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Friday, October 06, 2006

The Virtues of Classroom Rigor

Many thanks to the commenters who responded to the posts by Paul and me concerning the appropriate response to students who come to class unprepared and who are not apologetic for doing so.  The comments range pretty widely, from those arguing that teachers should spoon-feed students doctrine so they can pass the bar exam, to those agreeing with me that a classroom works properly only when the students and the faculty work together to ensure both that a certain amount of knowledge is imparted and that skills of case analysis, oral and written argument, statutory construction, etc. are learned.  Other commenters are correct to point out that these expectations should be explained to students at the outset of the course, and I do so orally and in a multi-page syllabus explaining my choices of casebook and rules for classroom attendance and participation.

It seems to me, though, that there is an additional reason for classroom rigor that has been largely overlooked in the comments, but has been brought up to me by both of my students who have talked to me in person about the post: tolerating derelicts reflects poorly on the school because the good students are constantly fighting the perception among employers that they will be insufficiently dedicated to their work.

Classroom rigor serves two functions in this regard: First, it increases the possibility that the worst students will give up or be dismissed, leaving the pool of graduates with more average talent, skills, and commitment.  Second, it is a lesson in professionalism, encouraging students who would otherwise slack off to expend the effort necessary to learn.  (Yes, this is paternalistic, but laissez faire is not enough when the quality of students is less than stellar.  There is a market failure in that too many of the "consumers" -- notably anonymous angry law student -- do not know what is good for them.  And yes, we do.)  We as a school -- the good students and the professors -- cannot afford the hit that our reputation takes due to the post-graduate performance of a substantial portion of our students.   And I am confident enough in legal education to think that law school is more than a little related to one's ability to be a good lawyer, some students' assessments of law school to the contrary notwithstanding.

Further, student unpreparedness fosters an attitude of apathy that lowers the expectations of everyone and makes it impossible to teach to the high end of the class.  Thus, the good students are hurt in two ways: they can't get jobs because the bad students weigh down our reputation, and they are prevented from learning as much as they can because I have to repeat the same basic lesson eight times when a student could and should have learned the same thing just from the reading.

There is a disconnect between such goals and grading schemes that have only a three-hour issue spotter exam, and I make an effort to adopt other mechanisms.  Grades in my large classes (constitutonal law and criminal procedure) are based on three parts of roughly equal weight (not including the plus or minus for class participation): a mid-term paper, the final take-home essay exam, and a multiple-choice exam.  Both the mid-term and the final exam permit students two weeks or more to finish the assignment.  The mid-term requires students to write a majority and a dissenting opinion from a case currently pending before the Supreme Court, requiring them to argue persuasively both sides of a disputable legal question on the basis of precedent, text, and policy.  The final exam is a traditional issue-spotter.  I think I do quite a good job of testing the skills that I try to teach during the semester.

It is possible, though I do not think it is the case, that some of my reaction to students of this type is due to a bruised ego.  The student's behavior was, after all, extremely disrespectful.  But, as I've tried to explain, there remain plenty of reasons not to tolerate it aside from personal ones.

Posted by Michael Dimino on October 6, 2006 at 10:35 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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» Law School Teaching: Paternalism or "Live and Let Live"? from Concurring Opinions
There is an interesting discussion raised over at PrawfsBlawg about how law professors should enforce student preparedness in the classroom. Mike Dimino (law, Widener) (guesting at PrawfsBlawg and a former guest blogger here at Concurring Opinions) de... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 8, 2006 3:52:48 PM


Professor Dimino:
I read your original post and all the comments. I understand the tension between the desire of a professor to offer the best education in the way he or she thinks is best and the desire of law students to pursue their education in the way they think works best for them. While I by no means condone the behavior of a student who is repeatedly unprepared I think you owe your students and the law school an apology. I have often heard of and personally experienced your blatant disrespect for Widener University School of Law and its students through comments essentially meaning “You're at Widener, don't bother applying for ..." or “go back and talk to your 5th grade English teacher because most of you didn’t learn how to write.” Your approach in class of "fear me for I am thou your professor" was at first terrifying and then absolutely insulting. Your attitude has been and now continues to be demeaning and degrading. You have no business teaching a class of students who predominately are eager to learn an unbiased and respectful approach to the law when you cannot hide your own vulgar distaste for those students and your own personal agenda as to how the Supreme Court should or should have decided cases. HOW DARE YOU SAY THAT WE ARE LESS THAN STELLAR? You have no personal knowledge of why your students chose a certain law school. Maybe someone came to Widener because they were impressed by your resume. How disappointed they must now be. Maybe someone came to Widener because it was close to Harrisburg and wanted to start a life in the area. Maybe someone came to Widener because they have or had a career in Harrisburg that they are seeking to advance by adding a law degree to their resume. Maybe someone came to Widener because they had a bad day when they took the LSAT and appreciate that Widener gave them a second chance. Maybe someone came to Widener because they didn't take undergraduate school seriously, but have since realized the value of education. Maybe someone came to Widener because they wanted to for any reason unknown to you and your disrespectful assumption that they HAD TO BECAUSE THEY WERE LESS THAN STELLAR.
I agree with your realization that better prepared students will only increase the reputation of their school. There are many of us out there doing just that. (Funny how it took your students to remind you of that.) If our professors think, like you state, that we are less than stellar (and thus clearly incapable of succeeding in the real world) no wonder the school's reputation and the confidence of your students is where it is. Please don't go publicly demeaning me by demeaning my school or its students again. I was proud of my time at Widener and impressed by nearly all of my professors and the supporting staff and the education I paid for, struggled for, earned and received. Just to let you know, I got a coveted job in a firm that respects, as I do, my education from Widener. At least they thought of me, and thus Widener, as stellar.

Posted by: Not less than stellar | Oct 8, 2006 12:05:00 AM

It's quite embarrasing that a law professor has to resort to public humiliation of a student. I have no doubt upon reading the blog the student's identity was revealed. Obviously, Mr. Dimino has never practiced in the field of law where confidentiality is sacred and things like unprepardness are not taken personally. Shame on you Mr. Dimino, I think you will grow largely unpopular among your students as well as your collegues with such an attitude. I am a current student at Yale and students are often unprepared but it is not a reflection on students as a whole. Just because you had no social life during law school does not mean that every other student must endure the same fate.

Posted by: JoshRockafelller | Oct 7, 2006 10:15:58 PM


please. my post is hardly "acerbic" or "insulting," and it certainly isn't offensive enough to justify deletion. although i agree that unnecessarily inappropriate comments should be deleted, perhaps this discussion would be better served if we started acting like adults and stopped acting like over-sensitive kids. we're all professionals here. oh, and feel free not to respond to this post, because the last thing i'd want to do is start a "personal argument" with you. (and one more thing: "personal arguments" aren't incompatible with "cooperative discussions" if those "personal arguments" are civil and, more importantly, germane to the discussion's general theme.)

moving on to something relevant, i think "newly minted JD" has a point when he says a JD is simply a "signaling mechanism" which tells the outside world that you're at least minimally competent enough to be a lawyer. but if this is true, then class participation is only useful to the extent it facilitates learning. in this regard, i'd agree that class participation should be encouraged (or maybe required), but i just don't see how it facilitates anything. are you telling me that ignorant comments by ignorant students helps other ignorant students learn the material? on your exams, do you test students on what other students said in class? or do you test them on the material in the casebook and the things you brought up during your lectures?

Posted by: Esaias | Oct 7, 2006 8:33:42 PM

Gadfly - who is to decide what is 'unnessarily acerbic and insulting' and what is a truthful argument which may collaterally offend?

There are academic institutions out there that mislead students into making overly risky investments. It would be impossible to make this important point without offending some. I am not in a position to judge Widener's merits in any way so I am just speaking generally. Although debate over censorship is probably a tangent to the point of this post...

As a law student, I am not sure what to make of the socratic method. I hope that the socratic method may be useful. In an advesarial system I can see that the ability to present one's positions and defend them under pressure would be an important skill to develop. I share the professor's sentiment that lazy unprepared students can be an annoyance and distraction to the class. The question is how best to deal with them?

Posted by: CP | Oct 7, 2006 8:19:21 PM

It has nothing to do with the best way to respond to an argument Esaias. The comment did not contain only bare arguments.

Try this:

The best way to deal with unnecessarily acerbic and insulting comments is to delete them, because the makers of such comments are more interested in personal argument than a cooperative discussion.

Posted by: Gadfly987 | Oct 7, 2006 7:35:54 PM

gadfly987 said: "Some of the above comments are beneath contempt, and perhaps should be removed."

i agree; the best way to respond to an argument is to censor it.

Posted by: Esaias | Oct 7, 2006 6:32:44 PM

Some of the above comments are beneath contempt, and perhaps should be removed.

The student in Prof Domino's class was overtly rude in his responses, and taking offense is appropriate. It's not "ego" to be annoyed by that student's responses; it's a consequence of self-respect and the norms of social behavior. I don't think we need to stretch to pedagological justifications for being rightly annoyed with the student, and rightly delivering some form of negative consequence, either in the form of a warning, or a diminished grade. I do think the student ought be given a chance to explain and apologize first, though.

I have very little experience teaching, but I found, and I still believe, class participation to be a very poor metric for evaluating a student's knowledge and understanding of the material---and I taught much smaller classes than the stadium shows of 1L.

Unlike those above, I do think issue-spotters and written exams are wonderful ways to test knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking. They require a student to synthesize what he has learned, to distill what is important from what is not, and to apply it to reasonably complex situations that all his peers are confronting as well.

But there should be more of them. Two exams are better than one, but three is still better, and four better yet. Preparing for and taking an exam requires very different skills than those used to prepare for class. By not providing more exams throughout the semester, teachers not only lose an important opportunity to impart constructive feedback on how the student is synthesizing the mateial, but also lose an important teaching tool in itself.

Frequent recall and use of recently learned material is the best way to permanently and more deeply retain and understand that material. A series of exams does a FAR better job pushing students to do this than the occasional ten minute dialogue on a few issues in a few cases, with little reference to past material.

I know that asking someone to grade one or two hundred exams every two or three weeks, and give substantive feedback, while at the same time researching and publishing, is asking too much. Smaller classes would infinitely improve this situation, though they would result in a drop in law profs' compensation---though compared with other academics, even decreased compensation leaves them in good standing.

There might be creative ways around the problem even within in the current system though. More frequent exams also mean shorter exams, except possibly for a comprehensive final. Shorter exams are easier to read and grade. For large classes, the professor can institute a lottery system. Half of the class will have their exams graded any given week; the numbers will be selected at random. Statistical anamolies can easily be identified and given sufficient "winning" tickets to ensure that all students receive a minimal level of grading and feedback, though this part of the game shouldn't be told to students. Computers would make this lottery system easy to institute.

I think grading 50 short exams every three weeks is within the ability of the law prof.

This will leave less time for research, though, and individual teachers will simply have to choose between what might be an improvement in teaching and scholarly productivity. I have no idea what the correct choice would be in this system.

Someone made some great criticisms of the idea that we should have multiple professors essentially compete to produce students who score higher than other students on an identical exam. The critic pointed out that if these professors have advance knowledge of the exam, they'll simply teach very heavily to the exam. One possible solution is to create multiple possible exams for each exam-period, and select the exam at random for the students. Pretty labor-intensive. Another would be to simply create exams such that teaching to them isn't necessarily a problem---certain rules could be instituted to keep professorial hints to a minimum. Another would be to have a tenured professor, or group, independently create the exams, based upon a collective agreement as to what matter would be covered in the course and what would not.

Then the competition could go forward, teachers could be graded on performance, and the decreased time available for research would not negatively impact a teacher's career prospects or prestige points. 1L subjects are standardized enough, and 1L students numerous enough, to make this feasible.

Anyway, I'm just throwing out ideas off the top of my head. Surely the current system can be improved though. It's remarkable that the legal community can aggressively push for legal reform, but can't seem to get together and collectively institute legal-education reform.

Posted by: Gadfly987 | Oct 7, 2006 5:53:19 PM

As the rise of George W. Bush shows, scholarly diligence is necessary to success.

Posted by: anon | Oct 7, 2006 1:49:58 PM

I have to say, as a 1L at a fairly "elite" law school (solidly within the top 20), it's *hard* to be prepared for *every* class. I do a better job of it than a lot of people, I think, but students do have to balance their desire to not look like idiots and not seem disrespectful toward the professors with the knowledge that our grades are based on finals, graded anonymously, and that sometimes it's more important to sleep than to prepare those last few cases. Granted, I think Prof. Dimino had mentioned a distinct pattern of unpreparedness on the part of this student, but his argument here makes me wonder, is it more acceptable for students at my school to be unprepared than for students at Widener? And why won't the "bad" Widener students be weeded out by things like the bar exam, and indeed, even before that with grades and law school attrition? Thomas Jefferson, for example, is famous for having less than 50% of its graduates pass the California bar exam -- it would seem safe for employers to suppose that those who make it through the process with good grades and then pass the bar are competent, even if (though) the others are not.

Posted by: anon1L | Oct 7, 2006 1:39:13 PM

tread wisely, young grasshopper.

Posted by: artichoke hearts | Oct 7, 2006 8:14:14 AM

i know this is a respectable "professor's" weblog (actually, it's not even a normal blog. it's a "blawg"), but i have to say some things.

let me get this straight: "average" widener students are harmed by their dumber schoolmates because the dumb schoolmates lower the reputation of the school, which makes employers reluctant to hire widener students? pure nonsense. employers don't give a damn who talks in class or whether one widener student is more "committed" than another. widener grads don't get jobs because they scored horribly on the LSAT, had horrible GPAs in college, and attended a horrible law school. your class has little to do with widener students' inability to get jobs, and class participation generally has no effect on students' job prospects (query whether these "bad" students would have anything useful to say even if they were to "prepare" for your class), except to the extent that you decrease their grade because they didn't answer a question correctly or didn't bother to read some irrelvant case (make no mistake about it: 96% of the material you cover in your class has no practical value to these students, most of which will become public defenders or insurance defense attorneys or something similarly dreadful).

and i like how you insist on calling students "bad" and lazy, as if they could become "good" students if they just had the motivation and "committment." i guess you don't realize that, because of the forced curve, there will always be "bad" widener students, even if every single student were equally intelligent and motivated.

i wonder how widener students feel when their professors call them "average" and "less than stellar" (read: far from stellar). professor, if you wanted to teach a bunch of smart kids, perhaps you should have tried harder to land that job at virginia law or whatever moderately prestigious law school you applied to before settling on widener.

i really hope a widener student reads your post. these kids ought to know what their professors really think about them.

Posted by: Esaias | Oct 7, 2006 5:31:12 AM

"There is a disconnect between such goals and grading schemes that have only a three-hour issue spotter exam"

so don't use a strict issue-spotter. put in a policy question. perhaps consciously imitate, on the exam, the questions that you ask in class. test whatever ethereal benefit you think your students derive from participating in your lectures. announce your strategy at the start of the semester. widener is not a school where any student can take a career for granted; they're plenty hungry, and i cannot believe that they do not respond to such academic incentives. this is a solution superior to your paternalism.

past that, your only relevant argument seems to be that everyone else suffers when one student doesn't take class seriously. again, easily solved: take volunteers -- i'm sure you'll have enough to fill the class time -- or gracefully move on to the next cold-call when a student has not prepared.

one way or another i think you need to stop treating your students like unruly children and start treating them with respect. i predict that they'd respond with respect and take your lectures more seriously on that ground as well.

Posted by: loafer | Oct 7, 2006 4:01:15 AM

a law degree is just a signaling mechanism, nobody goes to law school to "learn the law." There have been a lot of academic articles written arguing just this. Judge Posner has made comments to this effect a well. The truth is lawyers are paper pushers who come to specialize in a tiny are of the law through their work experience. How many trial lawyer remember anything they learned in contracts? How many criminal lawyer know anything about trusts and estates? Have you ever met a biglaw transactional lawyer who remembers anything about the rule against perpetuities? 90% of the classes you take in law school end up being thoroughly useless for you in practice.For the most part the lay person is more than capable of comprehending and doing everything that we do. A law school education is 3 years of 3 day weekends and plenty of sleep. I say this as someone who just took the bar this past July and who learned more from barbri then from 3 years in a classroom. My lack of giving a sh*t about what my professors were saying didnt hurt my grades much or my employment prospects. Half the classes in law school are fluff where the answer is some policy argument any poli sci major could crap out. Go sit in on an "international law" class and tell me Im wrong.

Posted by: a newly minted JD | Oct 7, 2006 2:45:28 AM

You really believe employers may somehow think your students are sufficiently dedicated to their work? How many of your fellow professors attended the school at which you currently teach?

Posted by: John | Oct 7, 2006 2:19:38 AM

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