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Angela Campbell: Focusing attention

Angela Campbell

“… since Wills & Estates is an area where a lot of rules may seem random to them, I regularly need to gauge their understanding. So I like to tell them a story …”

Angela Campbell joined McGill's Faculty of Law in 2003. She is an associate professor and the Director of the McGill Institute of Comparative Law. Angela has extensive experience teaching family law, health law, criminal law, wills and estates, and children and the law.

The McGill Law Students’ Association recognized Angela’s fine teaching by awarding her the John W. Durnford Teaching Excellence Award in 2011.

How do you know your students are learning and how do you make your teaching meaningful for them?

Sometimes in my Wills & Estates courses, I’ll say something I think is clear, yet the students seem perplexed. And since Wills & Estates is an area where a lot of rules may seem random to them, I regularly need to gauge their understanding. So I like to tell them a story about the time I coached children’s soccer. I explained a few basic rules to the players, such as kick the ball in this direction, don’t touch the ball with your hands, and stop when you hear the whistle. When I finished these apparently simple instructions, a little girl of around five years old piped up: “I just got new earrings!”

This is one of my favourite teaching anecdotes and a touchstone I often use to understand whether or not the material is going right over my students’ heads. Occasionally I’ll say, “You all look like the little girl who just got new earrings” – in the sense that their understanding is not really where it should be at that moment.

On that level, I really try to engage my students by making my classes diverse and interesting. To ensure that my teaching is as meaningful as possible, I use different ways to cover complex material. In a sense, I don’t have a choice. When I look at the class, I often see a wall of laptops between us – an actual physical barrier behind which it can be too easy to disengage from learning.

So, to add variety, I might ask students to take a legal problem or issue that we’ve covered that day and make it accessible to others. For example, I’ll ask my Family Law students to write a brochure for high school students about custody and access laws in Quebec. Thus they need to learn the material and articulate it in a way that’s not cluttered by legal jargon, making it meaningful to people outside the legal realm. This helps the students see different ways in which legal information can be relevant, which I feel is another stepping stone on their legal education path.

I want them to know that law is much more than just going to a firm and arguing for clients – there are many ways to distil and communicate legal knowledge.

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