Wednesday, July 7, 2021
Sarah Lawsky (Northwestern; Google Scholar), Teaching Algorithms and Algorithms for Teaching, 24 Fla. Tax Rev. ___ (2021):
This Article focuses on what it calls the “algorithm method,” a common method used to teach tax classes that presents students with unambiguous problems that guide students through complex statutes and regulations. The Article describes a novel teaching tool created by the author: a website that randomly generates tax problems with objectively correct answers; multiple choice answers that reflect common errors that students make; and explanations for each answer that either respond to the underlying error or give a full explanation of the correct answer. The Article explains the purpose and use of the website for professors and students, respectively, and proposes approaches to make using the website, and indeed the algorithm method, more effective.
Common methods of instruction in the law school classroom include the “case method” and the “problem method,” each of which requires law students to confront difficult and ambiguous problems in law. U.S. law does include many difficult and ambiguous problems. Less recognized is that some U.S. law, including the Internal Revenue Code and its accompanying regulations, is difficult not only because portions of it are ambiguous but also because it consists of complex interlocking rules. Deciphering even the unambiguous parts of these rules is both difficult and critical to the role of the lawyer.
Tax classrooms typically use unambiguous problems with objectively correct answers to help students learn how to read these complex rules. Because these problems have objective answers, and because there are clear steps to be followed to obtain these objective answers, students learn to follow algorithms—step by step processes—to solve these problems. A computer program can therefore create such problems, along with useful explanations, and thus allow students to practice solving a very large number of substantively distinct problems that draw their answers directly from the statute. I have written such a computer program, and it is available to both students and professors. The website is helpful to students and teachers in many ways, and it also creates potential issues for both students and teachers. As the Article discusses, some of these issues aren’t because of the computer program but rather are issues that may arise whenever students learn complex law by using problems with objectively correct answers.
After this introduction, Part II describes the “algorithm method” of teaching. Part III describes the website. Part IV explains how professors can use the website to enhance active learning in the classroom and perhaps to create unexpected insights into the law. Part V discusses ways to shape and improve student experiences with both the website in particular and the algorithm method more generally. Part VI concludes.