Reaching Backward and Stretching Forward: Teaching for Transfer in Law School Clinics

Shaun Archer
James Parry Eyster, Ave Maria University School of Law
James J. Kelly Jr., Notre Dame School of Law
Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law
Colleen F. Shanahan, Columbia Law School


In thinking about education, teachers may spend more time considering what to teach than how to teach. Unfortunately, traditional teaching techniques have limited effectiveness in their ability to help students retain and apply the knowledge either in later classes or in their professional work. What, then, is the value of our teaching efforts if students are unable to transfer the ideas and skills they have learned to later situations?

Teaching for transfer is important to the authors of this article, four clinical professors and one psychologist. The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to some of the techniques that can improve the transfer of teaching. While this article focuses on applications in the law clinic, the procedures can be profitably used in doctrinal classes as well. It is the goal of the authors of this article to help you improve your teaching so that your students will understand, remember, and be able to later use what you teach them. While this may appear overly ambitious, we are not selling snake oil. Rather, we are relying on established tenets of psychology and pedagogy that have proved successful in other areas of learning. In the first section, psychologist Shaun Archer will summarize the latest research results on memory and how to best teach so that students can retain and use information. Before transferring information or ideas from a class to a new situation, one must first anchor the concept in the mind. To do this, the student must attach the new information to the existing scaffolding in the student’s memory. Attached to the wrong structure, the new information cannot easily be used in a later application. For example, if you are told that both a successful asylum application and chlorophyll contain five elements, you might be momentarily chagrined since the word “elements” is used in two very different contexts. Your mind must travel down various discrete neural pathways to make correct sense of the use of the word in each phrase. This insight from psychology is the core of teaching for transfer.

Tonya Kowalski will then introduce the principles of teaching for transfer, emphasizing “reaching backward” and “stretching forward” techniques. She will then suggest applications of these procedures in clinical teaching. In reaching backward, a student thinks back to past experiences or concepts to find existing mental scaffolding that can be used to "bear the weight" and provide an accessible resting place for the new material that is being taught. In stretching forward, a student consciously envisions potential future applications of the material being learned. Colleen Shanahan will demonstrate backward-reaching transfer techniques for teaching students skills and knowledge, using the examples of initial client interviews, soliciting facts from witnesses, researching eviction procedures, and developing an effective oral advocacy style. Jim Kelly will provide specific examples of stretching-forward transfer techniques. These range from “hugging,” identifying very similar future applications, such as the business record litany, to “bridging,” preparing students to be able to use new foundational skills or knowledge in complex and extremely varied situations.