Using Stone Soup

Out of the blue, I got an email from Peter Phillips saying, “John, just a note to report how much fun Stone Soup is.  On Week 11 of a 14-week course, the students are so literate in observing and reporting on principles from the classroom that they can now recognize in real life.  It makes them feel capable.”

As you probably know, the Stone Soup Dispute Resolution Knowledge Project is designed to enhance students’ learning, mostly by asking people about their real-life experiences.

I haven’t focused on Stone Soup for several years and I wondered whether others were still having good experiences too.  So I emailed colleagues who used it in 2017-2018 and posted a message on the DRLE listserv asking people to provide information about Stone Soup assignments they are using this year.

Here’s a summary of what they reported.  As you will see, this demonstrates the tremendous flexibility of Stone Soup as faculty tailor their assignments to fit their particular courses.

There are a lot of satisfied customers who have been using Stone Soup from the get-go as well as some who started using it afterward.  Some colleagues who previously used it in their courses aren’t using it for various reasons including that they retired, are on leave, aren’t teaching the same courses, are dealing with challenges from pandemic, and couldn’t fit it into their courses because they have too much other material they want to include.  Some who aren’t using it this year plan to resume using it next year.

Colleagues who used Stone Soup generally haven’t changed their assignments much, if at all, and don’t need any new materials.  They find a lot of benefits from the assignments and virtually no drawbacks other than some students writing poor papers.

This post describes benefits of Stone Soup assignments, challenges in using it, and suggestions for including Stone Soup in a wide range of your courses without adding a lot of extra time.  It also includes links to off-the-shelf materials so that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel (or delicious recipe).

What’s So Good About Stone Soup?

I asked colleagues using Stone Soup to describe the benefits for their students, and here’s what they said.

  • The primary benefit is making the subject matter of the course much more concrete. Because of confidentiality, it’s hard to have students actually observe an arbitration, so having them meet with an arbitrator is the next best thing.
  • Students love interviewing professional mediators and it is much easier to arrange than a mediation observation.
  • Students either pick a mediator to interview or the instructor uses his network to create a match between the student and a practicing mediator. Benefits include the following: 1) In addition to our mediation coaches and guest speakers, students create a contact in the field who often provides deeper insight and is willing to mentor the student further, 2) a greater understanding of how to build a mediation practice, 3) how practicing mediators still deploy mediation theory even years after their training.  The benefits far outweigh any drawbacks, but may include additional instructor time in matching students with mediators and the tendency of students to take their interviewee’s thoughts as “gospel.”  The follow-up classroom discussion helps to modify the latter drawback.
  • We have continued to view it as an important step in building student awareness about the limitations of litigation and to encourage critical thinking about the lawyer’s work and commitment to communication and problem-solving. Students so often write about how surprised they are to hear stories of ‘disillusionment’ …from both clients and lawyers …and these conversations have been so useful in reinforcing the value of underlying skills and capacities which the course cultivates.
  • The primary benefits are (a) students get to see the negotiation theory we’re learning in class applies in actual negotiations, and (b) that people use the theory they’re learning without knowing the theory.
  • Students love talking to practitioners and hearing about their experiences. Students also like the process of doing interviews over the other project formats because they can so easily go off and each individually do an interview (compared to the other formats that require much more coordination among the group).
  • It is an excellent vehicle for students to hone their communications skills while networking and increasing their dispute resolution knowledge.
  • I think the benefits are to get the views of the interviewees about the ADR process; how what they do supports or contradicts theories and/or practices discussed in our texts and in class. Also I think the act of interviewing parties and 3rd party neutrals is good practice for job interviews as well as ways to converse about the ADR field.
  • They really enjoy having in-depth conversation with the supervisor that is not just about the casework assignments, and they also like to hear about what the others got from their interviews.
  • We share our insights as a group in a 1.5 hour discussion class, charting similarities and differences in the oral reports of the students that provide a group consensus on what both theory and practice are like “in the field.” Students are encouraged to integrate references to other learning resources (assigned textbooks, periodicals, and guest speakers) that they have had access to during the course.
  • I’m really committed to continuing with this assignment. This exercise supports employability by getting these adult students started on networking.  Some end up with co-mediation experience.  I think there’s something a little less definable. Mediation can seem quite daunting when you’re first exposed to a range of models and scholarship, and these conversations with real mediators remind students that the work is also deeply fascinating, even exciting.

If Stone Soup Is So Darn Good, How Come Everybody Isn’t Using It?

Many faculty don’t have enough time to do everything they want in their courses in any case and probably are happy with they way they have taught their courses.  So I suspect that many think that adding Stone Soup would require them to omit something that they value.

Some may worry that they have to arrange interviews for individual students.

Including Stone Soup may be a particular concern in large courses.

Most faculty also probably think that Stone Soup is appropriate only for traditional dispute resolution courses.

How Can Your Students Get Benefits of Stone Soup Without a Lot of Extra Time?

Colleagues who have used Stone Soup demonstrate various ways you can include it in your courses without significant disruptions of your plans.  For example, if you require students to write a paper, you can make Stone Soup an option as an alternative to whatever else they might write.

Stone Soup papers vary in length and some are pretty short – 2-3 pages.  Some faculty don’t require students to write papers at all.  They just discuss students’ experiences in class.  Some don’t grade Stone Soup assignments at all or consider them as part of participation grades.

You can make Stone Soup an extra credit option, which may be particularly appealing in large classes.

Students generally can find people to interview without needing their instructors to identify possible interview subjects.  Some faculty have developed a list of practitioners who are willing to be interviewed.  Alumni in your school may be happy to “give back” to your school by spending a little time with your students.

You can use Stone Soup in virtually any course.  This post describes how you can use Stone Soup assignments in first-year courses and includes model assignments tailored to contracts, property, torts, civil procedure, and criminal law courses.  In contracts, property, and torts classes, students may be able to interview friends or relatives about their experiences.

This post suggests ideas to use Stone Soup assignments in second- and third-year courses, with specific suggestions for administrative law, bankruptcy, business organizations, commercial transactions, consumer protection, employment discrimination, evidence, family law, insurance, interviewing and counseling, labor law, landlord-tenant law, pretrial litigation, professional responsibility, real estate, tax, and trusts and estates courses.

You might particularly focus on lawyers’ challenges in working with clients.  A lot of empirical research shows that lawyers and clients operate as if they were on different planets.  And a recent study found that law graduates are “woefully unprepared” to work with clients.  You could instruct students to ask practitioners about challenges that they have had working with clients and how the subjects handled the problems.  Or you could instruct students to ask people about challenges that they have had as clients working with lawyers or neutrals.

In a professional responsibility course, for example, your students could ask lawyers about situations when they encountered ethical dilemmas and how they managed the issues – or when they observed other lawyers’ ethical issues.

How Can You Get Started Using Stone Soup?

We developed a lot of resources, which are collected in this post.  Faculty who have used Stone Soup generally have used the model documents with little or no revision.  The summary of Stone Soup in this year’s courses includes links to assignments used by some faculty.  Alyson Carrel, naturally, developed this really cool website with information for students.  Art Hinshaw developed this useful guide for class discussion  of students’ experiences.


Thanks to all our colleagues who shared their Stone Soup experiences.

If you want more information, get in touch with me or one of the Stone Soup veterans.

If you used Stone Soup last semester and aren’t listed in this table or if you plan to use it next semester, please let me know and I will circulate an updated table.

I hope you have safe and satisfying semesters.

2 thoughts on “Using Stone Soup”

  1. I just posted an updated table of Stone Soup assignments reflecting Eileen Hoffman’s assignment in her ADR survey course. Students have the option of writing a paper based on interviews of two attorneys or neutrals who either participated in the same alternative dispute resolution proceeding, took part in proceedings that are related in some manner (e.g., similar subject matter, issues, or challenges), or offer different and perhaps opposing views to a topic in dispute resolution.

  2. I added Rebecca Price’s ADR survey course to the table of Stone Soup courses for 2021-2022.

    The Stone Soup assignment was one option for writing a paper. Students were to interview an attorney or neutral about their use of ADR techniques and practices, including their general legal practice, their use of and perspectives on negotiation, mediation, and arbitration, and any particular matters that have influenced their thinking (positively and negatively) about ADR.

    She wrote that for some students, the Stone Soup interviews allowed them to form good professional connections with lawyers whose careers interested them. For others, the interview helped the students make connections between theory and practice and/or gave them insights into an aspect of ADR that we did not have time to cover in class (like collaborative law).

    In response to a question about what additional resources might enhance the Stone Soup assignments, she wondered about developing a database of practitioners open to being interviewed.

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