Thursday, September 3, 2009

When Professors Say Dude: Millennial Aren’t the Only New Kid on the Block

When Professors Say Dude:  Millennial Aren’t the Only New Kid on the Block

by Hillary Burgess

Experts like Tracy McGaugh and James Dimitri have provided us with great information about how the Millennial generation is quite different from past generations of students and how we can adjust our teaching to allow them to better serve them as they enter our discourse community and professional community.  I have so much respect for Tracy, James, and others who are thinking critically about how to best reach and teach our students.  I have to wonder, though, if the struggles we are facing are not just that the students are different, but that we, the professors, are different, too. 

This thought first occurred to me when I walked out of class and saw a very old Volvo in the faculty parking lot.  I remarked out loud to myself, “Dude, check it out!”  I then became quite self-conscious.

Had anyone heard my remark?  What would the Boomer profs think of me saying, “Dude?”  Would they forever banish me to the status of Sean Penn’s girlfriend at Ridgemont High?  (Which would be anything other than "totally rad.")  What would my Millennial students think of me saying “Dude?”  Am I that old lady who thinks she’s so cool, but really is the antithesis of cool?  (Actually, I really am the antithesis of cool.)  Then, I realized that GenX is in that awkward ‘tween phase.


After running through a number of “like totally bogus” off-limits expressions that I would “like totally like” never “like ever”

use again and musical references that I would have to banish (Hey Mickey, the Bangles, and anything New Kids on the Block) no matter "what a pity," I began thinking about how the culture shock that the legal academy is experiencing might not just be about the students.  It might be about the professors, too. 

In the past decade, the generation Xers have come of age enough that we are now teaching in law schools in significant numbers.  In a culture where the Boomers started teaching over forty years ago and even the youngest Boomers have been teaching for twenty years, Xers have become the new kids on the block, at least in the professor world.  Could the changes we perceive in our students result, at least in part, from the way Xers and Boomers teach differently (generationally generically speaking, of course)?  Are our cultural expectations about how students “should” behave so different that our students are trying to navigate a rather schizophrenic system of rules where what is good in Professor Xer’s class is not tolerated in Professor Boomer’s class (and vice verse)?  While this type of experience is good training for succeeding in the practice of law, when we talk about the culture shock that is hitting the legal academy, should we also include ourselves?

I leave it to the experts in generational studies to theorize about and answer the questions I raise here.  Moving forward, I’d love to see our discussions about how we can best serve our current generation of students expand from the perspective of how different the students are to the perspective of how different we all are now that Xers have left the role of students to join Boomers as professors.  Especially as a 'tweener, I'm hoping that we all avoid the us v. them mentality as we explore these groundbreaking pedagogical ideas about how to better serve this generation of students.


September 3, 2009 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beginners Brief Best By Briefing Backward

When preparing my briefing workshop this semester, it occurred to me how hard it was to create a well formatted issue statement.  Think about it:  one of the most common formats for an issue is:  whether [most crucial fact of case] constitutes [crucial element of rule] where [most relevant facts of case].  So the issue statement might be easier to formulate after students understood the facts.  But understanding which facts are relevant and which are distracters is hard before students understand the rule and the reasoning.  Even the rule is hard to put together in a cohesive, well-articulated format as a first step. 

So then it occurred to me that it might be easier for students to brief backward:  conclusion (who won), reasons (where they can piece together discreet information), rule, issue, and then facts. 

When I proposed this idea to my students, they all looked at me like I had two heads.  (Don’t I wish!)  But, a few days later, many of these same students popped by my office with light bulbs flashing above their heads, indicating they understood the cases better and faster using this technique. 

I more fully explain the logic behind this technique and why it could be easier for novice law students in the Teaching Methods Newsletter, Winter 2008, on page 7.

By Hillary Burgess

April 6, 2009 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Oft-Forgotten Concern--Guest Column by Russell C. Smith

As we talk to students after first semester grades come out, I find that often I neglect to address one concern that I believe they all have, yet one that is not often expressed in our conversations with students.  We have no trouble focusing on grades, exam writing, study habits, briefing skills, etc.  Yet I find at the bottom of many of my students concerns, maybe subconsciously for some, lurk a couple of nagging questions.  If I am struggling academically, will I be a good lawyer?  Will I be able to make a living practicing law?  Embedded in these questions are perhaps the concern about repaying loans and living up to the expectations of others. 
    Students usually find some comfort when they realize that the correlation between academic performance and the potential for a successful practice career is not as strong as they might imagine.  I try to get students to think of the whole process of becoming a lawyer as hurdles to be jumped only once.  Once you’ve cleared the hurdles (LSAT, school, bar) then you’re at the finish line ready to practice and nobody really cares, particularly your clients, how difficult you found the hurdles.
    I usually tell students some true stories to help them with this concern.  We all know of students who struggled academically and then went on to fame and fortune or at least successful practices.  I share the stories of some people I know like this.  Also, we all know of superior academicians who, because of a lack of other skills, could never make a living as a practicing attorney.  In fact, some of these people would have trouble giving away legal service, let alone getting someone to pay them for it.  (If you are now thinking of some of the people you know in academia, shame on you!)   I practiced for ten years and never once did a client ask me what I made in evidence when deciding whether to hire me for a trial.  As an aside, I did hear a story of an assistant district attorney once who cited his performance in evidence class as authority for his argument regarding a piece of evidence.  The court was not persuaded.
    Students that struggle find some comfort in knowing many stellar legal careers have sprung from less than stellar law school performances.  Even if this is not verbalized by the student, I think most of the time they have concerns about their ability to practice and make a living.  It is a worry that we can help to alleviate.  And after all, every thing that we can help students become comfortable with is likely to take them to a better place, both emotionally and academically.

Russell C. Smith
Assistant Dean for Student Services

Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law
Campbell Law School
Buies Creek, NC

January 16, 2009 in Advice, Guest Column, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Notes from the Bar Pass Conference

Bar Passage Training Lesson: More Experiential Learning

By Hillary Burgess

Hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu

I am on my way back from the LSAC Academic Support Bar Passage Programs Topical Workshop. I cannot believe how much I learned, especially about questions that I didnt know to ask. However, the biggest lesson Ive taken away from the workshop had nothing to do with bar support or bar passage.

The biggest lesson for me was that no matter what percentage of experiential learning exercises I incorporate into my Academic Success workshops, I can always include more and talk less. My new teaching mantra is going to be, Stop talking to start teaching. I can apply the same lessons to my skills-building workshops that I apply in my casebook courses: no content is so important that it cant be cut in favor of an exercise that teaches students how to learn the content on their own. This principle is true, even when my content is how to learn. Exercises simply do the job better.

I cant thank this community enough for creating the open, caring, and supportive environment we have, from the incredibly supportive wise (surprisingly young) elders to the people who have been around just long enough to not feel new (at least to the new people like me). Both groups don't seem to be afraid to put it all out there if doing so will better serve our community and especially our students.

October 10, 2008 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Faculty, My Students, Myself: Thoughts on Being New to Academic Support

Corie Rosen
Director of Academic Support, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University

The recent loss of novelist and professor David Foster Wallace was both tragic and eye opening.  Wallace was not only a renowned thinker and writer; he was also a fellow educator, albeit in a different area.  Wallace famously expressed his feeling that lifelong learning was the only way to pursue a full understanding of the world around us, something he called the “big T-truth.”  I had already begun to evaluate my work as a new Academic Support Professor, but his passing pushed me to think more deeply, about the nature of higher learning and the challenges that we face as teachers and about the ways in which our roles as teachers, counselors, and mentors, best serve our students as they strive to find the “big T-truth” with respect to their legal educations.

    As a new Academic Support Professor, the challenges I faced were myriad, but the sense of accomplishment and delight inherent in facing and conquering them was unparalleled.  In looking back on the past year, I found that the challenges I faced broke out into three major groups, which I will term my faculty, my students, and myself.

But before I faced any of those three, I had to first address a threshold question.  I needed to define my purpose, to get at what that “big T-truth” was going to be in the universe of my classroom.  To clarify my purpose in my own mind, I asked myself probing questions:  What role does my course play in the education of students?  What specific ideas do I want them to take home?  What universal values will I seek to bolster through the course as a whole?  What do I want my students to think and feel about the law?  About the process of legal learning?

    In tackling these first questions, many possibilities occurred to me.  Perhaps Academic Support was intended merely to give students a place to go to ask questions, to feel that someone in their school environment was approachable and could formulate clear solutions.  That seemed a noble goal, but it fell short of what I thought Academic Support ought to be, and short of everything that I had read Academic Support was intended to be.  Was it then a forum where struggling students could obtain the instruction they needed to keep pace with their classmates?  That, too, seemed worthy, surely a large part of the overall goal, but somehow not the entirety of what I wanted to accomplish. 

    In the end, after much thought, I came to a decision.  Academic Support, at least for me, would be a program, a set of classes and individual meetings, in which students would feel supported, would obtain necessary instruction, and would benefit from a peer supported learning environment.  My Academic Support classroom would also be a forum where students could try on new, difficult, or otherwise missed ideas without fear of embarrassment, where students could tackle legal thinking and learning from a new angle, where students would make understanding their own learning process part of addressing the larger questions that would ensure them improved classroom performance, and where students could rediscover the joy of learning that, more often than not, had carried them through their academic careers before the law school phase, but had fallen off due to the forced curve, difficulty level, or other concerns. 

If I could, I decided, my class would provide all of the practical nuts and bolts learning that ASP-ers needed.  In addition, I would try to impart a passion for thinking critically about real world legal issues, and, I hoped, some support for the idea that lawyers and legal thinkers must be, above all, lifelong learners.  In my mind, the importance of lifelong learning is what Wallace was addressing when he talked about the deep thinking and continual probing of ideas that help us to get at the “big T-truth.”  If there was any big picture idea I wanted my students to have, a relentless passion for new knowledge was it.  This passion, I thought, would propel them through the remainder of their law school careers and do much to ensure that they became happy, healthy lawyers beyond the university halls.

    My goals after answering the threshold question were then two fold: to help students with practical and immediate learning-related issues, and to ensure that the process of addressing those issues resulted in students who were able to carry those skills beyond the ASP classroom.  At first blush, these seemed reasonable goals for a new educator, freshly scrubbed and brimming with enthusiasm.  And, as I tackled these and other ideas throughout the course of my first year, I found that, these were indeed workable goals, and, I still believe, the right aspirations for my teaching experience. 

However, after addressing these threshold issues, I still needed to contend with the other, less theoretical challenges that would face me as a new Academic Support Instructor.  I broke these challenges into three categories: dealing with the academy environment as an Academic Support instructor, reaching difficult students, and managing my expectations with respect to both myself and my charges.  In other words, they broke into three clear categories, my faculty, my students, and myself.   

Dealing with the academy was the first, and most apparent challenge that I faced outside of the classroom.  At my home institution, Academic Support was still extremely new and many of our doctrinal faculty seemed unsure as to what it was I would do with all the class time I had been allotted.  I caught sidelong glances from time to time when, at a lunch or before a meeting, I would mention something about my classroom or a conference I was slated to attend.  I found that it was my duty to dispel what I call the Magic Wand Theory of ASP that many of our faculty held – the idea that, with the help of a few key texts and exercises, absolutely anyone could turn a struggling student into a strong one, and that ASP was not entitled to a legitimate, important status within the legal academy. 

Fortunately for me, I work with a fairly open minded faculty, many of whom have recently come from other institutions where ASP was a priority, all of whom love to talk, listen, and debate.  They dialogued with me as I explained teaching methods I had just learned about or described conference presentations by which I had been enlightened.  They listened when I told them success stories, about brilliant students who had struggled initially and, with the help of ASP, had demonstrated their capability beyond all doubt.  And slowly, conversation by conversation, what at first had seemed daunting, began to be pleasant.  Over lunch and through faculty colloquia, I formed relationships and dispelled misconceptions.  I found that what I had thought was a complex problem could be solved by the simplest of actions; just talking with our faculty has proven the most effective and straightforward means of clarifying the importance and efficacy of ASP.  Today there are few, if any, adherents of the Magic Wand Theory remaining and the result of all this talking is that I enjoy wonderful working relationship with many of the people who I once worried would never embrace ASP. 

The challenge that has proved far greater, and the one that, after years of preparation for the job, I had anticipated I was most prepared to face, has been dealing with difficult students.  This is true in part because the troubles of these students vary tremendously and each student is a unique, individual, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, backgrounds and behaviors.  I have been at this for less than three semesters and already I have seen issues that run the gamut. 

Ranging from extreme PTSD to deep seated family troubles, from a troublesome lack of boundaries to simple anger at not having performed as expected, these individualized problems have presented my greatest challenges.  Dealing with each has been very much an exercise in handling students’ personal and learning-related needs in a case-by-case fashion, often working hard to divorce that student’s idea of him or herself as unfixable, from the problem at hand.  It was a revelation when I discovered that a student I had thought was blowing off my class was in fact troubled by serious trouble at home.  In tackling these problems, I have found that identification is often half the battle.  And in the identification game, I have found nothing more valuable than the students’ trust.  The rapport building needed to establish this trust takes time, and I have learned to allow the students to open up to me on their own schedules, to allow them the space to confront their problems individually before we take them on together.   

Building rapport with students, convincing faculty that ASP is something to be embraced, and facilitating a classroom environment that stands in line with my specific, daily and long-term, global teaching goals has proven daunting in some ways, but exhilarating in most.  And, in addressing these goals, my third greatest challenge emerged.  This challenge has been pacing myself and allowing things to take time, instead of trying to do everything for everyone all at once.  When I began at ASU, I wanted to do so many things.  I wanted to maintain the spectacular program my predecessor had put into place.  I wanted to both emulate her and develop my own style both in and out of the classroom.  I wanted to expand our program and add an upper level ASP class.  I wanted to give a presentation to the faculty.  I wanted to meet everyone in our wonderful national ASP community.  And I wanted to solve every student problem, whether academic or personal, with precision, perfection, and compassion.  Needless to say, I learned very quickly that all of these things, together with preparing for a new slate of classes and establishing roots in a new city, were impossible to do all at once and, after months of sixteen and eighteen hour days, the law of diminishing returns found me at last, rendering me too tired to be of much use to anyone and forcing me acknowledge that I had become one of my own professional challenges. 

Today, I use a new and far more effective tactic.  I allow things to evolve more naturally.  Like building rapport with my students and my faculty, developing my program and my professional self takes time.   No matter how I try, these things cannot be rushed if they are to be effective.  Today, I am delighted to look back on the past year and recognize how far I’ve come.  I spent my first two semesters doing the essential, getting to know the material in my classes, the seminal literature in the field, the culture of my institution, and the needs and personalities of the individual students.  This semester I have inaugurated a program for upper level students and I will be attending two exciting conferences, where I will deepen my knowledge and expand my network.  Next semester, I hope to begin work on an article.  The semester after that, well, who knows?   I have learned to trust that, with continued hard work and commitment to helping my students succeed, new goals, and the means with which to meet them, will arise in their own time.  For now, I am happy to face the challenges inherent in ASP with the knowledge and foresight I have developed over the past year.  I am delighted to work everyday toward helping my students through the law school learning experience, guiding and supporting them as they seek out their own, educational, big T-truths, becoming stronger people, more effective law students and, I hope, in the end, lifelong legal learners.

September 24, 2008 in Guest Column | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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.  [email protected].

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)