Listen and Answer

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By Michael Hunter Schwartz from Washburn University School of Law

Sometimes, the simplest things can make a huge difference in your students experience of your classes. Two such things are listening to your students and answering their questions.

Listening. It is a sign of respect and engagement when teachers make a genuine effort to listen to their students. Students learn more and feel better about the experience if they feel their teacher takes them seriously and listens to them. Try this experiment: For one day, imagine that it is your job to find and positively reinforce the insight in every student’s comment in class. I recently tried this experiment myself and found that, even comments that seem to be off topic or to reflect confusion are grounded in insight. The student who asserts an incorrect proposition often is struggling to reconcile her/his experience of the world with this new concept. The student who makes a poor argument may simply be unable to find the words to make her/his argument better. The student who wants to talk about why s/he hates a doctrine may have already moved to policy analysis.

Answering questions. Many law professors always answer questions with questions, treating the experience as one endless Socratic loop. Others act annoyed, as if the flow of the learning process or of their research plans, has been irrevocably damaged. The untested myth seems to be that, in law practice, no one will be around to answer their questions. (Of course, those of us who have practiced know that it is much better to ask questions than to make mistakes.) For students, of course, getting their questions answered is why they asked the questions. Moreover, after a few times of having their questions be answered with questions, students learn to just stop asking. In other words, by never answering questions, we actually are training our students to risk malpractice rather than appear to others as if they do not understand. In contrast, the law teachers most valued by the students always treat the questions with respect and always answer their students’ questions (although, on occasion, the answers are deferred to after class). Such teachers understand that questions allow teachers to unearth misunderstandings, add nuance, and, in some cases, reflect an insight the professor had never considered.

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