Should I Teach To The A Or The C Student…

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Should I Teach To The A Or The C Student And Can Active Learning Render This Question Moot

By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

Your law class has 60 students.  Within 2 weeks of class you realize that some are weaker than others as you get a sense of the responses to class questions and the responses of small formative assessments.

20 minutes into one class some students understand the black letter concepts quickly and are ready to move on to more nuanced and sophisticated examinations of the doctrine.  Others have trouble grasping simpler even elemental concepts.  What is the appropriate teaching decision at this point?  Should you revisit the doctrine to try to get every student on board or should you teach to keep adding complexity and information to avoid boring some students with repetition of concepts these students already understand?

This continues to be a challenge to many professors and I guess in a very unscientific manner my solution was to consider myself having done it right if on my student evaluations “a few” students said that I went too quickly.  That way I felt only a few complained and the pace was therefore not too slow for the majority/middle.

More recently I have taken to doing the traditional teaching at a pace that suits the students who are getting the material the fastest.  This takes about 1/2 the classroom time that I would need if I was doing the same presentation for the majority/middle.  At this point some students look at me and are woozy from information overload.

At this point in the lecture I divide the class into groups of 3-5 students. These groups are different each time and are randomly created and consist of students all along the spectrum of doctrinal understanding.

I then handout a series of short problems based on the material we just covered way too quickly for most students to feel comfortable.  The first problem is very basic but each becomes slightly more complicated.  Each group assembles in a particular region of the classroom and each group is required to do each problem.

For example after teaching the basics of assault and battery in torts I distribute the following problem set to the groups.

Problem Set

I ask each group to type up the perfect answer to each problem.  After each problem in italics are the substantive concepts I hope the particular problem invokes.

After about 15 minutes of group work we begin to discuss the hypotheticals.  As a group the students respond to the questions and one student from each group reads the typed up group answer.  When they are done I ask if any groups disagree and why with the explaining group’s conclusions and reasoning.  I do this for each question and I simply moderate the discussion without leading it.

The following pedagogical concepts are engaged in the process:

  1. Collaborative work as they are chatting and collaborating about the doctrine to come up with the answers
  2. Experiential work as they are problem solving
  3. Students take the role of teacher. People who understand concepts and come to the answer quickly are questioned by those who did not within the group.  This explanation or verbalization of concepts to explain to others requires an understanding of the material.  And as all of you reading this know if you want to learn a subject then try teaching it.  Remember the first time you taught any class how much learning occurred.  LoL
  4. Active learning, students are engaged in learning activities that they do at their own pace and they develop their own contexts for understanding the doctrine not those of the perceived “uncool, geriatric lecturer” in the room.
  5. The groups are less formally hierarchical and lower pressure than the typical law school classroom

Basically this active portion of the class renders the “to whom do I teach,” question irrelevant because the students who got it are learning it even more thoroughly by having to explain it and the students who did not get it when I taught it have the opportunity of another method of delivery of the concepts.

The hardest part about this for us ego driven professors is realizing that after my initial teaching of the concept those students who don’t understand it from me may never understand it from me so why get in the way of their learning and waste class time by stagnating the learning and braying about the doctrine repeatedly.

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