Thursday, August 29, 2013
As I mentioned before here and here, we at the Valparaiso University Law School have divided our semesters into two, seven-week minimesters. This change does not affect every course, but it does affect every first-year course. The minimester system gives us greater flexibility in our curriculum, and we have experimented quite a bit this year. Civil Procedure is now taught in the first and the last minimesters, Torts and Criminal Law are taught in the second and third minimesters, Constitutional Law has been moved to the second year to make room a new, two-credit Damages and Equity course, as well as two new courses, Foundations and Praxis.
One advantage of the minimesters is that our students get a meaningful sense of where they stand relative to their peers after just seven weeks of law school. In addition, faculty members are encouraged to give students frequent assessments throughout the minimester. In my contracts course (you can check out my syllabus on the court LibGuide), students have their first assessment this week. It is just a short multiple choice exam, but it gives them a taste of the sort of multiple choice questions they will face on the bar exam.
My assessments this year will all be multiple choice,* which is far from optimal, but that is because I have 140 students in two sections this year, and I cannot grade that many essay exams or other forms of written exercises in a timely way for so many students (unless I were to give up blogging, and that's not happening!). But I am supplementing these graded assessments with non-graded assignments that we go over in class and which students are encouraged to discuss with me one-on-one during office hours. In order to encourage them to do so, I am having lunch in our school cafeteria three days a week. I am hoping that conversations about contracts, the law and life in general will ensue in the normal course of things.
The jury is still out of course and will remain out until I receive the anonymous student evaluations, but there is a marked up-tick in the number of students who are coming to ask me substantive questions during my office hours. We are only in the second week of the minisemester, so usually at this point all I get is the occasional social call by a student who wants to make a personal, one-on-one introduction (which is a great idea), but this year students are coming to show my their case briefs and to make sure they are getting the concepts.
This is how I always imagined teaching would be, but over the past few years, student traffic to my office had declined radically, until I started thinking of "office hours" as the hours of largely uninterrupted time when I get work done in my office or meet informally with colleagues. I think my students' increased diligence is also explained in part by the fact that we now have a Foundations course in which students focus on the basic skills they need to develop in order to survive in law school and succeed as attorneys. We are engaging in a bit of libertarian paternalism and nudging our students in the direction we want them to take. And that direction leads to my office door (or my table in the cafe).
*I add the following clarification -- my assessments during the minimester are multiple choice. There is still an essay component to the final exam.