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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Teaching Two Sections, Part II: On Keeping the Classes in the Same Place and Other Issues...

A while back, I wrote the first of what I hoped would be a series of posts about the particular challenges (and opportunities) presented by teaching two sections of the same class during the same semester. As I noted then, I ended up taking the "easy" way out -- using the same syllabus and course materials for both sections...

Now that we're halfway through the semester (as of later this morning, anyway), I wanted to pause to reflect on a couple of the challenges that strike me as unique to this particular set-up -- to teaching two sections of the same class at the same time. For more, see below the fold...

  • The Problem of Keeping the Two Classes on the Same Page

So, by far the most challenging part of teaching the same syllabus to two classes at the same time is keeping the two classes on roughly the same page. It is simply inevitable that the discussions in the two classes will not be exactly identical, that the students' questions will vary, and that you will get through more (or less) in one section than in the other. Further exacerbating this divergence in my case is the difference in size between the two sections -- one section is a "full" (100 student) class; the other is a "half" (50 student) class. Most of the time, I find that the half section goes a little faster, but sometimes we actually go slower, because we have more room for debate and class discussion (and I'm a bit more forgiving of tangents...). Either way, I find sometimes that I have to rush a bit in one class, or slow down a bit in the other, to make sure that we're staying on roughly the same pace, and going through roughly the same materials...

  • Whether Students Should Be Allowed To Attend the Other Class

Another unusual question I've now received a couple of times is, when students have to miss class, whether they can make it up by attending the other class (which meets on different days and at different times). My inclination is to say "sure," since, per the above point, I'm trying to keep them on what is basically the same page. But I wonder if there is a potential down-side here, too... my plan, for now, is to give the two sections the same exam (but grade them separately), but it strikes me that the answer to this question turns on that -- if it were a different exam, students might be dis-served by going to the other class on the theory that they're learning the same material...

  • The Benefit of a Unified Prep

Without question, the single biggest upside of teaching two sections of the same class (and of using the same syllabus and course materials) is that I basically do one prep that covers both classes. With one or two minor exceptions, I use the same Powerpoints, do the same background reading, and so on, for both classes. So what would've been two different preps turn into one big prep. It's definitely not the same as doing a single course prep -- there's more time involved, and even "in between" the different meetings of the same class, I spend some time thinking about how the material played in the first section, and what I should do differently in the second section. But it's a lot less work than two different classes, to be certain...

  • The Second Class's Necessary Advantage

That leads me to the last point -- it is inevitable that things will go "better" in the section that meets second. Concepts that were hard to explain the first time around become easier after you've had to clarify things; questions that seem tricky until you have a class discussion about them become easier to pose; jokes that fell flat in the first section can be excised; things you realized you should've said once the first section's class is over can easily be told to the second section. The question is whether this is an unfair advantage, or just the way things are... To me, so long as I grade the classes differently, there's no objective unfairness to the students. Still, I can't shake the feeling that the second section has it slightly better... is that a "bad" thing? Is that a result I should strive against?

  • One Last Thought on Scheduling

As I noted back when I wrote Part I of this series, the schedule I ended up with was having the first section Monday and Wednesday afternoons, and the second section Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The more time goes on, the more I think I would've preferred to have the two classes on the same day -- perhaps one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Although I think it's true for two classes generally, particularly here, I feel like the classes end up swallowing the day on which they take place... and so especially when there isn't a big need for extra prep time for the second class, my own experience is that it makes more sense to devote two full days, as opposed to four half days, to it...

Later on, I'll try to have two more posts -- one on exam writing and grading, and one on general reflections.. For now, I'd welcome your own thoughts!

Posted by Steve Vladeck on February 26, 2008 at 06:14 AM in Life of Law Schools, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I'm about to embark on doing this (two of the same course) for the second time. You raise a lot of the issues that I've encountered. A couple of responses:

1) Last year I had both classes on the same day and thought it was great. I had about 3 hours between classes, which was good to decompress a bit, reformulate if needed, get lunch, and then do it again. This year, I have the same thing, although only an hour and a half between classes (only half an hour on Fridays). I'm worried that will be too little time.

2) My instinct was that my second class would go better, for the reasons that you wrote. But, I was always surprised when it didn't. I often felt like there was something different when I was presenting the material for a second time. Yes, I could (try to) perfect what I was doing, but I also had to fight the feeling that I was just going through the motions again. The freshness of the morning session just wasn't there. Part of it was also because the second class met at 2pm - just after I and the students had eaten lunch.

Posted by: David S. Cohen | Feb 26, 2008 10:39:16 AM

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