Monday, October 17, 2011
One effective response to concerns about student engagement in the classroom—a topic of increasing concern at law schools today—is to return responsibility for learning to the students themselves. One specific technique I have used required me to relinquish control of some classroom components of a skills course and instead trust to the professional response of my students. This shared empowerment can be used effectively in both doctrinal and skills classes. My experience in academic support gave me the confidence and courage to try this experiment.
Here's what I did: I assigned students, in small teams of two to four students, to take responsibility for teaching several classroom components of the course. My motivation for this major and risky step occurred at the beginning of a course in Appellate Advocacy. I could see that the class, for whatever reason, was not engaging with the material as I would have liked.
Some of my colleagues were skeptical of this approach. One concern was whether “students-teaching- students” would result in incorrect information being broadcast to the class. But it was simple enough to monitor the information and I found that it was never necessary, especially since students, for the most part, would have been relying on materials that I would have used anyway.
Another concern, though never stated directly, was the reluctance to step aside from the front of the classroom. This concern may just represent a personal choice and comfort level. For the most part, I didn't see the necessity of being the expert at the front of the room for every minute of the class.
Each team was responsible for researching a topic and deciding how best to present the material to the class. Since there were two to four students in each team, teams had to determine how to choreograph the presentation. In that sense, the exercise presented issues similar to those we face as co-presenters at professional development workshops. Now I see the exercise as one more step in the development of students as professionals.
Not only did students have to complete some research on their team's topics, they also had to make choices about how to present the information. Since each presentation was limited to twenty minutes, students had to choose what to include, which usually meant decisions about what to cut, choices about the medium (slides and video clips were the most popular modes), how the presentation was connected to what we had already seen and covered, and what the class should take away from the presentation (information, hand-outs, etc.). (Slides and handouts were easy to collect and post on the course TWEN page for reference and review.) One assignment required a two-student team to invite an appellate lawyer to the class and then to conduct a conversation-style interview with the lawyer about appellate preparation and practice.
The results were immediately positive. Even though the students, as first-year students, had no experience with the material, they rose to the challenge of the task. I gave them the freedom of deciding how to present: we had everything from conventional slides and handouts, to a generous sprinkling of game-show-style participation exercises (complete with the 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire" count-down music). We also had some skits and, of course, the inevitable “YouTube” clips. The presentations were a stepped progression from an in-class small group exercise to teaching the class.
The presentations also revealed student talents I would not have known about. It was clear who the talented singers were, who were the comics, and who had dazzling PowerPoint skills. It was also clear which students were the leaders in a team. Student teams were playing to their strengths in learning and in demonstrating the information. And I collected some valuable teaching materials including handouts, slides, and presentation ideas.
All of the presentations over the last four years, while not uniformly excellent, were still very well presented, often with points I had not anticipated. The exercises had a profound effect on the class and their positive response to later material in the course.
One final point, and this may be the most important point of the experiment. No grade or credit attached to the assignments, yet students responsibly fulfilled their obligations and the level of conversation about the topics was excellent. I was watching students taking responsibility for their own education, not relying on my topical expertise at the front of the room, but finding new ways of teaching me what I thought I already knew. In short, they kept me engaged too.