What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
From day one of each course, I like to have the students speak and connect their lives to what we’re studying. I ask them about experiences that they’ve had that might be related to the course or ways in which they might have encountered the subject in other studying they’ve done. We also do a lot of small group discussions, which I think engage students more than just passive listening.
In 2010, I began using clickers, which I find are working very well for engagement. I can get people’s opinions and their reactions to the material. You get a sense of what’s working, what’s hard and what’s easy for the students, and it makes them apply the material as we go.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
I evaluate in a number of ways. With first year students, I give written assignments, but I also give optional ungraded written assignments. I give these back with my comments, and I also write a general memorandum for the whole class, that describes the features of both the stronger and weaker papers. I try to point out how people can move forward. It prepares them for the final examination since the optional writing assignments have the same format as the final examination, which typically has a hypothetical problem to solve and an essay question.
In the upper year course, the writing assignment involves three versions of the same short paper. With draft one, there is a peer evaluation, draft two comes to me, and I evaluate it. Then they revise it again and submit draft three, the final version.
I’ve also started to use in-class quizzes. I got the sense that people were not reading the material closely enough, yet part of being a lawyer involves being able to read very closely.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
I would think care, care in reading, care in writing. In a sense, any work done by a lawyer involves writing. In class, we’re using materials from family law or from constitutional law, but ultimately, the students are learning how to write and reason and read in a better way—and they also learn to understand that one needs to read in different ways. And that, I think, applies to people within the discipline and those from outside.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I am increasingly integrating my own research into the class. I will present a paper of mine that is in progress as if I were delivering it at a conference or in a seminar. I explain to the students that the paper is a draft and that comments and corrections are welcome. This way, they see that professionals get feedback and that there is collaboration. They see that feedback is a two-way street: I give feedback on their work, and they give feedback on mine. I’m introducing them to the process.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
It’s overwhelming when you start teaching, but take the time to think through what you can contribute, what the limits are, and how to make good use of your time. In your first year, you prepare so much, and you present the point of view of five different authors on the day’s material, but your own views and your own approach to the issue itself are also worth sharing, and the students appreciate just hearing how you think through a problem.
Try to devote the majority of your time to things that will benefit everybody. I prefer to write a 15-page memo that the whole class can read and reread than spend a long time writing an email to a single student.
Also, make your course distinctive, rather than trying to do everything. If you want students to have a meaningful choice of courses, it actually means that your course can’t be everything to everybody.
I think that when you begin to teach, you just don’t see the faces. You’re just talking, but it’s more fun if you collaborate with the students. I interact with the students much more than I did at the beginning. I acknowledge their reactions much more.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Students need to engage and commit themselves. There are all these old notes from previous courses floating around, but I generally tell people that the real learning process happens when you make those notes for yourself. Students have to start deciding what’s relevant and what’s not. The point is to be making those choices all the time and sharpening the ability to make those choices. With students who are really struggling, my advice is actually to not read everything—because there are students who can drown. In those cases, I recommend to students to read the summaries of the readings very carefully rather than everything.
Why do you teach?
It’s wonderful helping students improve and helping them work their way through things. The primary gain in teaching is feeling that you’re helping people on their journey. It’s exciting to see the improvements people make.
There is also a gain on the research side. The practice of explaining and thinking through issues and re-reading the materials for courses really helps me as a researcher.
Also, teaching requires you to communicate better. You learn how to say things more simply and to explain things in order. I have done public speaking for years yet I find it has really improved since I began teaching.
Photo by Owen Egan