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Mohsen al Attar: Tweaking assignments

Mohsen al Attar

"... I wanted to see what would happen if I changed the nature of the assessments. So I substituted individual assignments with group ones... What impressed me most was the perceptible shift in the classroom."

Mohsen al Attar, who was a Visiting Professor at McGill Law for 2012-2013, teaches courses on international and intellectual property law. He is passionate about teaching and pedagogical theory, and he enjoys experimenting with course design in order to best engage students in their learning. For instance, a new assignment in one of his courses at McGill resulted in students presenting highly innovative posters at an exhibition entitled “International Law in a Multipolar World.” When not sharing his teaching enthusiasm at McGill, Professor al Attar is a tenured senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Auckland.

What is your most meaningful teaching experience?

To begin, I’m fascinated by legal pedagogy, so while my area of expertise is primarily international and intellectual property law, I spend a lot of time thinking about education. I tend to experiment whether it be with assessment measures, lecturing styles or activities outside the lecture theatre and can trace my most meaningful teaching experience to an “experiment” in a course I taught at McGill. I’d been thinking about “student potential” and educational tools that enhance that potential. To this end, I decided to tweak my Rethinking International Law course and to base all but one assignment on group work.

Since law students – everywhere, it would seem! – are driven by self-interest and personal achievement (understandable given the nature of our institutions as well as the typical evaluation methods and teaching styles we use), I wanted to see what would happen if I changed the nature of the assessments. So I substituted individual assignments with group ones, immediately causing students to behave differently. They had to work together in different activities – such as organizing an international law seminar and designing posters – where everything submitted was graded on the quality of the group work and group members received the same mark.

What impressed me most was the perceptible shift in the classroom. Students were no longer thinking solely as self-interested individuals; they changed the norms by which they were engaging one another. I saw individualism shift to collectivism – they established a mutually supportive learning community. For example, when organizing the day-long seminar, students helped each other by taking on additional responsibilities when needed, even though this was right toward exam period and they had other pressures to deal with. In the evaluations, students wrote about how much they’d learned from their peers. As a teacher, I find this highly encouraging as it confirms that slight changes to my teaching and assessment approaches can stimulate new potential in students.

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