Jaye Ellis: Reading purposefully

Jaye Ellis“ … it’s not uncommon for students to have to rearrange their approach to learning because they have to approach law material in a very different way from non-law material.”

Jaye Ellis is an Associate Professor who holds a joint appointment with the McGill School of Environment. Her teaching ties in with her current research interests, namely, environmental protection and resource management in the global commons (notably the high seas and Antarctica), and regime design in international law, including compliance. Professor Ellis has a strong interest in active learning. Read more about her thoughts on teaching at Teaching Snapshots.

How do you help students overcome learning challenges?

First of all, our students are confident students – one reason they’ve made it to Law school is because their study skills are very strong. They are confident that they can do the reading and find the answer. For the most part, it’s true that they know how to work with the materials that I give them. However, when we get to more complicated, theoretical texts, it’s not unusual for students – even the strongest ones – to have problems that make them less sure of themselves. I’ve witnessed a certain breakdown in confidence as their questions get bigger and more involved.

So both in class and out of class they will be asking questions, and I’ve noticed a certain level of frustration when they thought they understood the material, but now they’re worried they don’t truly understand it. And so getting them past that point can be tricky because often I have to move backwards a little and prompt them with questions about how they’re approaching the material. In such cases, it’s not uncommon for them to have to rearrange their approach to learning because they have to approach law material in a very different way from non-law material. Law texts are often much more theoretical, and so some students find that they need to rethink not just how they approach reading an article, but how they approach thinking about it.

So I tell students that one of the strategies I use when I approach a difficult text – one so complex that even strong readers might get lost – is to prepare some clear questions. With these pointed questions in mind, they may have to ignore some of what the author is saying in order to focus on a few things that will be the most fruitful for them, that will allow them to be more active learners. So while they are reading the material, they are also actively engaging with the text through their questions. This will help them remember it later and be able to say something pertinent or new about, even if they have not fully absorbed or understood all of it.