Monday, August 25, 2008

“How is a Professor Like a Chameleon?”

By Hillary Burgess
My first semester in front of a classroom, I asked myself, “Do I have what it takes to be a good teacher?”  After a few years of positive evaluations, I ask the same question, but with a slight twist: “What will it take for me to be a good teacher for this group of students?”
I hope never to talk about what other professors should do in their classrooms, so I will limit this blog to my own experiences and let the reader take whatever lesson he or she wants from them.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not what I know or don’t know about the topic or about teaching that will lead to my success or failure in the classroom, it’s how well I can connect with my students to engage them in the material.  And connecting with my students often means being a chameleon: showing (and especially developing) different colors of myself depending on what the students need at the time. 
Last year reinforced this lesson for me.  I was teaching a first-semester writing course for the seventh time.  My lecture notes were detailed and honed.  The examples I used were carefully tuned.  The class practically taught itself . . . except that it didn’t at all.  And I didn’t expect that it would.
This group of students was a new, unique class.  Sure, they were your typical freshmen at this school, with an identical demographic background as my previous classes.  But what made this group tick - individually and as a whole - was unique.  When I would put the same example that made the light bulbs flash above the heads of last year’s students, but all I could see were completely blank stares, I knew that I had to reinvent myself to teach that concept to these students.  When I set aside extra time for a concept that my previous 6 sections had struggled with, only to be met with knowing jokes from this class, I had to reinvent my lecture plan for that day to fill the time meaningfully.
I have yet to have a more telling experience about how I needed to adjust my colors to blend with the needs of my students than with my first semester teaching.  I was adjuncting at two different schools.  One school had mostly middle class undergraduates and I was teaching an upper level class while the other school had poor students and I was teaching a remedial class.  If any of the students ever switched classes on me, I’m sure they would have thought I was schizophrenic because I completely changed my teaching style, classroom rules, and demeanor between the two groups.  I had to because I quickly learned in my first few days that trying to impose the same rules on both groups was a complete disaster!
In my upper-level, middle-class course, we maintained typical classroom decorum.  Students would refer to me as “Professor Burgess,”  would raise their hand to be addressed, and would not engage with one another in class unless instructed to do so. 
In my remedial class, I answered to “yo” and “teacher-teacher” and just about any other term they used to signal they wanted my attention.  If one remedial student didn’t understand an idea, that student would ask a student who understood the idea to explain it to him or her, often without any acknowledgment that I was in the room or lecturing.  I quickly learned that 1.  the students could teach each other as well, if not better, than I could, and 2.  the students who “got it” learned more and gained confidence by teaching others.  Mostly, I learned that these students needed to learn math much more than they needed to learn “typical” classroom decorum and I had to pick between the two goals. I also learned that more important than either of these goals was building each student’s confidence as competent learners.  The students needed to know that they could learn, and sometimes that meant I needed to step out of the way, and not worry about “teaching.”
So now, as I approach each new class, I ask myself, “Who do I need to be to reach and teach these students?”  And I know that all of my careful preparation, lecture notes, assignments, and everything I’ve ever thought was “good teaching” might just have to fade away.  Most importantly, I have learned that each time I change my colors to blend with a new group of students, I learn from them who I am, who I am capable of being, and how much more I have to learn to be a chameleon for future groups of students. 
Hillary Burgess
Assistant Professor of Academic Support
Hofstra Law School
hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu

August 25, 2008 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

From Guest Blogger Russell Smith: Student Engagement

Student Engagement

As I was riding home from the recent conference in Baltimore, I was reflecting on some of the things that I heard.  One thing that struck me during this conference was Ruth McKinney’s reference to the ultimate happiness website at UPenn.  I began to think about other things that might be slightly outside the mainstream of our normal reading that may carry some good thoughts that inform what we do.  Although there are many resources within the legal education community that are indeed helpful, it seems like some dynamite thoughts can come from many different places if we are just looking.  (I suppose just thinking this way makes me one of those global learners)

One thought that commanded my attention on the ride home was that of student engagement.  I recently read Shaking Up the Schoolhouse by Phillip Schlechty (Josey-Bass Publishers, 2000) in which he examines this topic in depth.  Although his work is generally aimed at K-12 practitioners, it seems to me that many of his thoughts are just as appropriate to legal education.  (As a former high school teacher, holder of a principal’s certificate and former school board member, I tend to hang around in K-12 circles sometimes)  Schlechty has spent his career developing the concept of “working on the work”.  According to him, the business of schools and teachers is to develop work and tasks that students will do and from which they will learn what the teachers want them to learn.  Central to his theme is the notion is that teachers must develop engaging work.  Without a student’s engagement, the likelihood of actual learning taking place is small.

For Schlechty, engagement is not just being attentive or entertained.  He views engagement as attention plus commitment.  Attention without commitment is nothing more than compliance.  Commitment without attention is potential, but not much else.  Therefore, we as teachers must satisfy both in order to affect student learning.  Students are committed to a task when they find some inherent value in what it is that we have asked them to do.  (For a fuller development of these thoughts,  I suggest looking at 

What does this mean for us in ASP?  Even my grossly oversimplified explanation of engagement raises a couple of questions that I believe I would do well to consider frequently.  First, are the students I work with committed or only attentive?  If they are only attentive or compliant, I may not be making much of a difference.  Second, is there some inherent value to the student in what I have asked them to do?  Can they see it?  Schlechty indicates when a student persists in spite of complications, this is a sign that there is some inherent value to the student.  Am I looking for this or indeed structuring my work to allow for this possibility?  I need to develop work and activities that will engage the student in order to bring about effective change in their learning.  In order to do this, I believe I need to ask myself constantly if the students are engaged, i.e. committed and not just attentive.  If I am successful at this, I might actually change the student.  Otherwise I might just become one more person to whom the student is required to pay attention.

To return to the bigger point, there is much out there to inform what we do.  Primary and secondary education are good places to look, but I would not stop there.  Although I like the nuts and bolts stuff and the method explanations, some of my favorite, and most informative, presentations at recent workshops dealt with topics that come from other fields, for example psychology and sociology.  It’s amazing what we can find to help us when we look around a little bit.

June 25, 2008 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sharing time & spotllight time again!

First things second.

Spotlight time.  Presenting ... ALEX RUSKELL.  Alex took over leadership of the Academic Success effort at Roger Williams University School of law this academic year.  From all reports, he's doing a super job!

Before this year, Alex served as the Director of the Academic Support Program at Southern New England School of Law, and before that, Associate Director of the Legal Writing Center at the University of Iowa College of Law. In his earlier life, he litigated in Boston, focusing on securities and corporate non-competition agreements. He has also served as General Counsel for a mid-size publishing company, Associate for a large oil and gas firm, and as an Assistant in the Texas Attorney General’s Office of Environmental Crimes.

His academic background is varied and thus well-suited to academic support!  He holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an A.L.M. in English from Harvard University, a J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in English from Washington and Lee University.

Before practicing law, he taught in a Russian orphanage and counted otters for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Both of these resulted in several articles, printed in The Tampa Tribune and many other publications.

Alex frequently presents at writing conferences and symposiums across the country, most recently at the 2006 AWP Conference in Austin, Texas, where he sat on a panel questioning the continuing vitality of the American novel.

Now, how does this tie in with "sharing"?  Alex gave me permission to post his latest exam-answering advice to the RWU SOL students.  It's terrific.  Here goes . . .

The Brain Dump a bad strategy for answering an exam question where the student writes down everything he or she knows about a particular subject instead of actually answering the question asked.
EXAMPLE:  My History of Music Exam asked, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how funky is Prince?  Please explain your answer."  In response, I wrote down everything I knew about music, starting with atonality and Gregorian chants, and then all the way up to whether Axl Rose will ever release Chinese Democracy. It took me three hours to write, and I never got to the other questions.  The correct answer was 11, because "His name is Prince, and he is funky.  When it comes to funk, he is a junkie."  I got a zero for my answer.  Then I cried a lot.
Reasons for the Brain Dump:
1.  Fear and panic
2.  Not understanding the question
3.  Being angry the exam didn't ask you something you spent 4 hours figuring out (e.g., "I will talk about unjust enrichment!")
Why the Brain Dump is a Bad Idea:
1.  Professors like grading exams about as much as you like taking them.
2.  You're under time pressure.
3.  It shows you don't understand the question.
4.  Hand cramps.
5.  Exams, on some level, try to replicate what you will be doing as an attorney.  Basically, if a client came in and asked you how to defend against a battery charge, would you tell him or her absolutely everything you know about intentional torts?  Do you think you're client would enjoy this?  Would you? (...from Alex Ruskell via djt)

November 28, 2007 in Academic Support Spotlight, Bar Exams, Exams - Theory, Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Using Minute Papers to Assess Student Understanding Mid-Semester

By Hillary Burgess, Adjunct Professor, Rutgers School of Law

Law students often complain that the only way they know whether or not they understand the material is by their final grade.  Similarly, as faculty, we face frustration that “we know we discussed this topic ad nauseam,” so why didn’t the students get it right on the exam? 

When I first started teaching, I used “minute papers” to get feedback from students throughout the semester.  In class, I distribute a handout that has 3-5 questions on it.  The questions were sometimes topical (explain such and such a concept that we learned last time), meta-topical (explain what you still don’t understand about such and such a topic), or administrative (what about the lectures is/is not working for you).  I give the students 3-5 minutes to write the papers.  I’ve found this method allows me to evaluate how well I’ve taught the ideas we’ve discussed as well as what the students like and don’t like about the means to get there and the means of evaluation.

While minute papers don’t provide direct feedback to the class, I do summarize the results for the students, which gives students feedback relative to the rest of the class.  Summarizing the results lets students who are not getting key concepts become aware that they are one of a few.  I always welcome these students to my office hours (or since I’m currently an adjunct, to email or call me) for additional guidance.  I’ve found those students tend to feel supported whether or not they take me up on the invitation.  I’ve also found that summarizing the results can reduce the impact that one disgruntled student can have by letting him or her know indirectly (provided its true) that most of the students are excited about whatever that student is disgruntled about.  If many students are disgruntled about a particular aspect of the course, I can address the issue directly and explain its pedagogical soundness or, more likely, come up with an alternate pedagogically sound solution.   

I used these papers more when I was starting out as an adjunct because I wanted to make sure that what I thought was good teaching was actually reaching the students.  In my undergraduate courses, I have to admit, I give so many tests and papers (usually one or the other every other week) and have so much one-on-one contact with students, that students give and receive all the feedback they want. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have small enough classes that I’ve been able to continue my undergraduate school’s philosophy that “every class is a writing class, regardless of the topic” in both my undergraduate and law school classes.  However, in my law class, I’ve found that students become used to the “no work until finals week,” and despite that they complain that they don’t get feedback mid-semester, some of them will complain about mid-semester assignments!  Minute papers might be the best solution to this dichotomous problem – it allows me to communicate with each student while taking very little of their time (and gives me less to grade). 

In any case, I wanted to share (and remind) you about this idea as I recently reminded myself about it.  I welcome comments and feedback.

September 17, 2007 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

We're Hungry!

Feed us some articles.  The next time you stumble upon the perfect skill-teaching strategy, when your Dean doubles your budget and you figure out what to do with all the extra cash, whenever anything strikes you as relevant to the rest of us -- write it up.  Send it along.  We know you're out there!

February 13, 2005 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)