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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

10 Teaching Tips for Professors

This post is for new and old professors who want to improve their teaching game.  I like reevaluating how my classes went each year at this time as student evaluations come in so in case you all are doing the same, I wanted to share some tips on teaching.  These are not from me but from some of the students' favorite teachers (this year) at BYU Law. (By the way, if you haven't read Lyrissa Lidsky's teaching tips yet, start with those. They are really great.)

So, here are what some favorite teachers at BYU say:

First, Eric Jensen (teaches criminal law, international law, and law of armed conflict--or what our students lovingly call "warrior law")

1.  Love the students.  I think this is probably the most important.  If you don't think the students are the most important part of teaching, I feel like you will never reach them.

2.  Teach so students can learn.  If a teacher is the most brilliant person in the world on the subject but can't present it in a way that his listeners can understand, the teacher is completely ineffective.  Teaching requires not only someone presenting but also someone receiving.  I believe that many people learn in very different ways.  The best teachers I have known have been adept at presenting key concepts in ways that appealed to students with diverse learning modes.

3.  Love the subject.  If you love the subject and the students, your enthusiasm will be apparent and the students will feel it and catch it.

Next up, Brooke Clayton Boyer (teaches negotiation and corporate finance)

4.  Ask questions you don't know the answer to.  If all you do is read from a script and expect to hear the same rote answers you have heard every previous year, where's the value added?  I love challenging students to think critically and examine angles that we / I haven't considered before.

5.  Multi disciplinary resources.  I have found that staying familiar with trends / big ideas in economics, behavioral psychology, and politics helps me see connections that make topics relevant and interesting to students.  I try to incorporate a few links to / comments on current outside-the-law issues in every class period.

6.   Don't require attendance.  If you build it, they will come.  Teach well, and you won't have to compel your students to listen to you.

And for the final tips, my sister Mehrsa Baradaran (teaches property law, administrative law, banking law and will soon be teaching contracts at University of Georgia):

7. Keep it real--don't play a part or be someone you're not.

8. Start out with firm rules. You can ease up later.

9. Focus on 3-4 ideas to teach in each lecture and let the students come to the basic principles (usually the more they have to work, the more they enjoy it).  Try to avoid information dump for the most part.

10. Clear eyes. Full Hearts. Can't lose. [DM: For fans of FNL, check out academic coach Taylor!]

Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on May 2, 2012 at 02:55 PM | Permalink


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I think there's a significant difference between not requiring attendance and not caring if students show up or not. The former recognizes that students are (at least by age) adults who are paying a lot of money in most cases to attend law school and thus can make their own decisions, even if I happen to disagree with them. The latter suggests that the students are unimportant. I think it's entirely possible to distinguish the two both in terms of their implications for a professor's teaching philosophy and in how they are conveyed to the students.

As for the larger problems of legal education, I don't think that bad attendance is a cause of those problems.

Posted by: M. Rich | May 3, 2012 2:40:22 PM

Re 6, I will respectfully disagree (based only on my experiences as a former law student, since I have never taught), particularly for a traditional lecture class where the grade is entirely or predominantly based on one's performance on the final exam.

No matter how well one teaches, studying a good outline is generally a pretty good (and arguably more efficient as far as time allocation) way to do well on the final exam, particularly for classes with "good" professors who are well-established (and thus have had students who have been able to prepare very good outlines summarizing their lessons and key points).

Moreover, if we are talking about emphasizing real world skills (the trend du jour in legal education), I think it is eminently reasonable to penalize people for not showing up (and conversely, to reward people for showing up and participating), since this is in fact how the real world works.

On the other hand, perhaps what I'm talking about is not so much requiring attendance as rewarding participation. But if we're going to try to fix the problems with legal education, it seems like exactly the wrong approach to simply not care if students show up or not, and hope that some magical elixir of "good teaching" (which is often confused with charisma and magnetism, not necessarily the same thing) will solve our problems.

Posted by: DD | May 2, 2012 6:25:26 PM

6. is a good rule, except that the ABA requires professors to require attendance.

Posted by: Anon | May 2, 2012 6:06:53 PM

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