The true purpose of law school recitation questions

Law school is not at all one of the kindest places on earth. It is a training ground for future lawyers and the hazing involves the task to read thousands of pages which include but are not limited to textbooks, codals, decisions of the Supreme Court, rules and regulations, and notes. Another grueling aspect of law school is classroom recitations wherein students are asked by the professor to discuss the rule as provided by law or the ruling of the Supreme Court as laid down in jurisprudence.The tradition in law school is for the professor to ask difficult questions and to expect only the brightest students to answer in a lawyer-like manner. Often, professors ask one student and raise the same question to another student by asking, "Do you agree with your classmate?" Of course, this is not at all objectionable because the method of teaching entirely depends on the style and idiosyncracies of the show's spotlight -- the professor.

The professor is often influenced by his or her experiences when s/he was a law student. Also, his/her method of asking questions usually flows from his/her understanding of the subject matter. For example, a labor law professor who has a rich experience in the field of human resource management might be inclined to ask questions from the viewpoint of the employer. On the other hand, a human rights activist in the field of labor law would throw recitation questions through the lenses of the employee. All these are normal in law school.

However, there is also a view that law school recitation questions are supposed to vex students and confuse them. This, although quite traditional in the field of legal education, should be abandoned because the true purpose of law school recitation questions is three-fold.

First, recitation questions in law school should be designed to test whether the student understands the assignment. Hence, questions like "what," "how many," "what are" and other close-ended questions are not ideal. Better, the questions should draw responses to "why" and "how" questions.

Second, recitation questions in law school should gauge the student's aptitude for practice of law. While it is true that bar examinations are in written/essay forms, lawyers are often confronted with tasks that involve their ability to speak in a clear, concise, correct and courtly manner. This is especially true in client management situations and in court litigation.

Third, recitation questions in law school should be tailored in such a way that the student's answer, if correct, will educate his/her classmates as well in the process. Because of this, a series of related or step-by-step questions should be adopted by the professor in order to ensure that the flow of discussion is aimed toward the understanding of a subject or a topic. For example, if the first question is why criminal law is studied by law students and the student's response is because it is a law school subject, the professor should not turn emotional against the student; after all, the answer is correct, albeit pedantic. The proper way to proceed is to ask why criminal law is included in the curriculum. The student's answer and the professor's reaction to the answer should guide the mind of the whole class toward the answer expected by the professor, i.e., criminal law is a branch of law.

After extracting the answer from the student that criminal law is a branch of public law that deals with crimes, the next possible and ideal question would be, "In what way should a law student understand the meaning of 'crimes' under criminal law?" The discussion will then proceed to the definition of crimes and so on. This is the idea behind the Socratic method of teaching.

It is error to think that, because the Socratic method involves questions and answers, the role of the professor is limited to asking questions only. In fact, the Socratic method is a teaching method that uses questioning to encourage critical thinking and analysis. It is named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, who used this method to teach his students. To ensure that the Socratic method is effective, professors need to:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no or with a definition or enumeration provided in the book. Such questions should require students to think critically, exercise sound reasoning and provide justification to support their answers.
  2. Be patient. The Socratic method can take time because the initial answers are expected to be insufficient, if not entirely incorrect. Hence, professors should allow students to think through their answers while guiding the class to the correct rule or principle.
  3. Encourage all students to participate. Although law students are expected to exhibit topnotch oral and written skills, not all of them are comfortable in participating in class discussions; to each student his/her own. It is ideal for law professors to encourage all students to contribute into the discussion, even if it is simply to ask questions or to raise points of clarification.
  4. Make students feel that it is not fatal to be wrong at this point. Yes, the bar examinations are a difficult test and errors, if any, should kept at extremely minimal levels. However, professors should keep in mind that law school is a good place to be wrong; better wrong in law school than in the bar examinations or in the practice of law. The Socratic method is all about exploring ideas and possible approaches to answering questions correctly, so professors should give a little leg room for students to be wrong and they themselves -- the professors -- should be willing to be wrong and to change their minds.
  5. Pretend that they do not understand the subject. Law professors should get down from their high horses. Law students already view them from a place of admiration and, sometimes, fear. So, for the Socratic method to be effective, the professor should pretend that s/he is also in the process of understanding the subject. This facade not only encourages students to participate in the discussions but also invites them to think critically because the situation is theoretically reversed -- it is now as if the students are teaching the professor.
  6. Use scaffolding. This means providing students with the support they need to be achieve a correct understanding of the subject matter. This could include providing them with background information, giving them prompts, or helping them to clarify their thinking. One question is not enough. For example, if a student tells the professor that a certain act is against public policy, a good follow-up question is why the act is against public policy. If the student cannot answer correctly, it is ideal to ask the student to give an example of another act that is clearly against public policy and to compare this with his/her previous answer.
These methods are implemented by professors of law in Isabela State University College of Law (ISU-COL), a state university located in Cauayan City, Isabela. For more details, please visit their official Facebook page here. This article was written by Atty. Mark Angelo S. Dela Peña (Private International Law, Problem Areas in Legal Ethics and Labor Standards) and by Judge Raul V. Babaran (Ret.), the Dean of ISU-COL and a professor of Remedial Law Review.