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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Building Connections Among Your Students -- Preparing for Fall Teaching in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, or Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here.  This post and other recent posts focus on the third step—building connections and community in our physically distanced, remote, or hybrid courses.

In a prior post, I discussed this importance of building connections and community in our courses this fall.  According to the community of inquiry model, if we want to design an effective learning environment, we should consider three types of interaction—(1) how students interact with the material, (2) how they interact with us, and (3) how they interact with each other.  My last post focused on how students can connect with us in these new learning elements, while this post will focus on how we can provide opportunities for students to interact with each other. 

Prioritize Group Assessments & Activities.  We are all rethinking how we will assess and engage students this semester, and with all of the challenges, it can be tempting to simplify and do more lecturing or individual assessments, especially if you are teaching in a physically distanced classroom where group work is far more difficult.  But the cost of choosing more individual assessments is that students will feel even more disconnected from each other.  We need to figure out how to get students talking to each other, even in physically distanced classrooms.  As I’ve talked about previously, it should still work to have students work in groups of two or three even in a physically distanced classroom, and it’s worth the effort even if it feels complicated to get students to work together while in masks.  You might even hold events outside of class that are more informal, like discussions of current events related to the class or a movie watching party.

Create group camaraderie.  Stealing an idea from Harry Potter, consider putting the students into groups and give them opportunities to earn points for their group.  The groups can compete against each other to gain the most points.  The two groups in my class will be the “Pennoyers” and the “International Shoes” (try to guess what class I am teaching…).  If I were teaching Business Associations, I’d break them into houses named after Delaware Court of Chancery judges.  Clearly, my motto is “if you’re going to geek out, geek all the way out.”  I may hold trivia contests or Jeopardy contests related to the course material as a review or just for fun, with the winning house getting points. 

The groups could also serve as a support system for the members.  For example, you could encourage them to share phone numbers, so they can reach out to each other if they are having tech issues.  If you are teaching a hybrid class with only some students in-person each class, you might assign them to the same in-class days, so they get to know each other in-person as well. 

Assign students to study groups.  In a regular semester, study groups can develop naturally.  It is harder for students to connect with each other remotely or in a physically distanced classroom, so you might create study groups early on.  You can give the groups a few assignments that they turn in for a completion grade to create incentives for them to meet as a group.  Not all of the groups will work well together, and I certainly wouldn’t force them to stay together beyond these early assignments, but it could help some students form connections.

Use fun icebreakers.  Consider icebreakers throughout the semester.  We typically use icebreakers on the first day of class and then assume the students will get to know each other organically throughout the rest of the semester.  In physically distanced or remote courses, however, we may have to work harder to introduce (and re-introduce!) the students to each other.  You might pick a theme each week, asking students to send you pictures or tidbits about themselves that relate to the theme. 

Here's what I’m planning.  I’m doing one “just for fun” prompt a week – they’ll be totally optional, but I plan to hype them up so students hopefully put in the few minutes it will take to do them.  I’ll also share my own answers with them so they get to know me a bit better.  If they choose to respond, they will put their responses in their pre-class Google Docs or Flipgrid video assignments, which I talked about here.  (As an aside, if you want sample instructions for either of these technologies, just email me!).  I’ll let the students know that I plan to share a few each class, so they can learn more about each other. 

Here are some sample prompts from my syllabus:

  • At the start of many movies, there is a song that plays when the hero makes their first appearance. This song (often called a “walkout song”) symbolizes the hero’s journey and what is to come.  You have just made your first appearance in law school.  What is your walkout song?  You can include the song title in your Google Doc if you would like.  And if you can’t think of a song that fits, you can include a meme or gif instead.  I stole this prompt from Professor Molly Brady at Harvard, and I love the idea.
  • Do you have a pet? If so, I’d love to see a picture! 
  • Share one thing that has surprised you about law school so far.
  • What TV series have you watched over the last six months that you have really liked?
  • Share your cutest or craziest baby pictures!
  • What’s your favorite board game or card game? What do you love about it?
  • If you could design your perfect career, what would it be?
  • What’s your favorite place to go in [the town where your law school is located]?
  • What’s your favorite holiday and what do you love about it?
  • What has been your favorite part of law school so far? What’s one thing about law school you wish you could change? 
  • If you could go anywhere in the world during winter break, where would you go? Since this is your fantasy, it can be any season you’d like as well. 

Simulate Unstructured Classroom Time. In an in-person class, students will often arrive a bit early and chat with their classmates, or they will stay after class to ask you a question.  You can provide similar opportunities in an online class.  Let the students know that you will open up the Zoom class ten minutes early, but will mute your own mic and speakers, so they can talk to each other.  You can also tell them that you will stay after class for 10 minutes for their questions.

Build fun moments into class.  If you are teaching remotely, you might screenshare word searches or crossword puzzles before class or during the break.  Students can work on them together using the annotation tool in Zoom. I bought an account to wordmint, which allows you to create all kinds of customized games and puzzles.  The account was cheap, and now I can create personalized puzzles for my students.  I might create one for personal jurisdiction, for example, that includes all the new terminology they have learned, from “long-arm statute” to “minimum contacts.” 

Combine fun and attendance:  My colleague Kristen Osenga has a good idea for using our polling software – PollEverywhere -- to take attendance in a fun way.  She asks a question in the first 2 minutes of class like “What’s your favorite decade?,”  “What’s your favorite type of candy?,” and “What are your plans for spring break?”.   The options will usually be multiple choice, and she’ll share her own thoughts as well.  She says that it gets the class talking from the beginning about something not class related, and gives the students a chance to know each other and her.

 Collaborative Start-Stop-Continue: In a start-stop-continue exercise, students work in pairs or small groups to provide their thoughts about what they’d like their instructor to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing in class. The groups can submit their responses to you using a Google Form email, or a free online bulletin board (e.g., Padlet, Lino). You can follow up by summarizing the results and discussing you will or won’t change and why.  This can be a good way for students to collaborate in a low-stakes way and learn how they are each experiencing the class. 

Allow Extra Credit Group Projects.  Consider giving students the option to form groups and do a fun extra credit project.  You might let them research the background of a case, come up with a video explaining a rule to a non-lawyer, or even make a fun hand washing poster that goes with the class:

Handwashing(Full disclosure -- I would love to give credit to whoever created it, but I don't know who that is!  If you know, email me and I'll edit this post.)

I’d love any other tips you have in the comments, or you can join the conversation on Twitter here.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on August 11, 2020 at 03:14 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


Totally agree with Jessica who has spent alot of time providing this free service for the common good. Less so than in the spring, but for some students the online class time may literally be the only or few times a week where they are interacting with a human being. Some live alone and may not have family nearby. It is especially hard for 1Ls who have no law school friends, so yeah, I think in this difficult time, it is part of the profs' duty to at least offer the option for some students to "meet" outside the classroom in the online world. Some law schools also have staff that do this or clubs but nothing can really replace the classroom.

For many of us, the most enduring friendships we have from 1L year are from our sections or the dorms. Law students now have neither to foster this connections. Jessica's posts provide an option for people who can't take online learning classes to learn strategies in a quick and easy assessable format. I don't blame students when they complain if many profs proceed as business as usual.

Posted by: anon | Aug 13, 2020 11:29:01 AM

Jessica, you're continuing to provide such helpful posts. Thank you!!

Posted by: Anna | Aug 13, 2020 9:43:05 AM

Phil -- I am well aware that students are paying *a lot* of money to be in law school. That weighs on me day in and day out, and rest assured that my students will learn the law inside and out. No one has ever accused me of being too easy. But the view that learning has to be a grind is just wrong -- the data shows that connections and community increase learning. Usually connections develop naturally because we are in physical proximity with each other, but that's harder now, which mean professors should take some steps to build these connections into their courses in a more intentional way.

I certainly wouldn't do all of the things in my post in my class. These are ideas all taken from experts in online teaching, and professors should pick and choose ones that work for them. And as I note, I'd give students a choice on a lot of it, so they can opt out if they'd rather learn on their own. At the end of the day, although I can be a pretty serious teacher, I certainly don't object to incorporating a few things to bring a bit of fun into the semester. Smiling and learning the law are not mutually exclusive.

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | Aug 12, 2020 8:21:57 PM

Why do you assume it is a law professor's responsibility to ensure students socialize with one another? "a movie watching party"?? "what's your favorite board game?" Assigned study groups? Your students paid tens of thousands of dollars to learn the law, not to be compelled to have a buddy. If you were my law professor, I would drop the class.

Posted by: Phil | Aug 12, 2020 2:20:40 PM

One could use the whiteboard function in Zoom at the beginning of class for students to put answer to the intro questions. it is anonymous and students can draw or write on it.

Posted by: anon | Aug 11, 2020 3:30:38 PM

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