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Monday, January 08, 2007

Farewell, and a Final Question on Small Classes

It has been delightful to be a visitor here these past few months.  I am very thankful to Dan and the rest of the crew for inviting me, and I hope to re-join for another visit at some point.  I especially enjoyed meeting so many bloggers and blog readers at the party last week.

Before I leave completely, though, I wanted to get some thoughts about teaching small classes.  My federal courts class, which begins tonight, currently has three students enrolled.  I teach seminars that have fewer than ten students, and last year I taught legislation with four students, but having three students in a doctrinal class seems like a particular challenge.  How should I modify my teaching style?  How quickly should I expect the class to move through the syllabus?  Please feel free to comment on any other ways the size of the class should affect the way it proceeds.

Incidentally, a great many spring electives  at Widener are suffering low enrollment ever since we (taking a cue from the ABA's relaxation of its standard on the subject) lessened the residency requirement and permitted students to assume part-time status in their last semester of study.  Have other schools seen the same result occur?

Thanks again for a wonderful visit.  Best wishes to all for a wonderful 2007!

Posted by Michael Dimino on January 8, 2007 at 03:08 PM in Housekeeping | Permalink


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I taught a survey environmental law course with 4 students last year. It was just the second time I had taught the class, and since the first time had been to 35 students, this was quite different. I changed a few things without really changing too much of the material we covered or the survey nature of the course. First, I changed the evaluation from an exam to a paper. That meant that I had to find a way to make sure the students still engaged with the material so that it was still useful as a survey course. So I made a few changes to the assessment and to the way I ran each class - described below, with apologies for excess length and detail. The good thing is that with so few students, you can make the changes with input from them.

On the assessment, first I made attendance mandatory, with failure to show up even once without an absolutely compelling reason given in advance subject to grade deduction. The students didn't object and as it turned out, they each ended up missing only one class for illness. Then I made participation count for 50% of the grade, with 20% made up of regular class participation and 30% made up of presentations. Each student did two presentations during the semester, based on materials I put together on current topics that were not really addressed in the case-book and that could lead to more general policy discussion (for the environmental law readers, these included things like brownfields redevelopment, habitat conservation plans and the no-surprises policy, addressing nonpoint source pollution in water pollution regulation). Essentially the student led the class in these presentations (with guidance from leading questions distributed with the materials). The students were given a list of criteria I used in evaluating their presentations and I gave them feedback after the first one. The papers they wrote were all good - they all ended up writing on something that allowed them to delve deeper into the topic of one of their presentations.

For non-presentation classes, we stuck to the case-book or case-book style materials. I immediately found that it wasn't helpful to try and conduct a socratic style questioning session. But, conscious that it wasn't a seminar, I didn't want to lose the important legal points, including the statutory materials that are so important in an environmental law course, and the details of the judicial opinions. So during the class, I was more willing to summarize facts, statutory provisions, and case outcomes and then use those as a jumping off point for discussion - not just broad policy discussion, but serious legal analysis. The students were generally prepared in that small a class or could follow along with my summary if they were half-heartedly prepared. That meant that they were all able to participate in the discussion. We had some rich discussions and I found that the students tended to link back to other parts of the course more quickly than they generally do in a larger class.

In the early days of the course, I shared with the students my concerns about keeping the survey course nature of the class while recognizing the implications of a small class and let them know that those concerns informed my changes. My sense was that all four students rose to the challenge and the whole class was a very rewarding experience.

Posted by: Annecoos | Jan 9, 2007 4:59:58 PM

If there are a number of electives with similarly low enrollment, some of those classes should be cancelled. Usually, you cancel the adjuncts first and then the overloads. Fed Courts is a pretty basic course, but perhaps it was offered last semester or had heavy 2L enrollment last year, dampening demand. If you have only three students in the class, it's time to question how many elective classes the school is offering.

Posted by: anon | Jan 8, 2007 11:48:59 PM

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