Stone Soup Assessment: A Tale of Four Mediation Courses, by Charlie Irvine, Jim Levin, Martha Simmons, and Doug Yarn


This post describes how Stone Soup pioneers used four different approaches in their mediation courses.  Once again, it demonstrates colleagues’ creativity and the great potential for Stone Soup.

Charlie Irvine had 20 LLM / MSc students and he assigned them to interview a mediator about a recent case.  Students were required to write papers of about 8 pages, which counted for 30% of the grade.

Jim Levin had 20 students and he assigned them to interview a lawyer who had served as an advocate in at least one mediation in the past year.  Students were required to write 6-8 page papers that counted for 10% of the grade.

Martha Simmons had 18 students who were required to interview a mediator who had conducted at least one mediation in the past year.  Students were required to write 15-20 page papers, which counted for 60% of the grade.

Doug Yarn had 11 students who were required to observe a mediation conducted by an experienced lawyer-mediator and then interview the mediator.  If they couldn’t observe a mediation, they would conduct a more detailed interview of a mediator.  Students wrote papers with no page limits.  Doug approached this as a class-wide research project, focusing on issues related to predicting case outcomes in court.  At the end of the semester, students gave class presentations and one student aggregated all the papers.

Charlie’s Course

Charlie Irvine, Director of University of Strathclyde Mediation Clinic in Glasgow, Scotland, used a Stone Soup assignment in his LLM / MSc Mediation and Conflict Resolution course.  He assigned students to interview mediators about a recent significant case.  He said that although some students focused on the story at the expense of analysis, the case studies “were of a generally high standard, with the best of them covering both the story of the case and well-supported analysis of the mediator’s approach.”

He wrote, “The assignment has been very useful for these students.  They have had a glimpse of mediation in reality, rather than in the books.  They have met a real practitioner.  They have grappled with the much more delicate pragmatic questions that emerge in real-world practice – how to keep people onside, the nuances of negotiation, the tactics, the inner dialogue of the mediators.  I am very positive about the assignment (subject to some adjustments, below) as it gave the students a rich source of insight to aid their engagement with mediation theory and critiques.”

Charlie sent me an email with an excerpt from one student’s paper which said the following.  “At the end of my first mediation practice, I was just starting to get both parties to talk about how they could interact with one another in such a way the parties were no longer upset with each other.  When I reflected back on this, I felt that the confidence to begin talking through this scenario had come from interviewing a mediation practitioner for the Stone Soup assignment.  My practitioner had talked about getting the parties to visualise prospective scenarios in order to root out any potential flashpoints.  I honestly don’t believe I would have had the courage to attempt that had I not discussed it with an experienced mediator a few weeks before.  Whilst testing the workability of solutions is best practice, I really took it on board when a real life example was given to me.”

Charlie observed, “This illustrates well the value of setting the Stone Soup assignment early in the semester so that students have something of ‘real-life’ to draw on.  It’s a source of some worry to me that mediation models seems to obscure as much as they illuminate.  If we give students too much abstract information it can freeze them and lead to a rather unnatural style.”

He said that next year he will more specifically direct students to provide analysis in addition to the description so that they don’t just tell the story of a case.

Here’s his course assessment.

Jim’s Course

James Levin is the Associate Director for the University of Missouri’s Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution and he directs our mediation clinic.  He has been at Mizzou for more than 20 years and has been my good colleague for my entire time here.

The goals for his students’ interviews were to “(1) learn about the mediation process from the advocate’s experience; (2) practice interviewing skills including developing rapport and protecting confidentiality; and (3) reflect on how concepts we discuss in class may apply in actual mediation.”  He devoted a class to debriefing the assignment so that the students would learn from each other’s interviews.

He wrote, “Although I teach mediation with my own biases and points of view, I know some advocates may look at the process very differently.  This assignment and the accompanying debriefing session made these points in ways I would not have been able to do in a classroom setting.  I thought the classroom debriefing was essential for the complete learning process.”

Jim concluded, “The assignment worked better than I expected.  The students seemed to enjoy it and their papers and comments in class showed that the different perspectives they heard about the mediation processes made the entire class more meaningful.”

He “told the students that [he] was giving this assignment for the first time and they were almost unanimous in saying [he] should continue this practice in future classes.”

Here’s his assignment and course assessment.

Martha’s Course

Martha Simmons is the Director of Osgoode Hall Law School’s Mediation Intensive Program and Mediation Clinic  as well as the Academic Co-Director of its Winkler Institute of Dispute Resolution.  The goals of her assignment were similar to Jim’s though her students interviewed mediators rather than advocates.

She said that as a result of this assignment, “students were able to reflect on the theories discussed in class and practiced through their own mediations in Small Claims Court.”  She found that students’ “papers were stronger than they had been before the interview was added as a component [of the course].  The students benefitted from networking with mediators and learning from them.”  Some papers didn’t include as much material from the literature as she expected and she plans to clarify the instructions about this in the future.

She told me that students were really excited about this assignment, enjoyed it, and felt that they got a lot out of it.

She requested ethics approval for this assignment, which took longer than anticipated but should be easier and faster next time because she has a set of documents that the ethics board has approved.

Since Martha received blanket approval on behalf of the students, they did not each have a separate, formal training. Instead, she spent about an hour of a class outlining the rationale for ethics review and discussing the protocol for the interview. She also pointed the students to the online ethics tutorial that they could review if they wished. Students that completed the online tutorial were able to do so in about an hour.

Here’s her course assessment and here’s her her syllabus, with the assignment on pages 2-5.

Doug’s Course

Douglas Yarn is the Director of Georgia State University’s Consortium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.  In his course, after students observed a mediation, they were instructed to focus their interviews on the mediators’ analytical techniques, particularly to learn about the mediators’ use of case prediction techniques.

In his course, “students are trained to mediate and mostly observe and participate in court-connected landlord-tenant mediations [where the focus is supposed to be facilitative to satisfy certification training requirements].  Most of the mediators they observed and interviewed in this project were mediating private voluntary mediations involving often sophisticated parties both represented by counsel.  So, they were exposed to a different category of cases and for the most part a different type or style of mediation.”

The Stone Soup observations and interviews led to very productive class discussion. Students learned that “[d]ifferent mediators in different contexts use familiar techniques similar to those the students learned in their training and that these techniques are effective in assisting disputants in resolving their disputes;  however, many if not most of the observed mediators engage in highly evaluative techniques at times and that these techniques are both expected, if not valued, by the participants, and appear to be very effective in promoting settlement.  This all raised some good in-class discussion, and I would say it was a very good use of class time.

Doug told me that what kept popping up the most was some contrast in mediator behavior between what they observed and what they were taught.  Seeing power imbalances was “eye-opening” for them and they had to “pick their jaws up off the ground” after some of what they saw.  Through the class discussion, some of the “scales came off their eyes.”

He said that students really really liked this assignment.  They all felt that they were working together on the same project as part of a team effort.

One of the challenges in having students observe mediations is the need to get permission to observe.  This takes extra time to make sure that students will get to observe cases in time to do their assignment.

Doug got approval from his institutional review board for this assignment and here is the informed consent form he used.  Doug contacted mediators asking them to let students observe and conduct interviews.  Here’s the solicitation letter and the interview protocol for his students, both of which you might want to take a look at.  Here is his course assessment.

And here’s a link to other course assessments as well as a summary of Stone Soup experiences and general advice based on this semester’s courses.

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