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Monday, September 28, 2015

Teaching Like It's 2015

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are tools and methods available to us as law teachers to structure our time in the classroom so that it involves more students more actively more of the time. [We can also send them out to deal with the needs of our local, national, and international communities through activities such as law school clinics, externships, and public service, but that's another blog for another day]. One more disclaimer:  all of this should be done as part of thoughtful course design.  

This entry will highlight two techniques that can increase student engagement without requiring major restructuring of the law school class. Both are designed to get the focus off of the professor and on to students' active participation.

Think-Pair-Share-3-1024x5761.  Think/Pair/Share. This easy device allows the professor to inject brief structured student interactions within the normal flow of classroom conversation. Its uses are as varied as the teacher's imagination, but its structure is straightforward.  The professor poses a single question, often one that requires higher order thinking skills, such as the application of legal doctrine to new facts, a consideration of policy implications, or just the synthesis of a complex topic. The students are instructed to:

  • Think briefly (e.g. 30 seconds) about the answer. (This is both helpful to more introverted students and a good practice for all in organizing one's thoughts before speaking.)
  • Pair up with another student.
  • Share (discuss) their answers with each other, also for a designated amount of time. (That will vary depending on the complexity of the question. Typically this will be brief, e.g. 1-2 minutes) 

The class can then be reconvened as a group, and selected pairs can be called on to further "share" their answers.  You can also add a final step -- "Analyze" -- to let you and the group reflect on lessons from the collective responses. This technique does not require much more time than a conventional "call on one student" approach, yet it adds desirable consequences. It secures the engagement of all students in the classroom, quick feedback for the professor (e.g., the revelation of student misconceptions), and the final "share" lets the professor reinforce and support student critical thinking.  The basic T/P/S pattern can also be expanded for small-group work within a large law school class, either to answer a single question or to work on a a problem (or problem set), while the instructor wanders the room to listen in on the student discussions. 

2. Student Response Systems (aka "Clickers").  What's not to like about toys? This technique does require writing multiple choice questions, but don't think that means it should be limited to pure doctrinal recall, or right/wrong answers.  Using whatever technology your school supports (or a free service like Socrative, with students using their own smart phones or laptops as responders), the professor projects a multiple choice question.  Students use their responders to choose the best answer.  So note what happens: 1) all students participate; and 2) they don't get to see what other students are answering; but 3) they don't have to worry about embarrassment should they choose the wrong answer.

One more click of the professor's computer, and the class's collective answers are displayed (often as a lovely bar chart) for everyone to see.  If most of the students got the answer right, the professor can briefly confirm the correct answer and move on.  But if the students are confused (bonus: you find that out immediately), the teacher  can use that disagreement as a discussion starter for the whole class, or for students in pairs (e.g. "find someone who answered differently from you and argue in favor of your answer").  There are lots of types of questions that can involve students and help spark classroom discussion:

  • Student perspective/experience questions, as a new topic is introduced (e.g. Second Amendment: gun ownership; Immigration Law: student family background). Note the advantage of anonymity in answers to this type of question.
  • Conceptual questions (put things in categories; identify examples; explain concepts; expose common misconceptions)
  • Application questions (typical law school hypotheticals with multiple choice answers)
  • Questions with no right or wrong answer, nevertheless requiring the students to choose as a prelude to discussion (e.g. "The most fundamental basis for due process limits on personal jurisdiction is . . . "; "SCOTUS will decide [pending case] by . . . ") 

Although it's not written with law teaching specifically in mind, there's a great teaching guide for using clickers here, or here is a Prezi on Teaching with Clickers in Law (both by the director of Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching). And if you don't want to play with the technology, you can get most (minus anonymity) of the same effect by giving students multiple sheets of colored paper, which they hold up to answer.

These two ideas are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. And so I will close this entry with links to some helpful free online resources, with lots more ideas:

Hess et al, Techniques for Teaching Law (the sequel is available from Carolina Academic Press)

University of Minnesota Law Library, Teaching Tools for Law School Faculty (bibliography)

And for theory:

Carnegie Foundation, Educating Lawyers

Stuckey et al, Best Practices for Legal Education

Maranville et al, Building on Best Practices (sold by LexisNexis, but chapters downloadable from SSRN)

Schwartz et al, Teaching Law by Design


Posted by Account Deleted on September 28, 2015 at 09:15 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


Great suggestions, Beth. I'll add (drawing on my past life as a high school teacher) that many cooperative learning tools other than "Think-Pair-Share" exist, most of them developed through the work of Spencer Kagan. Some of these tools are kind of hokey for a law school classroom, because they were designed for use in elementary and secondary schools, but many others work very well even in the law school classroom. Kagan publishes a series of reference sheets that briefly explain each tool--not sure whether you can get those without attending a Kagan training (assuming they're still doing those), but they're very useful.

Posted by: Scott Bauries | Sep 29, 2015 8:40:42 PM

For first-year professors, I would add my book Think Like a Lawyer: Legal Reasoning for Law Students and Business Professionals (ABA Pub. 2013). It uses exercises to develop students' legal reasoning skills. For a similar book just on torts, see my A Companion to Torts: Think Like a Torts Lawyer (2015).

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Sep 29, 2015 4:44:51 PM

Thank you for this. I was unaware of the Socrative technology, and will definitely take a look!

Posted by: T-N Henderson | Sep 28, 2015 3:01:10 PM

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