The orgin of CALI's topic grids

by Debra L. Quentel


Law faculty are generally assumed to have several objectives in mind when they teach any course. Faculty strive to teach students: (1) basic substantive law; (2) how to attain or refine their judgment and analytical skills; (3) basic lawyering skills, including legal research and writing; and (4) aspects of professional responsibility.

CALI’s Library assists faculty in achieving all four of these goals. All of CALI’s lessons, through text, images, diagrams, audio and video clips, and interactive questions, teach basic substantive law and help students refine their judgment and analytical skills. Other CALI lessons focus specifically on legal writing and research skills. Lastly, while some CALI lessons focus exclusively on Professional Responsibility, others, such as several of the Civil Procedure lessons, incorporate elements of professional responsibility and ethics while also teaching substantive law.

Since its beginnings in 1982, CALI’s Library has grown steadily. Today, CALI’s Library contains over 100 lessons. The lessons in CALI’s Library are designed for use by students and faculty. While students often learn of CALI lessons through a class assignment, students also discover the lessons on their own. Furthermore, faculty can use the lessons in the Library in several ways. First, faculty can assign lessons to students to cover material not discussed in class. Second, lessons can be assigned to act as a review of class discussion. Lastly, faculty can incorporate the lessons in their classroom teaching to highlight a different view on an issue or as an exercise the class works through together.

Despite the current success of CALI’s Library, CALI is always striving to better meet the needs of faculty and students. CALI’s initiative of the Fellowship Program, starting in 1999-2000, and the Topic Grids’ role in the authoring of interactive materials in pieces smaller than a traditional CALI lesson, known as "Lessonettes"TM, will establish the groundwork for faculty to have greater control and flexibility, and more materials to select, from CALI’s growing Library.

This Essay explains some of the circumstances that necessitated CALI’s development of the Topic Grids. In the first part of this Essay I address factors that compelled CALI’s development of the Topic Grids. In the second part of this Essay I focus on the Topic Grids’ structural components and the timeline for completing the subjects in the Topic Grids. In the third part of this Essay I explain the process of creating the Topic Grids. Finally, in the last part of this Essay I suggest some of the applications CALI foresees for the Topic Grids and LessonettesTM.


I. Why CALI Produced the Topic Grids

A number of externalities existed and precipitated the need to build the CALI Topic Grids. First, and foremost, the Topic Grids were assembled as a tool to address the membership’s desire for broader coverage of CALI lessons. CALI’s membership is comprised of almost 180 law schools representing approximately 95% of law faculty in the United States. While CALI’s Library has over 100 lessons in more than 20 areas of law, no one subject area has complete coverage. Coverage for some core areas of the law is deep, such as CALI’s lessons in Civil Procedure. However, coverage in other areas, such as Criminal Law, is shallow. As a result, in the past, it has at times been difficult for faculty to include CALI lessons in their syllabus, since the lessons in any area of the law may not cover the full course.

Before the CALI lesson coverage of a particular course could be expanded, CALI had to understand what faculty could cover in a particular course and what portions of the course already were covered by existing CALI lessons. Thus, gaps in course coverage could best be addressed if CALI and authoring faculty understood the scope of materials likely to be covered in any law school course.

The Topic Grids were created to address these concerns and to alleviate some of the problems associated with authoring lessons, such as lesson coverage. The Topic Grids are a tool designed to cultivate greater ease of lesson adoption among faculty and to increase the ease of authoring. Materials constructed based on the Topic Grids will permit faculty to better judge the relation of the lesson to their course coverage and enable faculty to better use CALI lessons.

Thus, the Topic Grids are merely an approach to categorizing legal terms and concepts common to some, but by no means all, courses taught by faculty in a particular subject matter. Topic Grids list common concepts taught by a hypothetical pool of law faculty. For example, a random group of Torts professors teach concepts covered by the Torts’ Topic Grid. However, any one professor in the pool may not teach all the concepts, and professors outside the hypothetical pool of instructors may teach other concepts as well. Divisions within the Topic Grids, and even the concepts listed within a subject, are simply suggested to facilitate discussion among potential authors, faculty and CALI.

At first glance, the Topic Grids approach to breaking a course into its component parts may seem to emphasize the singular concepts of any course rather than the overall "big picture" of the whole course. While faculty may see a course as a "big picture," when they teach the course, they start at a single point and move forward, building on that point throughout the semester. Most faculty would acknowledge that it is their intention that through the semester long building process, the "big picture" is unveiled to students. Likewise, the approach used in the Topic Grids is analogous both to the idea of building on previous knowledge and to the technique used by some faculty to write exams. Many faculty rely on the table of contents from the chosen text, or the headings from their syllabus, to ensure that the final exam covers the key concepts studied during the semester. The insular nature of a Point on the Topic Grid is also familiar to faculty who host office hours. When students visit to ask a question, most faculty address the single question, rather than the course as a whole. Similarly, the Topic Grids allow faculty who are utilizing CALI lessons in their course, or authoring CALI materials, to focus on a discrete concept in the law.


II. An Overview of the Topic Grid Project

A. Structural Components of the Topic Grids

The Topic Grids divide a subject area into three main zones: Topics, Subtopics, and Points. A fourth column on the Topic Grids includes links to a CALI lesson that already covers a particular Point of law. CALI has coined the term "Lessonettes"TM to define a small stand-alone exercise covering a specific Point of law, authored by CALI Fellows and other faculty. LessonettesTM will be the building blocks for more traditional, larger CALI lessons later customized and assembled by faculty for their specific course. As new LessonettesTM are added to the Library, the LessonettesTM will be linked to the Topic Grid through the fourth column. Consequently, faculty looking for materials to include in their syllabus that cover particular subject matter can search the fourth column for the appropriate supplemental CALI counterpart.

"Topics" are the broadest level of organization within a CALI Topic Grid and address the major concepts of a course. The large scale organization of the Topics is not critical to the success or development of the CALI Topic Grids. Topics are merely ordered in what some faculty would consider to be a logical progression of the material. What is critical to the success of the Topic Grid Project is the inclusion of all possible Topics within a subject area.

The second tier of organization is the "Subtopics." Subtopics represent a breakdown of the Topic into smaller units. Subtopics represent the key themes under any Topic. Again, like the heading "Topics," the order of the Subtopics is not critical to the Topic Grids’ usage. Nonetheless, the inclusion of a particular Subtopic under a Topic is integral to the validity and usability of the Topic Grids.

Finally, the "Point" is the third, and smallest, level of organization for the Topic Grids. While many faculty might first explain the overarching themes or Topic to students, the actual discussion of a case, a problem or concept occurs more frequently at the Point level. As with the Topic and Subtopic, the order of the Points is not as critical as the decision to include a Point within a Subtopic. The Point is seen as the division of the Topic Grid where classroom teaching and faculty syllabi intersect with the CALI Lessonette.

Initially CALI Fellows, and later all interested faculty, will author LessonettesTM based on Points within a subject matter’s Topic Grid. Completed LessonettesTM will be linked to their proper Point on the Topic Grid posted at CALI’s website. Other faculty will be able to visit the Topic Grid and select specific LessonettesTM, based on the LessonettesTM link to the Point, to include in their course plans. Therefore, because faculty are choosing the order to cover concepts, the sequence of Points, Subtopics, and Topics within the Topic Grid is not significant.


B. The Phases of the Topic Grid Project

The Topic Grid Project is a multi-year initiative involving CALI’s staff, Board of Directors, the CALI Editorial Board, and many faculty members, including CALI Fellows. CALI has just began the First Phase. In June 1999, the five faculty members selected for the pilot Fellowship Program will begin authoring LessonettesTM in Criminal Law.

As originally structured, the Topic Grid Project is divided into three phases:




Phase 1 First year core courses:

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law


Criminal Law - 1999-2000 Fellowship focus

Criminal Procedure

Legal Research and Writing






Phase 2 Additional courses covered by the Multistate Bar




Exam or Multistate Essay Exam:

Commercial Transactions

Conflict of Laws





Phase 3 Upper level elective courses


The Topic Grids posted at the CALI website,, represent the blueprints for Phase 1. Although the legal concepts and terms are listed in a rather linear table, the Project is flowing. CALI fully expects Topics, Subtopics and Points will be added and deleted as the Project grows. Finally, additional Topic Grids for courses addressed in Phases 2 and 3 will be posted as the Project moves forward.



III. The Process of Devising the Topic Grids

Once the courses for Phase 1 were identified, as CALI’s Director of Curriculum Development, I was given the task of determining what was to be included in each course’s Topic Grid. Although I had studied these materials as a law student, I did not consider myself an expert in any of these areas. Nor had I ever taught any of these courses. Thus, I initially spent a lot of time researching each area of law. Also, prior to preparing each Topic Grid, I examined a number of sources including: casebooks, hornbooks and treatises, student study guides, and faculty syllabi and course notes. I also spoke with colleagues who do teach in these areas of the law.

From my own teaching experience at Chicago-Kent, I knew how I prepared to teach a course; and I knew from talking with colleagues, how others prepared to teach a course. I also knew that when I began to assemble my own syllabus, I was faced with difficult decisions about course coverage. Generally, I would break material into one of three categories: (1) material I "must" cover; (2) material that I "should" cover; and (3) material that I would "like" to cover. The boundaries between categories was translucent at times, and the end syllabus reflected an effort to teach as much of the "must" and "should" material as time permitted, while still including a bit of material that I would "like" to cover. At the same time I was considering what to include, I was thinking about how to teach the material. Which style of teaching was best for a particular concept or part of the course? Should I use a Problem Method, or the Socratic approach? What material is best learned through an expert model? Does some hybrid best suit the course material and my teaching style? What sort of flexibility did I need to account for depending on the class size? Only after considering these questions, would I assemble the syllabus.

I was always intrigued when I compared my course syllabus to my colleagues’ syllabus. While there were often many similarities between our syllabi, there were always differences in the choices of material to cover, sequence of coverage, and the time devoted to different topics. The first year I taught, I was initially surprised and shocked by these variances. However, I quickly concluded that since we all teach differently it only makes sense that we would each emphasize different material and use different material to build upon the students’ learning. Building upon my teaching experience, and conversations with colleagues about lesson preparation, I set to work on the task of creating the material for the Topic Grids.

Cognizant of the different choices faculty make when teaching a course, when I began to create the Topic Grids, I realized that my goal was not to create a syllabus, as I do when I teach a course. Instead, my goal for this Project was to create a roster of lesson concepts or Points. A Point could then be elucidated as a Lessonette. Thus, the Lessonette was to become a single instructive exercise representing the author’s way of teaching a specific legal concept. The Topic Grids are designed to be broader than any one instructor’s syllabus, since my goal was to generate a list of all possible concepts that might be covered by anyone teaching the course. As a result, the Topic Grids include more material than any one professor would or could teach in a semester; however, everything included in the Topic Grid may be taught by some professor in some course covering that subject. The vast coverage of the Topic Grids in any one subject area allow for individuality and account for choice among faculty in determining course content.


IV. The Development and Purpose of LessonettesTM

The Topic Grids exist only as a tool to determine the boundaries of the vast list of subjects and concepts that faculty could choose to cover in a course. The Topic Grids Project is not an attempt to define the content of a professor’s course. CALI acknowledges that faculty know how to teach and what to teach. Thus, it should be emphasized that the Topic Grids are not an attempt to create a unified syllabus nor to suggest a teaching method. The Topic Grids have been created merely as a mechanism toward the organized and systematic creation of LessonettesTM.

The eventual creation of LessonettesTM from the Topic Grids will expand the alternatives available to faculty for supplementing their courses. Just as faculty can assign outside readings, it is expected that faculty will use LessonettesTM as additional readings for their syllabi. Once the LessonettesTM are linked through the fourth column of the Topic Grids, faculty can select the exact concepts, each expressed as a Lessonette, that they wish to cover in their syllabus. Further, because of the structure of the Topic Grids, faculty working with materials in the CALI Library can choose how to combine and order the CALI materials associated with a particular Topic, Subtopic or Point on the Topic Grid.

The Topic Grids are designed to become a resource for other faculty teaching in a particular area of the law. For example, beginning in early 2000, faculty who teach Criminal Law can view CALI’s Topic Grids and select LessonettesTM that cover particular teaching Points to incorporate into their syllabus. The Topic Grids will allow faculty quick access to materials to supplement other more traditional teaching resources, such as law review articles. Traditionally, faculty have included outside readings in their syllabus because of the resources’ particular content and focus. Similarly, because LessonettesTM cover individual concepts of the law, rather than broad topics, they too can be included in the syllabus as part of the assignment for a particular class.

Additionally, faculty will be able to create their own lessons by combining LessonettesTM to reflect their individual teaching style and the importance they place on specific concepts within any course. This "mixing and matching" of LessonettesTM will parallel the way many faculty use casebooks. Many faculty routinely re-order and edit the casebook author’s selection and ordering of material. Moreover, faculty will be invited to post their selection of ordered LessonettesTM to the CALI website. This collection of customized lessons, comprised of individual LessonettesTM, will allow other faculty to see how their colleagues are using the CALI Library of LessonettesTM and to further build on this collective body of information.

Besides ordering LessonettesTM to form a single lesson, faculty could author a "Super" lesson which would link students to the material of several LessonettesTM and also drill students on the over arching principles of the material or act as a review of a concept larger than the single Point expressed in each Lessonette. Like the customized lessons, these "Super" lessons could also be placed on CALI’s website enabling other faculty members to incorporate these materials in their teaching.

CALI anticipates that the LessonettesTM and Topic Grids will be useful to students also. Regardless of whether faculty assign the CALI Library to students; they find them. It is expected that students will be able to easily use the Topic Grid to select LessonettesTM related to materials covered in class. In addition, students can use the Topic Grids as a rough structure of their course outline for studying purposes.



The Topic Grids are a tool. Like any tool, how the tool is used will determine its benefit. For 1999-2000, CALI has selected five faculty members to serve as CALI Fellows and author Lessonettes in Criminal Law. In the next few months the Topic Grids will be used by CALI’s authoring Fellows to create LessonettesTM. It is anticipated that over the next twelve months the Criminal Law Fellows will author between 130 and 180 LessonettesTM providing up to 90% coverage of the Criminal Law Topic Grid. The Criminal Law Fellowship, however, is just the beginning.

It is anticipated that other uses of the LessonettesTM will emerge as each course’s Topic Grid is completed and the resulting materials are adopted by faculty in their courses. The CALI Topic Grid Project grew out of the requirements of faculty and students using CALI’s Library. Therefore, CALI hopes to include additional faculty, beyond the five faculty Fellows selected for 1999-2000, as the Project progresses.


At present, CALI invites your comments about the materials covered in the Topic Grids and additional uses of the LessonettesTM. Please email comments directly to Deb Quentel,

June 1, 1999