Monday, November 9, 2020
Some observations about law student performance in a legal skills course taught via Zoom
I thought I’d jot down some observations about how students seem to be doing in my legal research and writing course this semester which I’m teaching for the first time via Zoom. Since Zoom is likely to be with us for a while as a law school teaching platform even after the pandemic ends, I thought it would be interesting to compare experiences when it comes to student work since that's one way to assess how effective we’re being as teachers using Zoom.
But first, to briefly follow-up on my post from last week where I expressed disappointment with my students for their failure to apply the lessons learned from one assignment to the next, a few of them reached out to me after getting their papers back to apologize for their poor performance and acknowledge that they didn’t work hard enough. It definitely brightened my mood as it lets me know we can collaborate productively together to improve the quality of the work going forward and that these students will do just fine. In fact, I feel that I can pretty accurately predict how students are going to do based on their openness to constructive feedback and willingness to acknowledge they may need to work harder. So, perhaps my little experiment to get students to better transfer one lesson to the next worked better than I first thought.
Regarding my observations about student performance this semester on the big, key writing assignments I’ve taught via Zoom, I started the semester like a lot of us not liking Zoom at all and believing it was a poor substitute for in-person, classroom teaching (here and here). Though I still believe teaching in a physical classroom is (much) better, I’ve warmed up to Zoom quite a bit (though I still find it exhausting). I think I’ve gotten better at teaching via Zoom and have developed a good repertoire involving the use of slides, screen shares and putting myself on camera with a traditional whiteboard and dry-erase pens. With a dual monitor set-up at work, I’m able to work with slides during class on one of them while also keeping all my students’ faces on the other monitor so I can call on them or try to engage them in other ways. I didn’t expect to think that Zoom may in fact be a more direct and immediate way to connect with students when their attention seems to drift or as a means to "check-in" to ensure they’re following along. Until last week, my impression was that class was going a tad better than expected and I was even liking Zoom a bit.
But that was before I finished grading the first major, substantive writing assignment of the semester which yielded a disappointing yet clear pattern with respect to the quality of those papers. At the top end, I had more good papers than usual and the best of them were as strong, if not stronger, than they’ve been in the past. But on the bottom end, I also had more weak papers than usual and those students seemed more lost than in the past. Under normal circumstances, I tend to have a more even distribution of grades with a small number at the top, the bulk spread across the middle and a few outliers at the bottom. But this time the distribution of student grades was strikingly bimodal with less than a handful in the middle.
I attribute this to the fact that I’ve worked hard to simplify several aspects of my course this year (e.g., for the written memorandum assignments I only require students to brief two cases in their “rule” section rather than the usual three or more) to accommodate the limitations of teaching via Zoom. I’ve also given students more guidance than usual including finding ways to simplify and better elucidate nearly everything I do in the classroom. I think the better, stronger students took advantage of those opportunities and as a result did really good work. I also think that despite my subjective impression that class was going better than expected and Zoom was helping me hold students more accountable in class, that wasn’t the case. For the weaker or less motivated students, I think Zoom makes it easier for them to check-out compared to a traditional classroom setting. If that’s true, it would be consistent with some metastudies of online undergraduate programs that found self-motivated students perform the best in online classes while weaker or less-motivated students do worse in comparison to traditional, in-person classes. So I’m curious about the experience of others this year when it comes to the quality of student work in your Zoom classes compared to traditional, in-person ones.