Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Student questions

Asking the right questions

Typically, new students come to law school as a relatively self sufficient group of people.  Many have excelled academically, in their careers, and sometimes both.  And while not every law student achieved the 90th percentile on the LSAT exam, most come to law school willing to work extremely hard in order to achieve success.  Prior to law school, working harder always meant better grades and the Dean’s List, and the unstated assumption is that the law school experience won’t be any different.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, many law students have a blind spot when it comes to their legal education – in inability, or an unwillingness, to ask questions.  At this point, I could list a large number of things that we – and by “we” I mean all law school educators – do to encourage students to ask questions.  However, I’m more interested in discussing the things that we may be doing that discourage students from asking questions.

For example, many teach using some form of the Socratic dialogue.  Those who teach using this methodology  might suggest that these dialogues both encourage and require students to take part and ask questions.  Of course, the words “encourage” and “require” have entirely different meanings.  Students who must to speak in class may feel disinclined to ask a question once they have satisfied the requirement of answering a teacher’s questions.  Also, many use the Socratic dialogue as a way of posing questions to our students as opposed to answering their questions.  In a traditional Socratic dialogue – the kind replicated by John Houseman on the paper chase – the professor turns the student’s question into another question that is then directed back at that student.

From our perspective, we are forcing students to confront unstated assumptions inherent in their questions or to consider an alternative point of view.  From the student’s perspective, particularly during the first days of the law school experience, a simple “yes” or “no” might have been more helpful. 

A common fear among students is that they will appear “stupid” when asking questions in class.  Taking this idea a step further, some fear that they are the only one who is confused.  And to quote Abraham Lincoln, it is “[b]etter to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”  As a professor, however, what I see is everyone in class writing down the answers to those so called foolish questions.

Turning the spotlight on myself, are there aspects to my teaching that suggest to students that their questions are “stupid”?  Am I too dismissive of student questions?  I don’t think so, but am I the best judge of this?  How many of us receive feedback from students, beyond end of the year evaluations, where we solicit this sort of information?  Again, I believe I am sensitive when students questions that indicate they are struggling, but what if class is running late?  What if the same person has asked 5 questions in a row?  What if we are getting way off track?  I hope that my words still indicate a willingness to take on more questions, but do my body language and the tone of my voice indicate exasperation?

Of course, most of us have office hours, and we may even recommend that students use these forums for asking certain questions.  Allow me to suggest that announcing office hours at the outset of the semester may not send a strong enough message that you are available.  Even if we do remind students of our office hours, our actions can speak more loudly than our words.  Do we schedule committee meetings during office hours?  Are we working on our latest law review article when students knock on the door?  By itself, this isn’t a problem, but a look that conveys annoyance at having to put aside this work sends a clear message to our students as to our priorities.

I realize that, for the most part, I am preaching to the choir.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to turn the spotlight back on ourselves on occasion.

Just my two cents . . . (hnr)


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