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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An Unexpected Teaching Challenge

It's been great to visit at Prawfsblawg again, and thanks to Howard and to all for the invitation and cyber-hospitality. I thought I'd close out my guest stint by describing a challenge I am facing in my teaching, and see if others have ever faced anything like this and how they have handled it. I'm teaching too fast. By that I don't mean I'm talking too fast (though I definitely have a problem with that. I once had a student evaluation say that listening to me was like chasing a Corvette with a tricycle). What I mean is that I am getting through material much more quickly than I have in the past. This is my fifth year as a teacher, and the sixth time I have taught Administrative Law. Usually when I teach, I find that I am often playing catch-up and not covering as much material as I had planned. But in Administrative Law this semester, for the first time, I find that I am all of the sudden covering all the material with time to spare. I can guess at a couple of reasons why this is happening. Maybe because the class is being held late in the afternoon, I am just be getting a less student participation because they are worn out by then. Or maybe I have mastered the material to a degree that I am spending less time exploring the ideas with my students and instead just cutting to the chase. I don't know if that is good or bad. I wonder if this is a normal part of being a teacher. For the first few years, you are exploring the subject a bit yourself (at least as a teacher, if not as a scholar or practitioner), and you're hearing some questions for the first time. After a few years, you have answers to all of those questions, and can even head them off. You start getting "too efficient" (if that's even a thing).

I am trying a couple of things to fix the problem (or perhaps to just take advantage of the extra time - maybe it's not a problem). First, I am doing a little regular assessment. I have always begun every class with a "Review of the Last Class," but now I am making the review a sort of mini-quiz. It's not graded, but I give them questions and allow them to see where they stand and how well they are understanding the material. I think it's been a good move. The class is pretty large, so I also take up more time with "Rule of the Day." Each student is required to research and present on a recently proposed or finalized federal rule, explain which agency is acting, under what statutory authority, the aim of the regulation, and who is commenting for and against and what they are arguing. So far, these seem like decent ways to use the extra time. But I am still curious if this is something that other people have experienced and how they have handled it.

Thanks again for letting me visit. My family and I are going to be in Ecuador this summer on a Fulbright grant. I will be teaching International Water Law at the Pontifical Catholic University in Quito, and working on my ongoing research into the constitutional right to water and how it is formulated, interpreted, and implemented. If you've ever had any experience in Quito or in Ecuador in general, I would love to hear about your experience and any travel suggestions. We are really excited.

Posted by Rhett Larson on March 30, 2016 at 07:29 PM | Permalink


I will also be in Quito some this summer, though not on a Fulbright - just a volunteerism vacation. I was actually hoping to visit a law school while I was there, just to make some connections. Let me know what you hear on on visting Quito.

Posted by: Brian Clarke | Mar 31, 2016 8:19:32 PM

Maybe Rhett is already doing this - situating the material at the beginning and end of class takes a few minutes of each class. But it is perhaps the most valuable use of class time imaginable. Many professors consistently overestimate the ability of their students to figure out the most important points in today's material, and how today's topic relates to where the class has been and where the class is going. Making these things clear is an excellent practice and doesn't take a lot of time.

Posted by: Howard Katz | Mar 31, 2016 7:20:40 PM

Thanks, everyone. I've taken Orin and Howard's advice and kept some additional discussion points and information in my pocket. For example, I've added a little bit on the relationship between formal adjudication and ratemaking (I think it's important, it's a helpful illustration of how and why we use formal adjudication, and because I think it's really interesting because of its major intersection with water law). I think it's something I'm going to have to plan out more carefully the next time I teach the class. Zak, you and I have talked about this. I'm reluctant to switch books pre-tenure (though maybe that's stupid, I would be curious to hear what people think). Also, I have an idea about how to teach Administrative Law, using an interactive flow chart. But I need time to develop it. Amy - this is great advice, and I'm working on it. My "Rule of the Day" stuff is my attempt to add in an experiential component. Instead of just having them present, I also ask my students to write a draft comment on their rule that (1) cites provisions of the APA; (2) cites at least one case we have covered; (3) cites a provision in the organic statute; and (4) responds to a legal argument made by another commenter. I'm thinking of adding in a negotiated rulemaking simulation. Derek - this is a weakness of mine in general, just needing to slow down. Your advice is right on, and something I need to keep in mind in class. I'm wondering if incorporating the clickers, as Michael suggests, will help me slow down and allow my students to think about their questions, and make them a little more comfortable asking questions if and when the clickers show that more than just a few people are confused. Several colleagues and friends rave about the clickers, but I haven't incorporated them yet.

Posted by: Rhett Larson | Mar 31, 2016 2:19:16 PM

Along the lines of what Derek said, I have found that supplying index cards at the beginning of each Admin class with the encouragement to students to jot down questions (either on the reading or class discussion) and hand them in to me after class helps. It has certainly been interesting for me to see the questions after what I thought was a good class with general advancement of the ball. I then make sure to address the questions in the next class, either directly or in material that responds to the question that was already to be covered. I have slowed Admin down considerably due to the types of questions I was receiving and now incorporate much more in-class practice applying the concepts. Unfortunately this means some loss of coverage. I spend less time these days on timing and availability of judicial review.

Posted by: anonprof | Mar 31, 2016 12:03:25 PM

A very common cause for not getting enough student questions (and thus speeding class along significantly) is just not waiting long enough for questions.

It takes some time to realize you have a question, then figure out how to phrase it, and then ask yourself if it's really worth interrupting class to ask, and so on. The typical, "Any questions--okay moving on..." doesn't give students enough time to respond.

Get comfortable with awkward silences. Just stand there and wait.

As for Quito, get used to walking up hill everywhere. If you go to the beach, don't be surprised when there's popcorn in your ceviche.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Mar 31, 2016 10:36:19 AM

Can you add an experiential component or group work? It helps engagement, allows for practice application/exploration of the rules.

Posted by: Amy | Mar 31, 2016 9:44:29 AM

I have, unfortunately, never had this problem, usually the opposite, where I have to rush-lecture through or drop certain material. But I think I'm doing what Orin suggests--keeping extra material at the back end of the course, for when necessary.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 31, 2016 9:24:08 AM

This happened to me in my Property class around year five. So I switched books. Things slowed way down the following year. I like to change my classes at least a little every year. Sometimes a huge renovation can be liberating. And sometimes it makes things harder than they need to be. The moral of the story is that I wrote this comment. Boom.

Posted by: Zak Kramer | Mar 31, 2016 1:35:18 AM

One strategy is just to prepare some extra discussion you will get to if you finish early but can skip if you don't have extra time. Maybe there's an interesting policy question to consider, or a drafting exercise to do, or a hypo to consider, or some history to discuss. You can use that to take advantage of the extra time you have, if you happen to have it.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 30, 2016 8:27:57 PM

This happened to me once (in Administrative Law no less) because no one in the class was asking any questions. So class sped by. At the end of the year I had the worst set of exams it's been my misfortune to grade. After turning in my grades, while mulling it over, it suddenly occurred to me to ask the Registrar's office how many in the class had been taking it pass-fail -- information we don't get to see until grades are in.

Turns out it was almost 3/4 of the class! Needless to say, the next year I exercised my option to eliminate the pass-fail option. Enrollment fell substantially, but it was a great group, and the speed problem certainly went away to be replaced by the more traditional falling-behind problem.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Mar 30, 2016 8:02:00 PM

I've always regulated by having a detailed set of goals for the day, with fixed readings. If I go fast, I finish early. Happens only rarely because I will think of some new hypothetical, and only about 5 or 10 minutes. But it's 2 hours right before lunch, so the extra 5 minutes is appreciated by all.

That said, if you are really going a lot faster - clicker slides (your assessment) - after you teach. I am shocked at how often the clicker slides are way off of something we just talked about. It's instant feedback for all of us that we need to take another run at it.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Mar 30, 2016 7:52:41 PM

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