Stone Soup Mini-Course: Designing Course Assignments

Faculty have multiple options for fulfilling the fundamental goal of the Stone Soup Project to produce and use valuable qualitative data in their courses about actual dispute resolution practice, including:

  • Assigning students to conduct interviews and write reports about entire cases.
  • Assigning students to conduct interviews and write reports about smaller aspects of cases instead of entire cases. For example, students might interview people about cases where specific issues arose – e.g., intense emotions, problems of distrust, cultural differences – and then ask for descriptions of parts of real cases that featured those issues.  Although this may not be quite as valuable a learning experience as requiring interviews about entire cases, it may reduce the risk of students being subpoenaed.
  • Using a class period like a focus group, asking guest speakers about a certain set of issues.
  • Assigning students to write reports of observations of actual cases, addressing specified issues.
  • Combinations of activities. For example, you might have students conduct individual interviews and then have a class discussion with interview subjects to discuss the results.

We encourage faculty to use other assignments or activities that help students understand how cases work in real life.

This part of the mini-course offers suggestions about planning the various types of assignments and activities.


A preliminary issue involves who would be eligible to be interviewed.  I had assumed that in law school courses, it would be best to have students interview lawyers or perhaps also neutrals.  In Rafael Gely’s negotiation course last spring, he let students interview anyone involved in a negotiation and the results were terrific.  He left it to the students to find interview subjects and students were readily able to do so.  They typically used friends, family, or people they knew from work.

If you want to help students find interview subjects, you might talk with the head of your school’s alumni office to check the possibility of getting help to recruit possible interview subjects.  Alumni office officials generally want to build and maintain good relationships with alumni and they may welcome the opportunity to recruit alumni to participate in interviews.  If alumni are valued for their expertise, they may be more willing to make financial contributions. Leaders of local, state, and national professional associations as well as dispute resolution programs may be happy to collaborate with your Stone Soup plans and help recruit interview subjects.

You also need to decide on the subject of the interviews.  You might tell students to conduct interviews about a particularly successful or unsuccessful case or, better yet, the most recent (and thus probably more typical) case.  If students interview people about unusual cases, they should ask how they are different from typical cases.  Or you might want students to focus on particular issues, such as cases involving intense emotions or distrust.

You might ask subsets of students to focus on different things.  These might be different conditions of the same variable, such as cases where the parties did or did not have expectations of a future relationship, or if the parties had fairly equal power or there was a significant power imbalance.  Or you might assign various subsets to focus on different issues, such as cases where lawyers had cooperative relationships, there were significant non-monetary issues, there were significant stakeholders not at the table.  This post describes various issues you might want students to focus on.

How many interviews should students conduct?  Normally, you might assume that you would require them to do only one interview, but you might want them to do two or three interviews to get more variety.  Even if you require only one interview, you might encourage students to do more because this would provide an opportunity to interview people that they might not otherwise have.  This would provide students a useful networking opportunity, not to mention more fun.

Presumably, you will want to debrief the interviews in class, perhaps devoting a full class period for the debriefing.  I attended Rafael’s debriefing of his students’ interviews, which took a full 75-minute class, and we could have spent much more time drawing out valuable insights from students’ interviews.  This debriefing process would be particularly important if you designate subsets of students to focus on particular issues or aspects of issues.

Your class is like a research team and you are taking advantage of a number of interviews to get a larger “sample size” and thus more confidence in the overall pattern of subjects’ responses.  For many faculty, the assignment is purely for teaching and not research, but the same principle applies.

Since you presumably won’t have time to elicit all the insights during the class discussion, after you read all the papers, you might make some general comments in class or in a brief written summary of general observations based on the interviews.

You need to decide how the Stone Soup interviews fit into your course.  How early should students do the interviews?  If students do the interviews early in the course, you could refer to them to illustrate points later in the course.  If students do the interviews later in the course, they will have the benefit (and potential bias) from the material presented earlier in the course.

Presumably, you will require students to write reports of their interviews.  You will need to specify the proportion of the grade reflected by the report and you probably will want to set some page limits for the length of the reports.

This post includes various documents to help plan interview assignments, including a document providing more guidance for faculty.

Focus Group Classes

This document provides suggestions for planning focus group classes, so I will just add a few comments here.

As with the interview assignments, you should consider how early or late in the course you want to hold the class.  It could be a fitting final class, though it could also suggest ideas early in a course that you would want to refer to later.

If you assign students to conduct interviews, it could be very valuable to debrief the interviews with some of the interview subjects in a focus group format.  On the other hand, doing so might inhibit students from being candid.

Observations of Actual Cases

Having students observe actual cases is a great way to get a realistic image of how cases are handled.  Students can readily attend court hearings, trials, and other public events, which may be suitable for ADR survey and some other courses.  It is more difficult to observe negotiations, mediations, and arbitrations, which generally are not open to the public.  Students in clinic and externship courses may have access to private dispute resolution processes.  Some students may have access through their employment.

Some mediators and arbitrators will arrange for students to observe cases.  This may take some time to arrange because the neutrals generally ask the parties or their lawyers in advance if it would be ok for students to observe.  Parties regularly cancel mediations and arbitrations because they settle or postpone the proceedings.  So students may not be able to count on observing cases as scheduled.

Ideally, students should write about cases where all the parties or organizational representatives attend, though this may not be practical in some cases.

If appropriate, students should inform the participants that the students will write reports of the case, carefully protecting confidentiality by omitting names and other identifying information.  In some cases, such as cases conducted in schools’ clinics, the participants may assume that students will write reports and it may not be necessary to give such notice.  Even in these cases, however, it would be a good idea for students to give this notice and ask if any of the participants have any concerns about it.

If students write reports about cases they observe through their employment, they should get their supervisors’ permission to write these reports and be especially careful not to disclose any confidential information in the reports.

When students observe cases, you should assign them to describe the case as accurately as possible, in plain English, and then analyze what happened.  As with the interview assignments, you may give students freedom to write about anything that seems significant or you might want to specify certain issues for them to address in the papers.

Also similar to the interview assignments, there is likely to be a great temptation to simply “find” that a case fits the concepts in the course.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s important to emphasize the risk of bias in students’ reports.  Our theoretical concepts can be lenses helping us to understand things more clearly.  But they also can be blinders focusing attention only on what we expect to see and causing us to ignore things that don’t fit the theory.  So you should encourage students not to assume that the case neatly fits the theory.  Comparing theory with actual practice is a major purpose of the assignment.  So you should tell students to particularly look for anything that seems to deviate from theory – as well as to analyze things that seem to fit.  In other words, they should try to be truly open-minded about what they observe, regardless of whether it fits the theory or not.

Students who write reports about cases that they mediated or co-mediated are likely to have an additional bias.  They may shade their reports to justify their actions or perhaps be overly critical of their performances.  When students write reports in these situations, you should direct them to take a truly clinical, i.e., detached, perspective as if they were not personally involved.  This can be difficult but it is an important skill for lawyers and other professionals who must carefully assess evidence and should not be biased simply because an information source is in favor of or opposed to their clients.

You might assign students interview participants after a case that they mediated or observed.  This could be tricky, especially if the student was a mediator, as people may not want to candidly express criticisms or concerns.  Students may be able to overcome such concerns by telling people at the outset that they want to hear their views as candidly as possible, good and bad, as this is what the students need to hear to be able to learn as much as possible from the experience.

If you have any questions about how to design your assignment or class activity, I encourage you to pose the question on the Stone Soup listserv.  Rafael and I also would be happy to give advice.