Con Law, Visualized: When Roderick Hills teaches, text is just a starting point—next comes shape, color, and motion

Roderick Hills, Jr.

Early one afternoon, William T. Comfort, III Professor of Law Roderick Hills Jr. is walking his Constitutional Law class through the US Supreme Court’s rulings on the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause, which protects the right to practice religion. It’s a complex area of jurisprudence, and, as Hills speaks, some students peer down at their casebooks, though many more look at the large white screen at the front of the classroom.

At first, only a few lines of plain text are visible at the top of the screen, but they are quickly joined by other elements—darting red and green arrows, thought bubbles with competing ideas emerging from a photo of the New York State capitol, and cartoon figures of an angel and a devil.

This is not just PowerPoint, it’s pedagogy. A few years ago, Hills says, he began creating illustrated and animated presentations for Con Law and other classes he teaches with a twofold purpose: to explain some of the analytical approaches he is discussing, and to help students remember the material. “Everybody learns better if they get information both visually and orally,” says Hills, who has delved into research on cognitive psychology and education. What’s more, he notes, it’s helpful if visual elements have at least four cues: color, shape, movement, and words. To wit:

The utility of Hills’s visual aids are evident in the classroom. Pointing to a slide that depicts a simple balance scale (to weigh a government-imposed burden on religion against a compelling state purpose), one student asks how something would “affect the green side of the scale.” Later, a classmate refers to a large circle on the screen and asks if a particular court ruling “defines the outer bound of rights in that circle.”

The presentations “definitely make it easier to get a grasp of the material and the different tests courts apply in constitutional law,” says Michael Abramson ’18. “I’ve found it to be really, really helpful for this class.” Hills makes his PowerPoints available to students online, and Alex Abedine ’17 notes that he had been incorporating parts of them into the outline he was preparing to study for the final exam. 

Other visualizations Hills has prepared for his Con Law class depict the debate at the Constitutional Convention relevant to the landmark US Supreme Court ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819); explain a 2012 ruling that Congress resorted to unconstitutional economic coercion in a portion of the Affordable Care Act; and illustrate the judicial balancing courts often employ when assessing laws that apply to a particular group (or “class”) of people.

“I think that visuals are great tools, particularly for dense doctrinal courses like this one,” Abedine says. “They helped to get even a future corporate lawyer like me more interested in issues of constitutional law.”

Credits: Matt WadeCC-BY-SA-3.0 (New York State capitol); Wally Gobetz, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Constitutional Convention)

Posted May 17, 2017