Finding Balance

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By Michael Hunter Schwartz from Washburn University School of Law

The Institute for Law Teaching (ILTL) had long advocated the importance of law teachers making dramatic changes to their teaching and assessment practices. However, as I have personally learned recently, it also is important to find ways to balance our inclinations to serve and be role models to our students, be impactful scholars, care for and enjoy our families, take care of ourselves, and otherwise contribute to our communities. Moreover, it is better to make small teaching changes and assess their impact then to change many things and not know what worked and what failed. Thus, this short essay focuses on three, low labor things we can do to improve our students’ learning experience.

  1. Peer Practice and Feedback.While students learn a lot from feedback from us, they may learn even more from giving and getting feedback from a peer. The work for you is all up front. Create a good assessment instrument, develop a detailed guiding rubric students can use in giving each other feedback (I prefer to include both specific questions about their peers’ efforts and global questions about their experience of their peers’ papers), and plan time (in or out of class) for students to do and to peer assess the task.
  2. Ask for Student Feedback.At the end of one class session, ask students to write (anonymously) for two minutes about what is working in the class and what is not. Encourage students to write about the teaching methods, their peers’ contributions, the assignments you have given, etc. Reading even 70 responses takes about a half hour. If you close the loop and report and explain how you will address the results, your students will get the message that you care about their learning and their opinions, and they will learn better (according to the recent studies).
  3. Each Class Session, Have a Different Student Do a Two-Minute Review of the Key Points from Your Previous Class Session.Students in all fields learn by making mental connections between what they have learned and what they are learning. Moreover, every law student focus group I have conducted has agreed that they appreciate teachers who structure some form of linking between new material and prior material. Finally, lawyers’ work includes lots of teaching– teaching clients, colleagues, subordinates, juries, and even judges. Assigning the task takes a moment. I let the reviewing student know s/he will be doing the next review at the beginning of the class session s/he will be reviewing, and I offer to review her/his teaching notes or PowerPoint slides.

These ideas just happen to be three of my favorites. No matter what you do, however, make sure you adopt new practices that are not so burdensome that you cannot stick with them. In the long run, the more you try an innovation and make it your own, the more successful it will be.

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