Two Simple Ideas for the Start of Classes in August

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By Michael Hunter Schwartz form Washburn University School of Law

As we slide into that inevitable summer moment when we realize that we are not even close to accomplishing all we had dreamed of accomplishing over the summer, it is worthwhile considering a couple of easy-to-implement ideas that can make a significant difference in your student’s learning and well-being.

The research is overwhelming that students learn more and feel better about it when they feel their teachers care about them as individuals. Consequently, as I suggested in theSeptember 2009 “Idea of the Month”, it is a great idea to take the time to know the names of all your students. Likewise, as Gerry Hess proposed in the August 2010 “Idea of the Month”, it is especially wonderful to greet students by name as they walk in the room on the first day of class.

The two suggestions in this month’s “Idea of the Month” take these ideas one step further. First, ask each student to complete an index card on the first day of class on which they report their names, why they are in law school, one concern about your class or something they are excited about in connection with your class, and one other, interesting fact they want you to know about them. You can use these cards in two ways. Most simply, you can shuffle the cards each day and call on students based on whose names rose to the top of the pile that day; this approach is an easy way to send the message that being prepared every day matters.

More importantly, you can use the cards to connect with students on a deeper level. Send them each an e-mail commenting on what they wrote on their cards. If the student is in law school to work for the ACLU and you worked with the ACLU, share your connection and your experience. If the student wants you to know he is nervous about your class because he was a music major in college, suggest some connections between mastering a musical instrument and mastering lawyering skills. And if a student is a huge fan of the local baseball team and you also are, communicate your shared fanaticism. These connections create a relationship between you and your students, humanize you, and demonstrate your interest in your students as individuals.

Second, if a student is absent from class one day, send him/her an e-mail inquiring after her/his health and tell the student what s/he missed. Your students will get the message that you care about their well-being and success in your class. You are sending the message that the student’s absence was significant to you; you noticed.

Try out these relatively small interventions; you will be surprised by your new level of connection with your students. And they will be more eager to learn and, according to the research, will better learn what you have to teach.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning