which questions they got wrong and list the reason(s) why they got those questions wrong. They must also explain what rules were being tested in all questions, regardless of whether the students got the question right or wrong, and explain what facts triggered those rules.
 
7 Students must meet with a bar prep faculty member once but are encouraged to meet as often as needed. This is a best practice, because it ensures that students have a minimum of one real-time interaction with a faculty member despite the course being asynchronous.
 
8 Anecdotally, we have kept in touch with graduates who have said that they understand why the Bar Exam Skills course was designed asynchronously after they experienced full bar prep and the bar exam because the structure was so similar and they felt more prepared.
 
9 See supra note 1.
 
10 Students have expressed gratitude for the flexibility of this course during and after the class. They have also frequently written and described how helpful the content has been for their practical experiences.
 
11 See supra note 4.
 
12 Here, credit is attendance. If students complete all required tasks, they are counted as present for that week. If a student completes only a portion of the tasks, then they are partially absent, and if no tasks are completed, then the student is marked absent.
 
13 WMU-Cooley has a student body made up of many non-traditional students who will benefit from flexibility in many ways.
 
14 Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Achievement: Theoretical Perspectives (Barry J. Zimmerman, Dale H. Schunk, eds. 2nd Ed. 2008).