Law Professors: Still Stuck in the Same Old Classroom?

Last summer and fall, the Case Studies Program at Harvard Law School set out to learn more about what kinds of teaching methods and materials law school professors used. We sent out surveys to approximately 1,000 faculty and deans at law schools throughout the country and received about 290 responses.  We wanted to know whether the buzz about innovation in the legal classroom reflects reality. Are faculty using more participant-centered, experiential methods? Or are lectures, casebooks, and the Socratic method continuing to dominate?

On first blush, we found what looked like a revolution. The chart below shows that class discussion was used far more than lectures and the Socratic method. An astonishing 98% of our respondents reported using class discussions frequently or occasionally versus 79% using lectures and 69% using the Socratic method frequently or occasionally. Although over 80% of our respondents reported that they “rarely or never” use the more innovative “flipped classroom” method, 79% used role plays, hypotheticals, and simulations and 73% reported using group exercises frequently or occasionally. Taken together, these findings seemed to point to a real change in how the law is taught.

But a deeper look at the materials used in the classroom shed more light on the methods reported in the previous slide. For example, 63% of respondents reported using casebooks frequently, followed by 61% using problems, hypotheticals, and discussion questions found in casebooks, and 49% using lecture slides and handouts. Only 36% used discussion-based case studies frequently and only 23% used workshop-based case studies frequently. This leads one to infer that casebooks and case teaching continued to be the primary method for teaching legal doctrine.  We also theorize that the discussions and role plays being reported in the methodologies question are brief departures during a lecture-based class, rather than an entire class devoted to engaging students as participants in the learning process.

Based on these results, it seems that law professors are making room in their courses for student interaction through discussions, hypotheticals, and role plays, but there is still a long way to go before learning becomes a participant sport. And the more cutting-edge innovations such as workshops and flipped classrooms are rare indeed. This supposition is even stronger when one considers that most likely those who chose to respond to our survey are more interested and engaged with experiential learning.

Another finding from the study was that, by far, the most common source for experiential materials was the professors themselves, with 90% reporting that they used self-written materials. Other reported sources were other professors and schools (nearly 40%) and online resources (nearly 30%).

The vast majority of respondents self-identified as professors (including associate and assistant professors). Most taught doctrinal courses, with a few teaching clinical, LRW, skills, or a combination.

We are still collecting data through our survey.  If you would like to take part, go to this link.


About Lisa Brem

Lisa Brem is the Case Studies Program Manager at Harvard Law School.
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