Tuesday, June 18, 2019
My colleagues started this series off well with Part I and Part II in the series, and I will try to build on their thoughts. There are so many decisions to make when you get started, including what book to use, what style you will use in the classroom, and what form or forms of assessment you will use. To start, I will echo Joan Heminway's advice because I think it is so critical: First, be yourself.
It's easy to to think of teachers you liked and think you need to teach like them to be effective. While we can all learn a lot from our best teachers, if you look closely, I think you'll find that the thing best ones have in common (in addition to being prepared) is that they are true to themselves. That is not to say that every person is the same in classroom as they are outside. Some people need to be actors -- they take on a persona when they hit the classroom. Others wear their hearts on their sleeves. Others are clinical, and still others are relaxed and casual.
You may not know immediately your full style or classroom voice, but in my experience you know pretty quickly what isn't your thing. My advice is to make sure you don't stick with something you know doesn't feel even a little bit right for you. You can experiment and push yourself to try new things, and you should. Just don't continue down a path that makes you feel like you're going the wrong way. Your students will feel it, too. Every time.
As for assessment, you'll need to decide: Will you use one big final exam? Will you have a participation grade? How about writing assignments or exercises? Will your exam be open book or closed book? There are lots of options, and none are inherently right or wrong, though some may be better than others, especially for you and/or your school. Here are some guidelines I use in deciding what to do:
(1) If there is a manageable way to incorporate more writing in to the class, do it. That might mean graded assignments, but it might mean in-class writing where students exchange their thoughts and compare it against a model or example answer. It might mean multiple small papers or a series of blog posts. The more students write, the better they will get at is. And it doesn't have to mean you will be grading 5 papers from 50 students in a semester. As long as their is some accountability -- that is, someone other than the student will read it -- I have found it valuable. Asking students to write for and assess themselves has value, too, but in my experience the participation rate for those assignments tends to be lower and with less commitment for many students.
(2) If you're not sure what to choose, or you're agnostic, find out what your colleagues tend to do, and do something different. For example, many of my colleagues have used open-book exams, so I chose to give a closed-book exam for Business Organizations. This gives students a different experience, which I think is valuable. If all my colleagues gave closed-book exams, I'd probably give an open-book one. I have done both types, by the way, and both are fine, though I prefer the output I get from closed-book exams. Students tend to write what they know instead of searching for the "perfect" answer in the book. If no one gives take-home exams, maybe consider that (though I hated those as a student and I don't like them as a teacher, your mileage may vary). Different assessment styles provide one way to give students an experience they need as professionals to work with different partners or judges or clients. Not every experience is the same, and the best lawyers are adaptable.
(3) Whatever you choose for any of these things, be intentional. Do it for a reason that is more than that's what my professor did or that's what people do here. You may choose a path for both reasons, but make sure you have considered other options and then made a conscious decision to follow that path. Be honest and open with yourself about why you chose that path. It will give you some comfort in your decision, as well as make it easier to see why you might want to change course in the future if your goals are not being met.
(4) Be open with your students about what you are doing. For me, that means explaining my thought process and why my rules are as they are. My students know why, for example, I am giving a closed-book exam, do or do not use participation points, will or will not be flexible on deadlines, or why they may not want to tell me the reason they are missing class. Note that this works even for professors who are notoriously Socratic and won't answer much of anything directly. For the good ones, it is at least clear what they will not do. That said, for me, it's important to be as clear as possible about the what and the why. Here is an example: in my energy law seminar, I tend to be flexible with deadlines (within reason) on due dates for drafts and papers, especially with advance notice. This is because the dates are somewhat arbitrary and designed as guidelines so I can provide feedback and students have time to internalize and incorporate my feedback. So, my students know that. But when I taught first-year legal writing, deadlines were absolute (or nearly so) with penalties up to including a failing grade for being one minute late. Why? One of my teaching goals there was to teach about severe and irrevocable deadlines that can be linked to court filings, statutes of limitation, and the like.
Anyway, that's a little about how I approach things. Good luck, and don't forget to give yourself a break. As hard as we try, not everything will go perfectly. And sometimes what seemed like the right path was wrong. Or it just went poorly. Try to figure out why, whether it was the idea, the execution, or an external factor, so you can decide whether to scrap it or just try again. Even the best teachers are not perfect. But they are careful, committed, and intentional. Start there, and good things will tend to follow.