A Window on the Future
If you could see a visual depiction of a legal argument— be able to literally see argument patterns and causal relationships between a hypothetical and a response—would that help you to better grasp the fundamentals of legal reasoning?
Pitt Law Professor Kevin Ashley explores that notion in a novel, interactive, computer-based teaching tool that he has created in collaboration with three of his colleagues. The tool is designed to help first-year law students learn legal reasoning skills by diagramming U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments.
An “intelligent” tutoring system, the program guides students through the text of a U.S. Supreme Court oral argument, as it helps them analyze proposed tests, hypotheticals posed to critique the test, and responses to the hypotheticals.
Called LARGO, Legal Argument Graph Observer, this NSF-funded project, “Invites students to represent arguments in simple graphic terms,” explains Ashley. Students interact with the program, creating diagrams that literally help them see the ramifications, characterizations, and patterns of arguments.
The program “knows” the relationships to be drawn within the text. Based on the student’s diagrams, the program poses questions to the students, offering them feedback and areas for reflection. For example, it may ask students to clarify a response to a hypothetical, or ask whether a given statement is a hypothetical that truly challenges a test.
Evidence from initial use by volunteer first-year Pitt Law students indicates that the program does, in fact, help students “find and focus upon the most important positions in oral arguments,” says Ashley. The program has been subsequently used within Pitt Law’s first-year Legal Process course, helping students to analyze three U.S. Supreme Court personal jurisdiction cases. And Ashley currently is awaiting results from a follow-up study in which the device was used by third-year Pitt Law students who have had more exposure to and understanding of legal argumentation. The graphs of the first-year students will be compared to those of the third-year students in a blind test to determine areas of the program’s effectiveness.
Ashley sees intelligent legal teaching methods as a critical component in the future of law school education— and a component that is long overdue. “It is critically important to engage the student—to be an active participant in the learning process. This type of teaching tool aims to enhance student learning by doing exactly that—actively drawing students into the learning process and giving them instructive feedback along the way. It is interactive, individualized and responsive,” Ashley explains.
“Potentially, a computer-based program, such as LARGO, is also a portable resource that can be used by students on their own, at their convenience, via the Web.”
Ashley is an internationally known expert in artificial intelligence and the law whose book, Modeling Legal Argument: Reasoning with Cases and Hypotheticals, has been described as “the most frequently cited book in the field of artificial intelligence and the law.” His research has been reported in such conference proceedings as the American Association of Artificial Intelligence and the International Association for Artificial Intelligence and Law. In addition to his faculty appointment at the School of Law, Professor Ashley holds interdisciplinary appointments as a Senior Scientist at the University’s Learning Research and Development Center, an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science, and as a faculty member of the University’s Graduate Program in Intelligent Systems.
The intelligent tutoring tool called LARGO is but one of Professor Ashley’s novel approaches to teaching that are charting a new direction in law school education. Through the use of such intelligent computer programs, Ashley hopes to give law professors instructional technology unlike any used in the law classroom before.