Let the Students Make Mistakes

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By Sandra Simpson from Gonzaga University School of Law

Whereas this idea might seem obvious to some or too scary to others, I finally feel comfortable letting the students as a class go down the wrong road completely because I can use that mistake to help them learn. Professors often feel that they need to guide students toward the right answer. But what happens when we allow them to guide themselves to the wrong answer? I strongly believed that learning would be more meaningful and deeper.

To prove this theory, I provided my first year legal research and writing students with three edited cases for their first closed research writing assignment. The students read the cases, and we began learning how to spot issues and synthesize the cases. In class, we put a synthesis chart on the board and started to fill in the details for each issue. I knew the students would be fooled into thinking there were four issues and not three because one case mentions an extra issue in passing. When teaching this in the past, I did not even put that “false” issue on the chart but merely explained why the students were mistaken. I always felt that they did not “buy” my opinion, but simply accepted it because I am the professor and they have only been in law school a week.

This time, however, I added the “false” issue to the chart. The students tried to fill in the details regarding the rule, facts, reasoning, etc., regarding that “false” issue. They really struggled. That struggle allowed me to have an in-depth and engaged discussion with the class. We discussed what a “true” issue is, how the reasoning shapes that decision, etc. In the end, the students did not have to simply “accept” what I said, but they really understood why the false issue did not belong on the chart.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning