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Role Playing in Teaching Constitutional Law

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Abstract:

Research shows that students learn more by doing than listening. Lecturing, briefing cases and the Socratic method will always have a place in teaching law. But role playing is a device to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning, to expand participation to larger numbers of students, and teach communication skills. Two techniques have proved successful over thirty years of experimentation.
Small courts
In upper level undergraduate law courses (about forty students), the class is divided into six groups or courts of five to seven students.
Hypothetical problems are given out in advance and one is selected in the prior period for discussion in the next class. Therefore, when students are reading and briefing cases, they will also have an eye on the hypothetical problem they must solve. The whole court exercise takes up about ten minutes of class time,extended if discussions are particularly productive.
Each court establishes seniority and the most senior becomes the Chief Justice. This random selection often places students in leadership positions who have not previously experienced it and would not volunteer for it. Creating leadership responsibility for these small groups is a great learning experience for many students. The Chief Justice has the role of managing the discussion, so that each student participates and of bringing his or her court to a vote when I, gauging the level of discussion, call for voting. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he or she will assign the presentation of the opinion. If not, the senior member of the court will exercise that responsibility.
After the vote, I will at random call on one court to present its opinion. The court’s spokesperson will rise and speak to the class, identify himself or herself and explain in a few minutes how that court voted and what the majority’s reasoning was.
In the brief ten minutes of the courts, each student has articulated a legal argument in their small group, heard a response from peers, decided how to define the legal issues in the hypothetical, considered what the text of the constitution or statues might say, examined relevant precedents, evaluated whether strict scrutiny or rational basis applies, and determined how to attain justice within the traditions of judicial activism or restraint. I have prepared about 25 problems for each of my 1st Amendment and Civil rights courses which I would share as a part of my presentation.

Mock trial
Most undergraduates have never seen a non-Hollywood or TV trial or participated in jury duty. Consequently, I have designed a mock trial to be conducted in a single class period. Students play the roles of prosecutors (two) and defense attorneys (two) expert witnesses (one for each side) and a six person jury.
The topic selected is pornography because the Supreme Court principle of community standards makes it subject to interesting jury debate. The trial’s subject has been possession of allegedly obscene child pornography on a personal home computer.
To run the trial in 75 minutes, I serve as judge, create a strict time frame, and do not permit procedural motions or other distractions to the substantive issues at hand. Each side chooses an expert who adopts a relevant personae (clinical psychiatrist from a prominent university, Department of Justice child porn unit. etc.) The experts must write a ten page report summarizing research supporting their respective positions. The reports are given to the other side a week in advance. While the roles the student experts are playing are obviously not genuine, the research on which they base their opinions is taken from refereed journals and government reports. During the trial, the experts will be cross-examined about their understanding of the research. In addition to preparation for opening and closing arguments and cross examination of opposing experts, each attorney is required to prepare an annotated bibliography of the cases and research items used in preparation.
The six student jurors are picked from the class by the instructor. Other than briefing the cases and reading the other relevant materials all students read, jurors have no other specific preparation. Unlike the attorneys and experts, they receive no specific grade for their participation.
The trial’s climax occurs when members of the jury announce their votes about conviction and their reasons to the class. During the next class we debrief the exercise, taking care to help student understand the distinctions between this mock trial and a real trial and clarifying some point about the law the advocates may have made.
These constitutional law courses also require a mostly essay-based conventional mid-term and final exam and for some students a legal research paper. But the role playing exercises serve as distinctive devices to broaden participation and strengthen abilities to analyze and engage in oral argumentation about legal issues.

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student (47), state (26), law (22), court (21), school (18), public (17), trial (17), person (16), violat (16), class (15), 1 (15), religi (15), central (14), amend (14), univers (14), expert (14), problem (13), requir (12), year (12), particip (12), organ (11),

Author's Keywords:

Constitutional Law, Role Playing, Role Play
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MLA Citation:

La Noue, George. "Role Playing in Teaching Constitutional Law" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, San Jose Marriott, San Jose, California, Feb 22, 2008 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245634_index.html>

APA Citation:

La Noue, G. R. , 2008-02-22 "Role Playing in Teaching Constitutional Law" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, San Jose Marriott, San Jose, California Online <PDF>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245634_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Research shows that students learn more by doing than listening. Lecturing, briefing cases and the Socratic method will always have a place in teaching law. But role playing is a device to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning, to expand participation to larger numbers of students, and teach communication skills. Two techniques have proved successful over thirty years of experimentation.
Small courts
In upper level undergraduate law courses (about forty students), the class is divided into six groups or courts of five to seven students.
Hypothetical problems are given out in advance and one is selected in the prior period for discussion in the next class. Therefore, when students are reading and briefing cases, they will also have an eye on the hypothetical problem they must solve. The whole court exercise takes up about ten minutes of class time,extended if discussions are particularly productive.
Each court establishes seniority and the most senior becomes the Chief Justice. This random selection often places students in leadership positions who have not previously experienced it and would not volunteer for it. Creating leadership responsibility for these small groups is a great learning experience for many students. The Chief Justice has the role of managing the discussion, so that each student participates and of bringing his or her court to a vote when I, gauging the level of discussion, call for voting. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he or she will assign the presentation of the opinion. If not, the senior member of the court will exercise that responsibility.
After the vote, I will at random call on one court to present its opinion. The court’s spokesperson will rise and speak to the class, identify himself or herself and explain in a few minutes how that court voted and what the majority’s reasoning was.
In the brief ten minutes of the courts, each student has articulated a legal argument in their small group, heard a response from peers, decided how to define the legal issues in the hypothetical, considered what the text of the constitution or statues might say, examined relevant precedents, evaluated whether strict scrutiny or rational basis applies, and determined how to attain justice within the traditions of judicial activism or restraint. I have prepared about 25 problems for each of my 1st Amendment and Civil rights courses which I would share as a part of my presentation.

Mock trial
Most undergraduates have never seen a non-Hollywood or TV trial or participated in jury duty. Consequently, I have designed a mock trial to be conducted in a single class period. Students play the roles of prosecutors (two) and defense attorneys (two) expert witnesses (one for each side) and a six person jury.
The topic selected is pornography because the Supreme Court principle of community standards makes it subject to interesting jury debate. The trial’s subject has been possession of allegedly obscene child pornography on a personal home computer.
To run the trial in 75 minutes, I serve as judge, create a strict time frame, and do not permit procedural motions or other distractions to the substantive issues at hand. Each side chooses an expert who adopts a relevant personae (clinical psychiatrist from a prominent university, Department of Justice child porn unit. etc.) The experts must write a ten page report summarizing research supporting their respective positions. The reports are given to the other side a week in advance. While the roles the student experts are playing are obviously not genuine, the research on which they base their opinions is taken from refereed journals and government reports. During the trial, the experts will be cross-examined about their understanding of the research. In addition to preparation for opening and closing arguments and cross examination of opposing experts, each attorney is required to prepare an annotated bibliography of the cases and research items used in preparation.
The six student jurors are picked from the class by the instructor. Other than briefing the cases and reading the other relevant materials all students read, jurors have no other specific preparation. Unlike the attorneys and experts, they receive no specific grade for their participation.
The trial’s climax occurs when members of the jury announce their votes about conviction and their reasons to the class. During the next class we debrief the exercise, taking care to help student understand the distinctions between this mock trial and a real trial and clarifying some point about the law the advocates may have made.
These constitutional law courses also require a mostly essay-based conventional mid-term and final exam and for some students a legal research paper. But the role playing exercises serve as distinctive devices to broaden participation and strengthen abilities to analyze and engage in oral argumentation about legal issues.

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