Monday, October 16, 2006

Working with students one-on-one

After working in this field for several years, I know there is no one perfect model for academic support programs (“ASP”). Some of us focus on the bar exam, while others emphasize working with minority students. Some programs select students for participation based on academic predictors like LSAT score and college GPA, while others run completely open programs that seek to assist any student who wants the help, while still other programs work with students based on their academic performance in law school. Further, there are variations on every type of program I just mentioned. Even further, some programs operate like an ASP buffet and work with students who fall into more than one of the above categories.

Whom we work with is a complicated decision and one that rarely rests solely in our discretion. Deans, members of the faculty, trustees, and administrators can all have a say in who our programs serve. Once the decision has been made regarding whom we serve, however, we usually have a great deal of say in how we choose to work with our students. One of the toughest decisions we have to make is whether we work with our students individually or in a classroom setting. 

Personally, I lean towards one-on-one work with students whenever possible. First, it diminishes the issue of stigma that can be generated when working in a group setting. We all know how difficult it can be to get the right students into our programs, and if I can diminish the possibility of stigma through a more anonymous process then it’s worth it.

In addition, one-on-one sessions can help combat the fact that law school can be a very impersonal experience for our students. For many of our students, classes with one hundred or more students are the norm. Because of these numbers, students typically receive relatively little in the way of individualized attention or feedback. Importantly, feedback is a two way street. The more I understand about each of my students, the more I can tailor our work together to meet their needs. Also, meeting with students individually can send the important message that the school does care about how well each student performs. 

Individual meetings also give students the opportunity to discuss their unique problems. Even if the story is not that unique to us, giving students an opportunity to discuss their problems can be an important step in moving forward. If we don’t give them a chance to tell their stories, then anger and resentment can be a real impediment to moving forward academically.

Of course, group meetings are often necessary for practical reasons. For example, we often face the same issues of class size that our colleagues teaching first-year classes deal with. Eventually, if you are asked to work with a large enough number of students, you will end up working with them as a group.

I am not suggesting that working in groups is a necessary evil, although it can be. In fact, small group work can be an excellent way of instilling confidence in our students. Through small group sessions, students learn that they and their peers can answer complicated legal problems. Eventually, this can lead to our students becoming their own best teachers. 

I’m sure that I’ve left out other arguments in favor of students working in small groups, but does anyone have good reasons for teaching in large groups? If resources were not an issue, would any of us teach to classes with over 50 students?

Just curious . . . (hnr)

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