Maximizing Active Learning

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By Sophie M. Sparrow from University of New Hampshire School of Law

Engaging students in active learning has long been one of my main teaching practices. As many of us know, educational experts have found that students learn more when they are actively engaged, such as by speaking, writing, or discussing, rather than listening to a lecture or discussion. Having just completed a three-day workshop with educational expert L. Dee Fink on course design, however, I learned that I should redesign my approach if I want maximize what students learn from their active learning assignments. This month’s idea is about how to improve active learning exercises.

Fink, author of Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, advocates “holistic active learning,” where we integrate multiple modes of learning: 1) information and ideas, 2) experience, and 3) reflective dialogue. When we integrate these modes, our students are more likely to gain deep understanding, the kind of significant learning that lasts well beyond a course.

First, Fink recommends that students use information and ideas from primary sources to solve problems. Most law students already engage in a version of this; for example, my Torts students read edited primary authorities in casebooks and then apply that reading to hypotheticals. Edited court opinions, however, do not expose students to the kind of advanced legal reading that attorneys use. Suggestion: assign fewer edited cases and more frequently require students to read and research authorities that would solve a legal problem.

Second, Fink recommends that students use those primary sources to solve authentic problems–the kinds of problems they will likely encounter as lawyers. While writing an essay analyzing a legal issue replicates the exam format, a more authentic problem would be to ask students to draft a variety of documents they would likely encounter in practice, such as client letters, emails, contracts, or pleadings. Suggestion: have students write a number of different documents that reflect their work as soon-to-be lawyers, reinforcing skills they learn in other courses, such as legal writing.

Last, to maximize students’ ability to learn from their experience of solving problems, they need to engage in what Fink calls “reflective dialogue,” where they process what they have learned through reflective essays, journals, or discussing their experiences with others. For years I’ve asked students to engage in these kinds of metacognitive reflections several times a semester; I now plan to incorporate more of these assignments during the course. If Fink is right, students will learn more. I can’t wait to see how it works out.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning