Monday, August 20, 2007

Keep Them Thinking and Doing

The start of a new semester is a good time to take stock of our teaching methods and make conscious improvements.  One place many of us need to begin is with techniques for increasing active learning among our students.

Because students remember about ten percent of what they hear and about ninety percent of what they do, those things that encourage active participation in classroom discussions can be exceptionally effective in helping our students retain concepts and develop sound reasoning skills.  Several fairly simple techniques can greatly increase active learning even for those not directly called upon to respond during a particular class period.

For example, while your teaching method may be to focus primarily on one student while discussing a case, you can draw the rest of the class into that discussion by frequently asking other class members to comment on what they are hearing:  "Ms. Jones, what is your reaction to Mr. Smith's characterization of the court's reasoning?"  You need not spend much time with Ms. Jones before returning to Mr. Smith, but all students are immediately on alert that they cannot afford to drift during the discussion.

You can also pull everyone in by "beaming" questions to the entire class:  "When I call on you, be prepared to explain the IRAC syllogism."  Give the class thirty to forty seconds to think about the answer, and then call on a particular student.  By the time that student is called on, most of the class will have formulated a response that is correct and will be better able, as a result, to retain the concept and evaluate their colleague's response.

Sometimes, having students take sixty seconds brainstorm on  paper a list possible answers to a question (for example, possible causes of action springing from a complex hypothetical) can put them in a much better position to answer the question more thoughtfully.

Similarly, posing a question and having students discuss potential answers briefly with those sitting next to them can deepen their thinking and enrich the conversation when individual students are subsequently called on to respond before the whole class.

A number of other effective strategies exist, of course; but these few are easy to implement, take little class time, and need be used only infrequently to have a significant effect on students' learning.  (Dan Weddle)

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