Thursday, October 05, 2006
Disciplining the Lazy Student
Perhaps the most aggravating thing about this profession is the attitude held by some students that the responsibility for their learning is on us and not them. I encountered perhaps my worst example of such laziness in class yesterday. I called on the student to analyze whether certain arguments for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples was "irrational," as held by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The student declined to answer, claiming that he did not hear the question because he was typing on his computer; that he had no opinion on the matter; and that he could not develop any opinion because he had not been listening closely enough to the discussion and did not bring his book to class. This was not the first time he was unprepared.
What should I have done? I called on someone else and plan to call on the lazy student every day for the rest of the semester (or at least a suitably lengthy period short of the whole semester) plus decrease his grade one step for poor class participation, but I suspect such treatment is not nearly severe enough (plus it wastes the time of other members of the class). Have some of you ejected students from the class for such inexcusable behavior? If so, do you let them return for the next class? What happens if they don't leave? What other means are appropriate and effective?
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I have a preliminary question: would you consider this course of retribution appropriate if the student had missed class?
Posted by: Bart Motes | Oct 5, 2006 11:19:17 AM
This is a fun line from Duncan Kennedy's How the Law School Fails, describing the "checked out" student:
"The almost comatose passivity of the student before even the most outrageous, or fascinating, statement made in class seems incomprehensible."
Posted by: FP | Oct 5, 2006 11:31:51 AM
At the end of the day, if, as you say, the onus is on the student to learn the material himself, does it matter if he learns it in your classroom or on his own later?
Posted by: Frankie Avalon | Oct 5, 2006 11:36:59 AM
Methinks you need a hobby. While you are being paid to stand there and talk (most likely about something that will have absolutely no bearing on the student's career), nobody is paying this student to attend class and participate. While the responsibility for learning is on the student, the responsibility for teaching is on you alone. The student, having paid a substantial amount of money for his responsibility, may shirk that responsibility to whatever extent he chooses. If he suffers for it, it should only be with regards to his understanding of the material and resulting poor grade on the exam. He should not suffer because some prof's ego is hurt when people don't participate.
Posted by: angry law student | Oct 5, 2006 11:38:30 AM
I struggle with this too -- and did specifically and explicitly in my last two classes. I've heard that some professors just walk out of class; but I think that recourse punishes everyone for a few bad apples. My sense is that if you call on enough people randomly in every class and generally assign a reasonable amount of reading for each class, the vast majority of students do their part. If they don't, we can decrease their grades, which is punishment enough. In any case, because I actually test on what I teach, students who read in advance and stay engaged get the most out of the course -- and will tend to perform best as well. That seems to be the way it should be.
Posted by: Ethan Leib | Oct 5, 2006 11:40:07 AM
Calling on students is punishing them for actually coming to class.
Posted by: law student | Oct 5, 2006 11:45:17 AM
A follow up. Angry law students (not just "angry law student") routinely assume that "teaching" is something that can be done without student engagement in the classroom. This deeply misunderstands legal education. It has nothing to do with our egos (though we've got those, to be sure); it is simply impossible for us to do our job well if students don't do the reading and refuse to let the classroom be a forum for engagement. Students are not paying to be lectured at; that's what they pay for when they pay for their bar courses. You are paying for a lot more -- and some of that added value can only be accomplished if you do your part. And you aren't just getting a bad value for yourself (and potentially a bad grade) if you are passive; you are actually reducing others' value. Your fellow students are paying, in part, to hear what you think.
Posted by: Ethan Leib | Oct 5, 2006 11:47:10 AM
I take attendance into account in deciding whether to "plus" or "minus" a student's grade at the end of the semester, and if a student exceeds the set number of allowable absences he or she is automatically dismissed from the class. I view it as different and worse if a student comes to class and makes no effort to be part of the class, than if the student doesn't come at all. When the student comes to class unprepared and does not inform me that extenuating circumstances have prevented his or her preparation so that I do not call on him, the student has wasted his or her classmates' time, as well as mine. Furthermore, letting this person off without severe punishment will send a message of toleration for laziness that I do not want to foster.
The problem is not that this student wants to learn the material elsewhere. He wants me to spoon-feed him the information without requiring him to think about it.
Posted by: Mike Dimino | Oct 5, 2006 11:49:30 AM
Angry law student: It's not about the prof's ego. It's about one student destroying a class's learning atmosphere, and that hurts everyone, not just himself. A student like that should not be allowed to come to class on the basis that he is interfering with the class by corrupting the class environment. Since that's hard to enforce, I think the prof has to state clearly why this is an undesirable behavior and then move on - and for the rest of the semester refuse to acknowledge his existence. Physical banishment not being an option, psychological banishment is an appropriate substitute. I think controlling his grade is silly, given that it is a sad fact that, depending on what kind of exam you give, it is possible to ace a law class even with that kind of attitude. But that's a broader problem.
Posted by: CC | Oct 5, 2006 11:51:05 AM
Ah, these kids today.
I have a no-questions-asked policy for opting out of class participation (tell me before class not to call on you, and I will not), which has helped somewhat. Beyond grade deflation and icy cold stares, however, I'm not sure what we can do.
I have a related question. In an upper-level elective that I teach, i have put students on a rotating schedule of responsibility -- five students "on call" for discussion each day. What should I do when a student fails to appear on his/her magical day, and offers an excuse for absence which is neither actually substantiated nor particularly believable? Do others investigate student absences, or let it go?
Posted by: Deborah | Oct 5, 2006 11:59:23 AM
I am a student and I try to be prepared and participate in class. I agree with Ethan's comment that students benefit from their classmates' participation in class discussions. Few things annoy me more than students lack of preparedness and unwillingness to participate. I believe that techniques that encourage or even coerce students to participate are justified.
And to retain whatever shred of popularity I have left with my fellow classmates and Prawfsblawg readers I must also say the following:
I cannot recall any comments by fellow classmates who had prepared for class that I didn't find interesting and pertinent to the discussion. Students that prefer to remain quiet sometimes demonstrate the most profound understanding and contribute the most provocative or compelling arguments. So fellow students please contribute and professors please continue to require contribution.
Posted by: Jim Green | Oct 5, 2006 12:11:58 PM
Is there something inherently wrong with a student viewing class as a means to an end? If I can perform sufficiently upon final exams, why should my in class participation matter? All I'm here for is a degree and a job.
Posted by: Realistic View | Oct 5, 2006 12:13:35 PM
you think i deeply misunderstand the nature of legal education; i think you deeply misunderstand the nature of your job. while in the classroom, you are being paid to lecture. so do that. if you feel the educational value of the classroom experience is enhanced by student participation, then call on students who are routinely prepared and want to participate (or better yet, rely on volunteers).
the bottom line is that the student's responsibility is to himself alone. in fact, the rational student will either refrain from participating, or better yet will deliberately give wrong answers in class. after all, there is a forced curve, no? why would the rational law student want to help educate his rivals?
the law school pedagogy is what stifles classroom participation in law school. while i personally find this disturbing and frustrating, the problem lies with the system and not the students. but in the end, i am paying for a certification and a chance to get a job that pays me a lot of $$.
somewhat related - if professors are concerned that unprepared students are "wasting the class's time" then their concerns are sorely misplaced. it takes all of 10 seconds to learn that a student is unprepared and move on the the next. instead, professors should take issue with people like the idiot llm who speaks 5-10 times per class, always making some long-winded spiel that is either totally obvious or completely inappropriate. those students are the real time-wasters.
Posted by: angry law student | Oct 5, 2006 12:14:08 PM
Folks like "angry law student" exhibit an attitude that is far too common not only among law students but in society at large. I'm a brand new grad myself, so I don't pretend to tell profs what they should do about this problem, but I can comment on its source: Fact is, there's far too much of a "customer" mentality in every facet of our lives, created largely by attitudes spoon-fed to us as we grow up by an overly materialistic middle class baby boom generation that has come to believe that everything is a bought-and-sold commodity, that the customer is, indeed, always right, and that everyone who exchanges money for a good or service is a customer. Someone once compared this sort of irrational thinking to a doctor's patient who thinks that he is entitled to good health so long as he pays his copay, regardless of whether he follows the doctor's instructions. It's stupid, and it's wrong. Lawyers don't have customers, they have clients, and it is not our job to get whatever the client wants done, done. It's our job to give them advice, even if they don't like the answer. It is not to twist and turn and interpret and argue to the point where whatever the client wants done gets done or at least has a good faith argument made for it. That sort of concept of the lawyer's job lead to the torture memos. Similarly, professors don't have customers. They have students. The simple fact that money is exchanged in the process doesn't make them customers. Intellectual enrichment cannot be bought like a used car, and a failure to grasp this fact is behind a lot of the apathy you see today, in a world where everything is for sale, and protection and worship of the concept of private property ownership is seen as the highest legal and moral obligation that there is. It's a sad state of affairs, indeed. I worry even more that the students who graduate will take this sort of attitude with them, and when they go to work they will see their clients as customers and behave accordingly. So to profs: I'd say worry more about these students after they graduate than about how they conduct themselves in class, because if they see themselves as customers now, they will see their clients as their customers later, and will do anything the client wants, so long as it is legal, and will forego the obligation to be an advisor entirely. That is not what we want for the future of this profession, I hope.
Posted by: not a customer | Oct 5, 2006 12:17:05 PM
i am reading this is class instead of paying attention to the professor. thanks for giving me something to do so i dont have to listen.
Posted by: James T. McMurphy | Oct 5, 2006 12:19:00 PM
Leib grossly misunderstands at least some students and their approach to law school.
First, it is entirely possible to attend zero classes, understand the legal principles, and do well on the exam. I am an example of that. Of course, that doesn't mean that this approach works for everyone. What Leib fails to appreciate is that different students can excel in law school using different approaches.
Second, Leib assumes incorrectly that students want to hear what other students have to say. This is just wrong. The vast majority of students couldn't care less about what some gunner student has to say. Moreover, students would rather not have their time wasted by some fellow student blabbering about something they know nothing about.
Third, Lieb implicitly ignores the potential diversity in his students. How does he know whether a slacker student has zero, five, or ten years of experience in a relevant field? It's quite possible that some of Lieb's students know more about the substance of cases (e.g., science, business, etc.) than Lieb knows.
Fourth, Lieb, along with the original poster, would be better of optimizing the use of time in terms of teaching the law rather than teaching students how to "analyze" factual and legal issues. One thing that struck me during my legal education is the repeated teaching of "how to think." In contracts, civil procedure, corporations, etc., professors would repeatedly assume that they have a class full of students who don't know how to think. They wouldn't even consider the possibility that some of the students had PhDs. (Hmmm, a PhD that doesn't know how to think logically?). Newsflash: Once a student gets the point of analyzing cases, professors don't really need to repeat the drill. It's not that hard.
Finally, Lieb's response is symptomatic of legal education these days. He presumes that the pedagogical approach is the only correct approach and that the students must not "get it." The problem is that law schools today don't prepare the majority of students for the type of work they will be doing upon graduation or for the rest of their careers. Most profs tailor their approach to the narrow few who will go on to clerkships or academia. Maybe this is ok at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. But maybe that's not best for Widener or Hastings. I'm not the only person who thinks that. See recent comments by Dean of Pace Law School.
Posted by: Joe | Oct 5, 2006 12:19:51 PM
I think the "learning to think" part was valuable, myself. I do think differently than I did before I began this whole thing, and I did learn things that I use in practice every day. The fact that we're not taught which precise form to use for this or that motion is not substantive and your secretary can teach it to you on your first day in school. If the material was spoon-fed instead of socratically elicited you wouldn't know what to do when the spoon is no longer there. I for one think that nothing is broken in the law school system, except that tuition is too high.
Posted by: not a customer | Oct 5, 2006 12:25:14 PM
I agree that many students consider themselves as having bought the chance to obtain a legal education, and like most consumers, expect it to be provided. The fact of the matter is that we could all sit around talking about subjects without paying a dime, and we often do. The reason we pay the big bucks is 1) because employers value the degree (oftentimes even more than the knowledge it signifies), and 2) because the professors are experts in their field, which makes them ideal to learn from. THIS is what we pay our hard-earned dollars to the school (and indirectly, our professors). This is why many students are frustrated when professors refuse to give their own stances on an issue, instead grilling the class. We could ask our classmates on our own time; you are wasting both our time and our tuition dollars by doing so in class. Sure, accept volunteers (although cut them off when they become irrelevant and side-track the class), and even call on students to answer questions. But please make sure we don't leave the class without having learned YOUR take on an issue; after all, we're paying to learn from the experts, not our fellow often clueless classmates.
Posted by: is being a customer wrong? | Oct 5, 2006 12:52:48 PM
angry law student has a point - we're not all in this together. The professors might think so, but we're on a forced curve, and that belies the collaborative perspective. If I know the material well enough to make a profound comment in class, I have absolutely nothing to gain personally by sharing it with the group. If this sounds crass, it's not because I want it to be this way; it's the dynamic that law schools themselves have created through their grading policies.
Posted by: jason giambi | Oct 5, 2006 12:58:39 PM
I know well that many students can excel without going to class. I don't think that is generally going to happen in my classes because I don't write random tests that can be easily answered by internalizing commercial outlines. But even if a student could so excel, I would still have to dismiss the student from the class. Hastings has a mandatory attendance policy. When you pay to come to Hastings, that is part of your contract. You don't like it? Take your business elsewhere.
Second, I wasn't claiming that students want to hear their classmates speak (though some do). I'm claiming that listening to each other is part of your education. It is why law school isn't school-on-video like your bar course is. You don't like it? Sign up for the University of Phoenix's law school.
I simply don't understand your third point. Many of my students know more than me about many things -- though usually not about what I'm teaching.
Your fourth point may be right. Perhaps we shouldn't use the case method at all. We should just "teach you the law," whatever that is. Try going to law school in Germany or France and tell me if you have a good time. Here, since any practicing lawyer knows that figuring out how to understand why cases come out the way they do is the bread and butter of being a good lawyer, I'm going to stick with my program. There is much that is pathological about legal education. I don't think focusing part of the education on "analysis" of factual and legal issues is one of them. Of course law students can think. But I know few people who haven't been changed by law school. Thinking like a lawyer is something more than a cliche -- and law school helps impart that.
Your last point is a very serious one. You should have led with it. Didn't anyone teach you in law school to lead with your best argument? I struggle with that. But I actually think all lawyers -- whether they are trained at Harvard or Hastings -- need tools to become ethical and creative legal thinkers that understand the legal culture in which they are going to operate. I think the implicit idea that students who don't get into Stanford need to have material dumbed-down for them is ridiculous. I tend to agree that law school could do a better job (whether at Yale or at Brooklyn) preparing students for real-world practice. But I also think that can be done through better organization of the third year -- or through clinical programs. There is still value in learning the basic courses and learning how to learn law through them. Everyone deserves this form of pedagogy.
When you have my job, you can tell me what it means to be a law professor and what it is law professors get paid for. I've been a student. A lot.
Posted by: Ethan Leib | Oct 5, 2006 1:03:07 PM
As a 3L, I too have grown to be the type that does not participate in class. I do the reading in advance, outline some material, and try to get a grasp on it outside of class.
After a number of classes that were taught by (1) adjuncts who were more worried about making cute jokes and being liked by the students; (2) Professors who fail to teach the law but instead thrive on humiliating students; and (3) Instructors that lose control of their classroom by letting a few gunners consistently dominate class discussion with long-winded diatribes regarding irrelevant policy, I personally feel like I learn better by tuning out as much as possible. Thus, I try to serve as nothing more than a warm body representing my "attendance" in class.
Posted by: A Student | Oct 5, 2006 1:03:36 PM
it's ridiculous to say that attending class unprepared is worse than being absent. it does not "waste everyone's time"; as another poster said, it only wastes time if you are unwilling to accept that the student is unprepared and move on to the next student. the threat of the final exam should be enough to motivate preparedness and overcome any sort of free rider problem you've concocted.
the only way this doesn't work is if your final exam does not accurately test the subject matter of the course. if this is the case, you have no one to blame but yourself. spend less class time on stuff you won't test. what is it, exactly, that your student gets out of the socratic method? thinking like a lawyer in the context of constitutional law? familiarity with case law? canonical arguments? test these things. i don't believe for a second that you are imparting anything that is at once so ethereal that it cannot be tested but so concrete that it is worth learning.
if you are incapable of testing what you teach -- and you should recognize that this constitutes a significant failing on your part -- then institute an attendance policy. if you really mean business, calculate the chance that a student will be called on in any given class, invert it, and assign that many absences when you call on a student who is unprepared. any greater punishment is unnecessary and will encourage only absence.
but to threaten to call on the student punitively or eject him from class (!!) is petty, abusive, and obnoxious. i hope your law school has policies to prevent this sort of behavior, but even if it doesn't, that bullying is legal does not make it moral. furthermore students will adapt to your disciplinarian approach and will treat you as their enemy. the extent to which an unprepared student harms classroom productivity will be absolutely dwarfed by the extent to which this dynamic will do so.
Posted by: loafer | Oct 5, 2006 1:38:19 PM
I'll add just one thing to the whole customer/not a customer discussion. If we are talking about a state school, then I think that the student has a very problematic claim that they are a customer and should be treated as such (i.e. spoon fed and certified). The state taxpayers in general (not just the student as tuition payer and taxpayer) fund a substantial amount of the education in public universities. This means that the teacher has a duty to the taxpayers to teach and evaluate students. This may mean that certain unpopular techniques (that might ultimately produce better graduates for the state) are warranted and there is also the possibility that it is in the interest of the state taxpayers to have some students "weeded out". At a private school, it may be more complicated. Perhaps there is an obligation to the endowment or something like that.
Posted by: anona | Oct 5, 2006 1:44:25 PM
While I sympathize with the professors' frustration with unprepared students, I have gone from being a student who was very active in class participation to being silent because of one very important concept: at my school, we have anonymous grading - and nothing that I say or do in class has *anything* to do with my final grade.
Last year, as a 1L, I beat my brains out to be prepared for every class. I participated like crazy, often continuing conversations with professors outside of class. You would think, having a thorough enough understanding to go on outside of class, discussing the class material with the professor, that I would make fabulous grades, right? Unfortunately not.
In law school, you are given a grade specifically on your performance on an exam that is 3 hours of your life on one particular day. It's your ability to look at a fact pattern, spot the issues, regurgitate the applicable rules, and then articulate analysis of facts to rule in a specific way for each specific teacher that determines your spot in the pecking order of your class as proscribed by a curve -- not your ability to answer questions in class.
If it weren't for a manditory attendance policy at my school, I would skip class FAR more frequently, and (I would argue) make better grades because I'd have more time to write up practice tests and do hypotheticals and CALI lessons which prepare me far better for exams than classes do. Classes are a means to an end. They're supposed to prepare you for an exam, but oftentimes they're just an exercise in boredom or anxiety control.
Sitting in class, filled with panic, wondering if a teacher who likes to humiliate students is going to choose you that day to teach the lesson-of-the-day to the class, and praying that you got the jist of the reading so you don't look like an idiot makes law school *miserable* for many of us.
Furthermore, trying to hear what our classmates have to say about something when they're being grilled is often difficult because we're facing the professor, not each other -- and even then, a lack of understanding looks like weakness and it's embarassing.
Grilling your unprepared student on a daily basis isn't going to make him learn. It's going to make you look like a jerk, and your class will resent that you'd rather pay attention to one lazy guy than spend that time on the students who are there to learn.
Posted by: BisonBabe | Oct 5, 2006 1:53:05 PM
On the off chance that the original post doesn't play with the details, I wonder whether it's appropriate to so nearly identify the student. I don't know the appropriate response to the underlying problem, but this kind of public shaming would strike me as one of the less promising ones. Again, though, the details may have been altered for precisely this reason.
Posted by: Just Me | Oct 5, 2006 1:58:05 PM
I am a 3L at a reasonably-well-respected law school (not yale, but certainly better than hastings). In my 1L year, I always did all of the reading prior to class, and attended every session. And I quickly came to realize one thing - listening to other law students talk is about the worst thing one can do. When the profs were talking, I would be attentive, taking notes where necessary. But when students were talking, I would instantly alt-tab to my web browser, and tune their words out. If I am capable of learning the material on my own, what can I possibly gain from listening to someone recite their (almost certainly incorrect) interpretation of the court's opinion? When called on, I did speak, and even volunteered in some classes frequently when discussions would get bogged down, just to move past some simple point that was completely being missed by the moron-on-call. The result? Top 10% and a great job.
My advice to profs? Penalize the unprepared, but do so fairly. Just as I had one prof who printed, on the syllabus, that if you cell phone went off in class you would lose a full grade for the semester (and not-shockingly, it was the only class in law school that was never once disrupted by ringtones...), make clear from the outset that being unprepared will result in a poor final grade. State on your syllabus, and tell them in stern tones on the first day, that if they are unprepared and called on, each occurrance will result in a lowering of their grade by 1/3. Then they have no excuses, and the only people they hurt will be themselves, for the second they begin to stumble over themselves you cut them off, say "unprepared" and move to the next student on your list. While the whiners will cry about how unfair it is, the smart, motivated students will be silently thanking you for not allowing class to get hijacked by the bullshit-artists and irrelevant-hypothetical-manufacturers. And as a 3L, I can look back on my 1L section and note an amazingly high correlation between those who sounded like an idiot when they were called on and those who still do not have permanent offers. . .
Posted by: 3L | Oct 5, 2006 2:04:28 PM
A couple of commenters have raised points along the lines of "we're not all in this together; given the existence of a curve, I gain nothing by sharing my profound insights with the other members of the class." I think this concern, which can foster an unpleasant environment of competition, especially at schools that are perceived as kicking out their poorest-performing students or where lower-performing graduates find it harder to get jobs, is not unfounded but is vastly overstated. First, of course, if performance moves upward for everyone, one's relative position within the curve doesn't change. Second, it assumes curves are rigidly applied, but most schools allow for some flexibility to reward especially high-performing classes. Third and more importantly, I would challenge the assumption that participation really changes the ultimate distribution of grades that much. Someone who makes "profound comment[s]" in class is, often enough, also going to write a superior exam, no matter how many people he shares his insights with. Someone who lacks all profundity is unlikely to benefit so much from someone else's shared insights that he significantly alters his place on the curve. Moreover, many people who speak in class are not giving away the goods, but improving their own future performance; they are actively participating in a process that helps them better understand and articulate the subject, and they will benefit from it in the end. I don't mean to be too "rising tide lifts all boats"-y about it, but I think the idea that law school is a zero-sum game that is dramatically altered by even the very fact of offering a comment in class is mistaken, and some students who remain silent for strategic reasons might actually do better if they spoke in class.
Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 5, 2006 2:15:21 PM
Some very interesting comments. I'm glad law students are chiming in.
I believe that both of these statements are true:
(i) law students are grownups, and if they choose not to be prepared, it's not the role of lawprofs to hector them excessively (I had a prof. storm out of a class once in law school, and I don't think that's good practice); but
(ii) class participation in at least a significant number of cases really can be very important to the learning of both the students participating and their classmantes (it's not always, of course, but note that most grad classes in the humanities are taught as seminars in which students happily and productively contribute).
I think the question for the prof. is whether the student's attitude and behavior really is undermining the learning environment for other students or is below the minimum standard of professional respect that should be granted to the prof. If so, consider means more drastic than simply lowering the student's grade (I'm not sure calling on the student every day would help anyone, but you're closer to the situation than I am). But if not, let it go: you can lead a horse to water, and all that.
Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 5, 2006 2:22:29 PM
The poster confuses means with ends. The main object of a law course is to teach students to apply the particular law to various sets of facts; being "prepared" for each and every class session is tangential, and may be counter-productive. For example, the cold-called student who masterfully presented Pennoyer in my CivPro class was academically dismissed at the end of 1L. She would have been infinitely better off spending the time doing practice exams (using an upperclassman's outline), thus improving the quality of her written analysis, than to brief every case.
As far as I can tell, the purpose of the Socratic method is to keep a class of 80-100 students engaged throughout each lecture. Basically it is a means of increasing teacher productivity; enabling law teachers to enjoy a higher standard of living. Let's not mistake it for the only or even the best way to learn how to analyse and persuade.
Posted by: recent grad | Oct 5, 2006 2:36:44 PM
It's not just students attending state schools, but any student taking out federal loans who's subsidized by the taxpayers at least to some degree.
But as for the specific example described above, is there any chance that the "lazy" student was gay? That's not to excuse his reaction, but might explain his apparent hostility.
Posted by: AJ | Oct 5, 2006 2:37:36 PM
The best thing for me about the post was that I was using my computer with a projector to teach Article 9, and the Feedreader message "Disciplining the Lazy Student" popped up in the middle of class.
Here any policy on participation or attendance that would be input into the blind grading (on a blind basis by the way) has to be approved by the academic dean and announced at the beginning of the term. I call on people but it's essentially enforced participation, not Socratic questioning or (I hope) demeaning. You have a full term's notice of those days you will be on call. I also allow a lot of flex in dealing with interviewing, illness, whatever. Plus, it's been consistent since day one. I assume any students who didn't like the rules dropped the class early on.
Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Oct 5, 2006 2:53:29 PM
tying class participating to grades is the only way to go. but you do have to make it objective. that is, make marks on a grade book when people perform how you want them too. 1 good answer gets 1 point. 1 "pass" gets minus 1 point. then, add them up. the worst thing is an ambiguous "class participation counts" statement that terrifies students (or that students ignore) but really just means the prof bumps people she remembers speaking some when she is grading.
everyone participates in the final exam because that is what counts. make participation objectively count. you don't publicly shame or bug people who turn in C- exams. you just give them a C-.
Posted by: 2006 grad | Oct 5, 2006 2:59:49 PM
Fasincating thread. I was just talking with my associate dean, not so much about laziness, but about students asking me to cover fewer pages in class. He suggested that law students really aren't our customers; they're more like our product. We are supplying the bar with lawyers, and we need to supply good ones, if the degree is to be considered a valuable credential.
Posted by: Chris | Oct 5, 2006 3:08:41 PM
although i'm not a law student, i agree with the students on this thread. it sounds like the unprepared student accidentally bruised the professor's fragile ego, and the professor decided to exact revenge by decreasing the student's grade, which obviously is going to hurt the student when he starts looking for a job. sorry, but this is pure bull. the student is paying for a damn law license. he's not paying to prepare himself for class and make sure the class runs smoothly. therefore - and this is merely an opinion, obviously - his performance on the exam should be all that matters because it's really the only thing that tells the world that he deserved that damn law license. lawyers are so egotistical and pretentious.
Posted by: Esaias | Oct 5, 2006 3:25:36 PM
The "Socratic method" in law schools can be done badly. But if you were advising, say, a grad student in history, philosphy, or English, would you say, "don't worry about doing the reading before class, and plus, class discussion is a waste of time meant to enable teachers to enjoy a higher standard of living"?
Study after study after study indicates that just listening to lectures is NOT the most effective way to learn pretty much anything. Bad Socratic methods is one of the worst ways to get students involved, but the goal of student involvement is a good and important one.
Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 5, 2006 3:26:27 PM
As a recent graduate, I agree with several of the law students about how best to use their time. Personally, all the time I read for class, and enjoyed participating in discussions and even continuing the conversations with my professors, did not pay off when it came to exam grades. Although I do believe being prepared for class and interacting with the professor helps you "think like a lawyer," I did far better on exams when I discontinued reading my assignments, did my best to "wing it" if called upon, and used my out-of-class time to organize my lecture notes and take practice exams. The biggest regret I have about law school (one of them anyway) is doing poorly in a couple of classes that were my favorites. I enjoyed the subject matter, I took part in class discussion voluntarily, I was overprepared in my reading assignments, and I bombed the exams. If I had used my time wisely (and I'm afraid that means not focusing on class preparation), I would have done far better.
I'd also like to reiterate a poster's previous point: How you (Prof. Dimino) choose to handle the student in class is one thing, but posting this a day later, thus giving away the student's identity and exposing him to ridicule, seems abusive of your authority to me. This is just like law students blogging about their professors, and it is equally offensive. You should just write in generalities to avoid exposing your student, which he does not deserve merely for being unprepared and having a poor attitude on one particular day.
Posted by: recent graduate | Oct 5, 2006 3:51:48 PM
I'm a 2L at Hastings and agree with most of (what appear to be) the student comments above. Prof. Slater's comments re: grad school betray what I believe to be a fundamental misconception held by many law professors. Law school is merely vo-tech education, not a proper graduate discipline like history, English, etc. I'm a former history grad student who is in law school for the same reason as most others--to make money and lots of it. If I cared what other students thought I'd have stayed in graduate school, thank you. One prepares for grad seminars because the seminar discussions and end product (research papers) are actually useful in one's future profession as an academic. That's just not the case with law school. Unlike in traditional academia, most of us aren't being trained to be legal academics (certainly no one at Hastings is...) And the "responsibility to the taxpayer" argument must be a joke, right? I'm a taxpayer last time I checked and for my $20K+ in tuition I'll prepare for class or not as I damn well please.
Posted by: lucky jack | Oct 5, 2006 4:01:09 PM
I share law profs' frustration with students who don't prepare for class. When students don't prepare, the prof can't get to the really interesting parts of the material because they have to take a bunch of time to just get students to impart the basic information (facts, holding, etc.).
But by the same token I share law students' frustration with law school. 1L year was helpful; we learned how to read cases and "think like a lawyer." 2L year is DREADFUL. We don't need any more of the instruction on how to think, and the info that is being imparted to us is NOT USEFUL in real life.
I don't think that this is an excuse for not preparing. I approach law school as if it's a job and try to do my best even though a lot of the material that we're learning is pointless. But I do think that if profs start teaching material that is more relevant to real practice, students will pay more attention.
Posted by: Jeff V. | Oct 5, 2006 4:13:55 PM
From a Canadian perspective, Professor Dimino's discipline "plan" would be unheard of.
Posted by: c | Oct 5, 2006 4:51:35 PM
I have a PhD in history and a JD, and sure, law school is different from graduate training in a number of ways. But student discussion and participation help in almost all types of learning. Passively listening to lectures -- especially lectures that go on for well over an hour -- is a relatively ineffective way to learn anything.
Now that doesn't mean that every time a student talks, it's useful. And it doesn't mean that there aren't serious problems with how some professors use what they like to think is the Socratic method. But I think this conversation would be more usefully directed towards discussing better and worse ways of facilitating student participation.
Grad students talk more, IMHO, not because they think that will make them better professors, but because they are almost always very interested in the subject. That does help them learn. Good law profs should be trying to get their students interested in the subject. And that's not to try to train them to be the academics few will ever be. Lawyers do a lot of talking on the job. And the ones that aren't interested in what they do often wind up pretty unhappy.
Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 5, 2006 5:40:41 PM
The divergence between professors and students here rests upon the dubious mechanism of the final exam in determining grades and, ultimately, jobs.
The primary concern of students is to obtain the job they want. Most will leave law school with upwards of 100,000 dollars in debt. As the system currently operates, final exams largely determine final grades, and final grades largely determine first jobs.
Students are irritated because the requirements of being prepared for class, while often enormously time-consuming, bear little relation to one's final grades and, therefore, to the outcome of one's $100,000+/3-year investment. It has nothing to do with laziness.
When professors argue that class participation is essential to becoming a good lawyer, a student's irritation will increase, because the current system places so little objective value on class participation.
Professors are caught in a similar tension. Because of the selection process which determines who becomes a law professor and who does not, law professors are likely to be highly attuned to prestige and competition with one's peers. Teaching, however, plays little if any role in the game of the legal academic, at least for those who keep score in terms of prestige and competition. Publishing, not teaching, matters; the output of interesting articles, not great lawyers, is rewarded.
(Contrary to the comment of the associate dean above, law schools are not measured by the quality of their teaching. They should be, perhaps; but they're not.)
The requirements of preparing for class, and grading exams, are enormously time consuming, while bearing little relation to the primary motivators of the legal academic. Thus it's only human that law professors, already at some level irritated by having to put aside their research to prepare for yet another lecture on fox-hunts and railroad tickets, or even worse to read through 100 or 200 odd essay exams and place them all into a ridiculous curve, would become even more irritated when students evince such little appreciation for the time-consuming work done by the professor.
In other words, the primary payoff for a professor's effort in preparing for class is the response of her students. Such efforts have almost no effect on her career. So when her students are themselves unprepared, or busily surfing the internet, or outright dismissive of the professor's attempts to teach, the professor loses the only payoff for her work.
The problem is not lazy students or egotistical professors. The problem is that the game of legal education does not match goals and requirements to the motivations of the players---and to a large extent, actually places the players at odds.
If professors are SERIOUS about the importance of class discussion, then the solution is simple: 1)reward good teachers with prestige points and career movement, 2) shrink class sizes so that there actually is a discussion (graduate seminars are NEVER composed of 100 people; 'class discussion' in law school is a complete misnomer), 3) change the selection process for law professors so that the population of law professors increases--thereby allowing smaller classes while maintaining a steady output of lawyers, and 4) change the job-selection process so that the emphasis is not so heavily upon final-exam performance.
Posted by: Gadfly | Oct 5, 2006 6:11:25 PM
A problem with "class preparation" is the degree of preparation that's required each and every day. Like others above have indicated, I found it an unproductive use of my time to try to develop enough mastery of the material to survive coldcalling each and every class. It needlessly diluted my energies so that I came away retaining very little overall as the demand to master the material for the next class washed away what I'd absorbed for the present one.
The classes where I was only responsible for preparation some of the time (a) let me focus and develop retainable expertise in a few areas, (b) made it worth my while to tune into my peers' presentations to fill in what I hadn't covered on my own, and (c) raised the quality of those presentations.
Posted by: Cathy | Oct 5, 2006 6:12:54 PM
From the comments of Horwitz's blog:
Law professors are not hired to teach. They are not tenured because of their teaching. Most importantly, they did not choose to be legal academics because of an interest in teaching (in the great majority of cases). Furthermore, most law professors have practiced for only a short time, in elite positions that bear little resemblance to the careers that their students will pursue. It is a farce to claim that they know very much about the future careers of their students, that they care about knowing, or that they are concerned about training their student to be lawyers. They are in these positions so that they can talk about ideas they find interesting and write papers. And that is exactly how they teach their courses. The purpose, in other words, is turned inward. It is perhaps fitting that Professor Domino's question was about policy and gay marriage rather than a legal issue that might be of use to his students in their careers--or an issue likely to appear on the exam that will be used to test students' performance in the course.
And let's be honest, Professor Domino was not really motivated by concern about lazy students. He reacted as he did because his ego was bruised, and his planned response was nothing more than an attempt to exact petty retribution. Yet rather than admit this, he tried to dress up his pettiness as a pedagogical issue. (If he were really concerned with how best to handle it, he might have started with, for example, speaking with the student one-on-one.). The idea that he considered walking out (i.e. throwing a passive-aggressive tantrum) is disturbing, to say the least.
Law school culture is in need of serious reform.
All that said, I am certainly not defending what the student did. It was extremely disrespectful, at least as presented in Professor Domino's post, involving a student admitting openly that he was not paying attention. I have taught before and I understand how this would be perceived (perhaps rightly) as a mild affront.
Posted by: anonanon | Oct 5, 2006 6:14:34 PM
If students only care about the final because that is the only thing they are graded on, why not make participation part of the grade so they care about it?
Posted by: 2006 grad | Oct 5, 2006 6:20:49 PM
If I know the material well enough to make a profound comment in class, I have absolutely nothing to gain personally by sharing it with the group. If this sounds crass, it's not because I want it to be this way; it's the dynamic that law schools themselves have created through their grading policies.
This is the kind of cynic who will make a great lawyer
Posted by: moe.levine | Oct 5, 2006 6:42:00 PM
That would motivate students to care more about participation. But unless you convinced them that the participation was accurately reflecting their performance as future lawyers, I think the irritation would remain. Given the sheer logistical problems of meaningfully measuring participation and involvement in the material in a class of 100 students that meets for 3 or 4 hours a week, I think that this would be a very tough sell, and not just to the students. Frankly, given the obviousness of those logistical problems in using class participation, I think professors are understandably motivated to increase class participation as a means of preserving their only payoff to their teaching.
Ideally, professors would want to measure interaction with the material and critical thinking. Attempting to measure class participation in a large class is a particularly poor way of doing this.
A far better way would be to issue a series of exams over the course of the semester. This would preserve anonymity in evaluating the student's interaction with the material, prod students to prepare meaningfully for the material throughout the semester, provide equal opportunity for all students to demonstrate their interaction, and would afford a far better basis for comparison of student performance than counting verbal comments or subjectively evaluating the respective quality of different verbal comments.
Shrinking class sizes and increasing professor population while using such an approach would also provide a way to meaningfully measure TEACHING ability. That is, an identical series of exams could be given to classes taught by several different professors---the professors could collectively devise the exams prior to the course. They would also have to agree on a non-curved grading system for the exams. The exams from each class would be collected into a pool and blind graded by all the professors. In the end, the curved "teaching score" of each professor would depend upon the average score of each professor's classes as compared with the average score of all classes. Tenure decisions could, in part, be based upon these teaching scores.
The above approach would require professors to put more effort into teaching, while rewarding that effort, and at the same time would more meaningfully measure student understanding and analytical skills, which should bear a better relation to each student's future performance as a lawyer than would the current final exam system or a modified final exam system in which participation was more heavily weighed.
Posted by: Gadfly | Oct 5, 2006 6:43:39 PM
Calling on the student every day for the rest of the semester as punishment seriously crosses a line. And as you note, would be detrimental to the rest of the students.
Furthermore, if you're doing your job right, I daresay students who are so clearly disengaged shouldn't be getting good grades, so in a sense, that "punishment" is purely self-created. As Ethan L. notes: "I know well that many students can excel without going to class. I don't think that is generally going to happen in my classes because I don't write random tests that can be easily answered by internalizing commercial outlines."
Posted by: anon1L | Oct 5, 2006 7:00:12 PM
At this level of education (professional/grad school), it is not your job to "discipline the lazy student" -- if your classroom teaching is any good (1) it would be interesting enough to engage that student or (2) if still not engaging, it would be tailored enough that preparation with a commercial outline would, at best, get that student a just passing grade. Calling on that student every day is counterproductive and unfair to the other students. Indeed, it crosses a line that could be arguably (mis?)characterized as inextricably intertwined with your ego.
Also, I agree with another poster: I hope that the details of the incident were obscured enough that this post is not (even if inadvertent) a public shaming of the lazy student.
Posted by: fellowprof | Oct 5, 2006 7:20:04 PM
Law school profs never cease to amaze me. Okay, first off, if you wanted the classroom experience to be meaningful, you'd account for it more and account for the final exam less in your grading scheme. If it doesn't count, why should I care? I've heard the argument that "it's all part of the experience", "you'll be better for it", blah blah, if true, why is it only worth 1-2 percentage points?
Posted by: Joe D | Oct 5, 2006 7:28:05 PM
I'm a fourth year JD/MBA student who has had the pleasure of having some classes on the business side being graded entirely on classroom participation. Trust me, people participated. So while I agree with Joe that classroom participation needs some meat in the grading criteria to really give an incentive for students to care, there can be too much of a good thing. When you place undue emphasis on participation, students volunteer needlessly to rehash what they read and spin it like it's something insightful (yes, we can read the case).
For example, in a law school class where participation was 10% of the grade (and the professor had a reputation for bumping a half letter grade for good insight), people volunteered with little substance because the professor would still place a checkmark next to their name on the seating chart. Is grading participation rewarding insightfulness or simply compelling participation? I think in many cases--unless the professor is scrupulous about crediting quality and not quantity (which brings in a whole host of subjective problems)--it is best to leave participation off the grading sheet.
Posted by: Tim | Oct 5, 2006 8:56:32 PM
I think you've correctly identified a number of the problems and done a valuable service putting them on the table. A few questions/quibbles.
You write: "If professors are SERIOUS about the importance of class discussion, then the solution is simple: 1)reward good teachers with prestige points and career movement, 2) shrink class sizes so that there actually is a discussion (graduate seminars are NEVER composed of 100 people; 'class discussion' in law school is a complete misnomer), 3) change the selection process for law professors so that the population of law professors increases--thereby allowing smaller classes while maintaining a steady output of lawyers, and 4) change the job-selection process so that the emphasis is not so heavily upon final-exam performance."
Good teachers DO get prestige points (and, often, accompanying raises) within their own schools. Career movement, however, is tougher, and that's ultimately because external rankings (U.S. News) are based more on publications. It may not be a good system, but it's a system that students follow (the poster who claimed the poster's school was "better than Hastings" was not, I'll wager, basing that opinion on teaching evaluations). How U.S. News ranks laws schools is outside the control of law profs. And I say that as someone who currently gets two votes in the "faculty reputation" part of those rankings.
I agree that 100 person classes can't be run like grad seminars. But at most schools, at least, most or all classes are smaller than that, often much smaller. In any case, students and profs can agree that smaller classes would be better. But shrinking class sizes and the necessary increase in profs that would require would be quite expensive. To make a serious proposal on this, you would have to figure out where that money is going to come from -- higher tuition? As it is, many schools, especially public schools, have budget problems.
I agree that basing final grades entirely on a final exam can be problematic, and I believe in giving boosts for consistently good class participation. I don't actually think it's so hard to do that accurately and fairly, if the prof pays close attention.
Finally, as to your proposal in another post about pooled exams, don't you think that would lead to "teaching to the test" with a vengeance? I note you say that "the professors could collectively devise the exams prior to the course." If my tenure depended in large part on how my students did on such a test, I would be sorely tempted to, um, stress certain points in my teaching. Plus, there are many upper level courses that only one prof. teaches, and in which no other prof. would really be comptent to write exam questions.
Just my 2 cents.
Posted by: JosephSlater | Oct 5, 2006 10:12:11 PM
I wonder whether it would be better to split legal education between lectures from the big names who can deliver their big ideas, attendance optional, and then have small discussion sections with mandatory attendance run by teaching assistants who are just starting their academic careers? This is how the English department at my undergrad was run, and I found it pretty satisfying without incurring the huge additional expense that getting top Shakespearean scholars for every 30 English majors would entail.
Currently, I am the TA for a law class in a non-law graduate school within my law school's university, and I think inasmuch as the students value the lecture from a highly respected law professor and a big name in the graduate school's field, it is for the depth and breadth of their knowledge, and personal experience. The students who attend the (nonmandatory) review session tend to be the ones who are genuinely interested in understanding the law in this area, and we sometimes have excellent discussions where even I learn more after thinking through a case more thoroughly than I had when I read it for 1L conlaw.
Posted by: PG | Oct 5, 2006 11:21:58 PM
Wow. I had to take a look at this since the comment thread got so long.
Here's my take. I enjoy thinking through the the material for class. And one of the great things about teaching is explaining the law in such a way that the students get enthused about the material too.
When a student is so completely checked out and apathetic, that's frustrating - because I care about learning (otherwise I wouldn't be doing this!).
Posted by: Miriam Cherry | Oct 6, 2006 3:17:43 AM
Wow, this is long. I see some truth on both sides of this debate, and offer a few quick points below.
1) I stand by my (and others) prior comments - the student isn't really a customer in the classic sense. I say this as a person who logged more hours in higher ed as a student than 99% of the population. Taxpayers (either state or via federal loans subsidies) have a hand in your education - you are not the only end "customer" here - the prof does not have a duty to please and certify you, he has a duty to give you the training that all of the end customers deserve.
2) Relatedly, this training often involves methods that students may not like or prefer. A bar course training program is not always the best, although it is invariably the most student friendly and passive.
3) This being said, I think that profs (including myself) need to provide a "value added" factor in their classes that makes it worth students time to attend rather than simply reading Gilberts or other outlines.
4) A class like #3 typically gets a good number of students participating anyway. However, not everyone is as benefitted by massive class participation as others. People have different learning styles and methods, and, perhaps, this should be recognized.
5) I think that the way that a prof goes about getting class participation is pretty important. If you cold call students in random fashion and then rake them over the coals on silly trivia in the cases and "can you read my mind" hypos, then you really get what you deserve when a student shuts down and refuses to participate. It's not easy to distill what a good interaction looks like in a short comment, but I think that most people know it when they see it.
6) The above is also coupled with the idea that participation typically doesnt go very far in helping a student's grade. As a practical matter, this is not very easy to do (grading participation meaningfully) in big classes. I think profs and students both have a responsibility to meet half way on participation to enrich the learning envirnonment.
7) I did appreciate some of the comments above about the law school creating a non-cooperative working environment and then complaining about it what it produces. At present, law schools spend too much time ranking students in excruciating detail for the pleasure of large and medium law firms. That's not a good pedagogical goal.
Sorry for the length of the comment and for what I am sure are many typos.
Posted by: anona | Oct 6, 2006 8:17:16 AM
Does contract law provide the answer?"
Posted by: Meredith R. Miller | Oct 6, 2006 9:49:47 AM
Although I know I'm making a long thread even longer by posting again, I have two more points.
First, one problem with getting good class discussion is that traditional law school pedagogy really did center around humiliating students -- show them that there "minds were full of mush" and that they couldn't "think like a lawyer." Few modern law profs believe that. But some still emulate the way they were taught, either because they just assume that's the way it's done, or because they think the practice helpfully emulates how (aggressive) judges and opposing attorneys treats lawyers. Personally, I think the differences between class and court are too great for this to work, and plus this practice often kills good participation. Plus, it's not so hard to have discussions that are more respectful on both sides, but still challenging and pedagogically useful.
Second, for those students that worry about their participation helping other students and thus hurting the commenter on the curve -- respectfully, get over yourselves. As others have mentioned, curves aren't that rigid. More importantly, professors spend a lot more time than students do explaining various concepts in class, and inevitably, a decent number of students still get a decent number of concepts wrong on the exam. Do you really think a few comments by you will trigger a new and better understanding among your classmates that will help so many students in a such a big way that it will significantly alter the curve?
Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 6, 2006 10:34:11 AM
I agree with Joseph Slater's comments on the curve. Whenever I thought I had anything "useful" to say, I felt like the benefit I got from having the professor's reaction to my comment outweighed any detriment I might have caused myself by potentially marginally enlightening my classmates.
I can count on one hand the number of comments by classmates that have enlightened me so much that they may have improved my grade. I am sure that my effect on them has been equally insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Posted by: WB | Oct 6, 2006 11:32:17 AM
A quick follow up on Josephs point re class participation and non-cooperation. I think your right, but this wasn't exactly my point on this matter. My point is that being prepared for class enough to participate effectively takes a lot of prep time that might alternatively be spent creating/reading outlines, etc.. The class as a whole benefits from all students prepping and participating, but each may have individual incentives not to do so, depending upon their learning style.
Posted by: anona | Oct 6, 2006 12:19:19 PM
Fair enough. That's why in upper level classes I (and, from what I gather from other comments, many other profs) designate a relatively small group of students to be "on" in a certain class. I do some cold calling in my first year class, but I don't harrass students who pass.
Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 6, 2006 12:22:56 PM
I just graduated from a top 20 law school -- law review editor, magna cume laude, order of the coif, etc.. I was a good student and usually participated in class. But I have to make one simple point(mostly unrelated to the post): if professors do not regularly call on students at random, students won't do the reading, and won't prepare for class. That includes even the intellectually engaged students, who have a lot of other things on their plates (journal, moot court, outside research) and will thus put class reading at the bottom of the pile if they know they won't be held immediately accountable.
Posted by: just graduated | Oct 6, 2006 1:56:16 PM
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