Tag Archives: law school teaching

Variety is the Spice of Life — and the Classroom!

“One size fits all?” Not in the world of education! Four faculty members from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School have put to rest any thoughts that any one single approach to teaching can bring success in the law school classroom.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe Social Science Research Network published “The Value of Variety in Teaching: A Professor’s Guide” in the Journal of Legal Education (Vol. 64, No. 1) authored by WMU-Cooley faculty members Tonya L. Krause-Phelan, Kara Zech Thelen, and Heather Garretson, and former faculty member Jane Siegel. In the 28-page article, the professors show that the storied Socratic Method of teaching is just one of more than 80 ways law school faculty can use to get their message across.

The professors created a practical, how-to guide, organized by skill so that it’s easy for readers to use.

“You’ll enjoy what variety can do for your teaching,” the professors wrote. “And your students will thank you for it.”

Teaching students with a variety of methods helps them both in the classroom and in their career, the professors explained. Just as they learned in a number of different ways in school, the students-turned-lawyers will find themselves having to use a number of alternative methods to convey important legal points to their clients, jurors, and even judges and opposing counsel. With the variety approach, students can draw both on the substantive material they learned and the different methods used to get the points across.

Skills addressed in the helpful article are speaking, writing, concrete learning, organization, practice skills, comprehension, self-assessment, working together, professionalism, student participation, and student feedback.

The article combines practical ideas with a bit of humor here and there. Readers are directed to help their students avoid ambiguity by taking on Medicaid eligibility rules. Which part is unclear? “Pick a provision by throwing a dart at the code,” the professors advised.

The article goes on to address such areas as:

  • Dry classes
  • Obscure wording
  • How to break up issue spotting instruction by having students dissect a few selected songs
  • How to demonstrate the elements of attempted crime with a comparison to baseball, and
  • The benefits of not starting an email with “hey” to illustrate professionalism in communication.

We invite you to read this outstanding article and think you will enjoy learning what these experienced teachers have to say.

Tell us what you think.

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Filed under About Cooley Law School, History, Faculty Scholarship, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics

What the Best Law Teacher Did

This essay was written by Nelson P. Miller, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus.  Dean Miller recently received the honor of being named one of the best 26 law teachers in America in a book mentioned below.  Rather than touting himself, Dean Miller has written about his esteemed Cooley colleague, Professor Phil Prygoski, who likewise is listed in the book. Cooley is the only law school with more than one law teacher featured.

The best.  How few get to say that they were the best at anything.  Ruth and Aaron in baseball.  Nicklaus and Woods in golf.  Lincoln as president, Churchill as prime minister, Patton and Eisenhower as generals.  Shakespeare as playwright and Milton as poet.  Einstein.  Mozart.  Maybe Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, though in the latter case time must tell.  And then Cooley had Professor Phil Prygoski.


Harvard University Press just published a 323-page study What the Best Law Teachers Do collecting and presenting evidence of the inspirational teaching practices of 26 of the nation’s best law professors.  The book makes Phil Prygoski, for 35 years a beloved constitutional law professor at Cooley, prominent among those 26—in our own view, the best of the best.

The book liberally quotes Phil’s students saying the following about him, among other glowing credits to his decades of teaching at Cooley:

  • “He knows so much and his knowledge is so thorough you just can’t help but want to get to that point… .”
  • “For somebody who’s been doing this thirty, thirty-five, maybe forty years, for him to still love that process, I’ve got to love that process too.  Because if it still excites him after that long, I want it to still excite me after that long.”
  • “I think part of what makes him so successful is just the knowledge he has… .  So he’s constantly not just making us think and keeping us in tune with everything, but he does it for himself… .”
  • “The class is always forward thinking … based on what you know now of the constitutional law.”
  • “He forces you to operate in the gray area and understand that you might have these preconceptions when you walk in… .  But by the end … you open your eyes and you say, ‘There are arguments on both sides of this.’”

Phil would have shrugged off the compliments to turn the attention back to his students.  As the book records one of his students saying, “He didn’t want me to, you know, praise him and tell him how awesome he was and how much I learned.  It was more like, ‘talk to me about my experience.’”  Phil was not the focus of his own teaching.  Rather, he kept the focus where it belonged, on the subject and students.  As another student reported, “As long as you were prepared and you were trying, he wanted to hear what you had to say.”

Yet the Harvard Press book is exquisitely poignant in lauding Phil so highly. Phil has not taught since March 2012, shortly after the study collected its data on Phil, when he suffered a severe brain injury in the classroom.  After months of hospitalization and special nursing care, Phil now recovers at home under the care of his wife and family.  Colleague Pat Corbett and other Cooley faculty recently led a fundraiser to buy a wheelchair-accessible van and home therapy equipment to aid in Phil’s arduous recovery.

Phil can no longer reveal for students the rich mysteries of constitutional law, an intellectual task that challenges the healthiest and most able of law professors.  Yet nothing—not age, nor disability, nor even demise—will ever take from Phil that he was the very best at that privileged task.  Consider what the book quotes Phil as saying about his students and craft:

  • “You’ve got to start them out easy.  You’ve got to nurture them.”
  • “I think a big part of motivation … is the passion for the subject … and if they see that you’re passionate, and you’re jacked up about it, and that you care, they’re going to buy into it.”
  • “I think the ability of the student to empathize with the teachers, with the other people in the room, with the people in the cases that we’re talking about, [and with] clients, I think that’s very, very important.”
  • “Getting [a] good answer from … and praising them … this is extremely important to me.”

John Wayne.  Fred Astaire.  Van Cliburn.  Louis Armstrong.  Beethoven.  Mozart.  The best, Phil.  You were the best.  Your Cooley family celebrates what it has long known about you and celebrates even further that the world now knows it.

Cooley’s faculty just completed its own book tribute to Phil, dedicating the just-published Teaching Law Practice:  Educating the Next Generation of Lawyers (Vandeplas 2013), to Phil’s rich legacy of instruction at the school.  

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Filed under About Cooley Law School, History, Faculty Scholarship, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics

Law School Success Tips Have Proven Validity


Prof. Otto Stockmeyer

Emeritus Professor Otto Stockmeyer received the Socrates Award from the Hellenic Bar Association for effective use of the Socratic method of teaching and was the first recipient of the Cooley Student Bar Association’s Barristers Award for contributions to student-faculty relations.

 When Emeritus Professor Otto Stockmeyer tells students how to succeed in law school, he has the data to back up his advice.

Take his admonition to never miss class.  Using courses taught at Cooley and two other law schools, he compared class attendance and grades and found a strong positive correlation.  On average, almost half a grade level separated those students with perfect attendance from those who “maxed out” their allotted absences.  See his article “Better Grades @ No Extra Cost.”

His advice to brief every case and not rely on “canned” briefs was confirmed when Professor Stockmeyer looked at a sampling of Casenote Legal Briefs in his subject, Contracts.  He found them to be inadequate, unreliable, and dead-bang wrong on occasion.  For details, see “My Encounter with Canned Briefs.”

Professor Stockmeyer also encourages students to visit TWEN (The West Education Network) often.  TWEN is website hosting course discussion forums, links to CALI (Computer Assisted Legal Instruction) lessons, and review quizzes.  He found that, on average, students who received Honors level grades (a B or above) accessed his Contracts II TWEN site with much greater frequency than students whose grades put them on academic probation (a C or below).  The results of his research were reported in “Link Between Course Website Use and Law School Grades Confirmed, published in Michigan Computer Law in 2003.

Earlier, researching the effect of class size on student grades, Professor Stockmeyer found that when class size increases, student performance, as measured by grade-point averages, declines. See his piece,  “The Effect of Class Size on Student Performance.”  This finding, like his others, may seem self-evident.  But many students prefer the anonymity of larger classes, with lesser chances of being called on.

So when students are told to attend every class, write their own briefs, use TWEN regularly, and rejoice when called on, they should know that it’s advice they can rely on to perform at their best.


Filed under Faculty Scholarship, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics, The Value of a Legal Education