Theses Doctoral

Law Professors’ Conceptualization and Use of Students’ Prior Knowledge and Experience in Developing Subject-Matter Understanding

Gewolb, Matthew

This study was an attempt to better understand how law faculty search for and create linkages between subject matter being taught and law students’ existing (that is, prior) knowledge and experience. For faculty who do search for and create these linkages, the study can help them understand, and potentially give them access to, specific practices and resources that can support their teaching in this manner, while also helping them understand this approach to teaching. The study was informed and guided by three conceptual frames: pedagogical content knowledge, culturally framed theories of teaching and learning, and convergent teaching. The study included 14 faculty teaching first-year required classes at one of four law schools: two elite and two broad-access (two to four faculty members per campus). I collected data via a combination of interview, observation, and document analysis methods.

The study’s findings are summarized as follows: First, a significant amount of participating faculty members’ first-year doctrinal teaching drew on students’ prior knowledge to support students in making connections to course material. It is possible, then, that teaching from students’ prior knowledge is common, at least in certain law schools, yet it is not acknowledged as such.

Second, study participants described significant barriers to or stated concerns about the possibility of teaching in this way, including: hesitation to engage in sensitive or controversial discussions, limited instructional time, large class sizes, and a large amount of material to cover in a course. Third, teaching with attention to students’ prior knowledge is likely to be particularly challenging in subject matter areas that are distant from students’ everyday lives (though law school faculty can develop strategies for overcoming this challenge).

Fourth, in study participants’ views, their institutions offered virtually no formal support for this kind of teaching to faculty wishing to engage in it. Fifth, virtually all participating faculty members identified as deeply committed to teaching in a way that draws on students’ prior knowledge worked at broad-access (non-elite) law schools, suggesting that these sites may be particularly amenable to such teaching. These faculty members also had certain characteristics in common—for example, possessing significant prior experience in full-time legal practice, being inclined to care for students and being attentive to their well-being, and having been educated themselves in non-elite law schools.

The study concluded with discussion of the implications of these findings for law school institutional policy and leadership, faculty practice and professional development, future research, and theory. There was a particular focus on: (a) factors that encourage this type of teaching at broad access law schools and position such institutions as important leaders in this regard; and (b) the possibility that such teaching may help to democratize legal education in broad-access and elite institutions.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Neumann, Anna
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
May 24, 2023