When Meg Penrose was in law school more than 20 years ago, there was no social media, there was no YouTube, there was no iPhone. Penrose remembers spending many courses sitting in a circle with her classmates reading books. Now a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, Penrose has realized that she needed to develop a creative approach to testing if she wanted to keep this new “visual generation” excited about the law and to help them deeply understand the curriculum.
So Penrose has been giving students in her Constitutional Law class the option of producing a four- to 10-minute video project in place of taking an essay-based final exam; in her First Amendment class, she requires students to go the video route.
“My thinking is that as we move forward and as society is changing, we as educators have to adapt,” Penrose said. “We have to figure out the best way to train our students so that they learn—and fall in love—with the constitution.”
The projects had to: 1) be suitable for a wide range of individuals from eighth grade to senior citizens; 2) be professional in tone, language, and presentation; and 3) reference one major establishment clause or free exercise case that was assigned, read, or discussed during the semester. Students could work alone or in groups of up to five, which Penrose said was to remind them that “as lawyers, we’re in an extremely cooperative profession and it’s quite unusual to do anything on your own.”
The final projects Penrose received impressed her: clever songs, touching poems, elaborate skits, intelligent “man-on-the-street” interviews, innovative cooking shows, and more. She said that almost all of the students demonstrated a firm grasp on the constitutional concept they chose to focus on and also that they had used critical and analytical thinking in producing their video. Importantly, she added, they had fun during the process.
“I was so impressed by their creativity—which I think we need as lawyers,” Penrose said. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that we sometimes have to think outside of the box. I had two groups of students depict the dormant commerce clause in ways that showed a level of brilliance that their exam would not have showed me. Part of what I think my path is, is to really get these students to love the law. Because it’s a very hard way to earn a living, and we have to be vested in what we’re doing.”
Penrose said that a majority of her students expressed that they studied harder and worked harder to produce their video than they normally would have for an essay exam. Going forward, she plans to assign video projects—which she described as “probably the most fulfilling assignment I’ve ever given”—but she will not completely forsake the more traditional exams.
“Increasingly we live in a world where the written word is not the only way things are resolved,” she explained. “But when I go before a judge, my writing is the most important thing that influences the case. So I don’t minimize writing. I think the lawyer’s trade boils down to communication—written, oral, any way you communicate your ideas.”
To view a selected video—a song titled “Marshall the Judge” written by student Julia Bradley and performed by Allison and Jack Balog—go to the State Bar of Texas’s YouTube channel. Another video—a skit and song titled “Everything is Commerce” by students Jack Walters, Curtis Huff, Travis Ryffel, Matt Lawhon, Griffin Scheumack, Jerek Hart, and Zack Brown—is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVLVZ-ODYRY.
Stay tuned for the November 2015 issue of the Texas Bar Journal for more stories on how the state’s law schools are addressing changes in legal education.