Teaching Law Students through Individual Learning Styles

By Boyle, Robin A.; Dunn, Rita | Albany Law Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
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Teaching Law Students through Individual Learning Styles

Boyle, Robin A., Dunn, Rita, Albany Law Review

"[S]ome things invite understanding and others do not."(1)


Teaching can be rewarding, but it can also be frustrating when some students fail to grasp the material. Professor Robin A. Boyle of St. John's University School of Law has been teaching Legal Research and Writing in small sections of approximately twenty to thirty students for four years. She, like many of her similarly exasperated colleagues, has repeated the same course content by using either lecture or collaborative learning, and has observed some students doing well, Whereas others continued to perform poorly. Then, Dr. Rita Dunn was introduced to the law school faculty and suggested that law professors incorporate learning-styles theory into their lesson plans to accommodate students with diverse learning styles. Suddenly, there was light in the tunnel.

Dr. Dunn challenged the conventional belief that students who were motivated, concentrated during professors' class lectures, did all their assignments, and studied would be able to master basic law course requirements. Unfortunately, that belief is almost universally accepted in law schools where professors teach an entire class of aspiring attorneys in exactly the same way, with the same instructional materials, and in the same amount of time-- regardless of the differences in the students' intelligence levels, aptitudes, experiences, interests, and learning styles.

Learning theory evolves from the study of how students learn.(2) Learning style is the way in which individuals "begin[ ] to concentrate on, process, [internalize,] and [remember] new and difficult [academic] information" or skills.(3) Learning styles vary with age,(4) achievement levels,(5) culture,(6) and individual-processing of new information.(7)

During the past decade, Dr. Dunn and other educators have been researching and employing various learning-styles strategies in elementary through secondary levels,(8) as well as undergraduate schools.(9) Researchers experimenting with alternative strategies for teaching college students found significantly higher achievement when the strategy used was congruent, rather than incongruent, with individuals' learning styles. Those findings were reported for learning anatomy,(10) bacteriology,(11) marketing,(12) mathematics,(13) physiology,(14) social sciences,(15) and for an overall improvement in grade-point averages.(16)

Each of these studies document the effectiveness of teaching students to study by using their learning-styles preferences. When students were matched with teaching methods and materials that complemented their diagnosed learning-styles preferences, they performed significantly better than when they were not matched. Researchers have suggested that instruction delivered without concern for individual learning-styles is improper.(17) For this reason, we advocate that teachers should provide instruction that responds to the various large clusters of learning styles in their classes.

We tested Legal Research and Writing classes at St. John's University School of Law and found that, like undergraduate students, law students were diverse in their learning styles. Law professors,(18) regardless of their class size, should incorporate methods and materials that complement their students' learning styles. This approach can be used without individualizing instruction to each student, which would be nearly impossible in all but the smallest of classes. Law professors are encouraged to use a diagnostic assessment in their classes so that they have an understanding of the kinds of learning styles present within their classes. Once the assessment is complete, the professor then can determine the overall "learning-style majorities," meaning the larger populations of certain types of styles. Professors would be able to adapt their methods to a few such majorities. If assessing students is not feasible, then, in the alternative, professors would be wise to use a combination of instructional methods, ones that can be incorporated into most class periods and that are likely to reach a broad spectrum of students.

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