Start Small and Assess Always

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By Michael Hunter Schwartz from Washburn University School of Law

Maybe you attended a presentation on teaching that inspired you to want to change how you teach, or maybe you read a law review article or an article in The Law Teacher that caused you to re-think one or more aspects of your teaching. Maybe, you went hog wild and read the 2007 Carnegie Report and/or the 2007 Best Practices Study. You feel inspired, and you have made the choice to change how you teach and to use some portion of your summer to do so. Now what?

Start small. Many great ambitions have been killed by aiming too high. No law professor could change everything about his or her teaching even if he or she devoted an entire summer to the task, and trying too much increases the likelihood that you will just give up.

Instead, find one thing you can change that your research suggests can make a difference in students lives. For example, you might simply commit to writing one, two or three learning goals on your classroom whiteboard before every class session starts next semester. (If you do so, force yourself to include at least one skill every class session and at least one value every other week.) You will be stunned how this one change will influence your ability to focus on what really matters and on your students’ ability to stay on task.

Or you might decide to find three ways to outwardly manifest your interest in and caring for your students, such as memorizing their names before the first day of class, eating lunch in the student lunch area once or twice per week, and remembering to wish your students good luck before a big paper is due or before an exam. You will be shocked how much students value things you may find to be relatively easy or minor changes.

Assess always. Make sure you build some form of assessment into your plans so you can know whether what you have done worked for the students. Assessment allows you to make the decision whether the effort is worth the time and to make decisions about making similar changes to other courses.

For both the learning goals idea and manifested caring idea, a short student survey (1-3 questions) would give you some useful information. For example, half way through the fall semester, you could ask your students to complete a one-question survey monkey or twen survey:

This semester, I have tried a new idea in an effort to help you learn – writing the goals for each class session on the board before the start of class. Please rate the usefulness or lack thereof of those goals to your learning according to the following scale:

  1. Knowing the learning goals for each class session was very useful to my learning
    b. Knowing the goals was useful to my learning
    c. Knowing the learning goals for each class session was neutral to me – it neither was useful nor got in the way of my learning
    d. Knowing the learning goals for each class session got in the way of my learning
    e. Knowing the learning goals for each class session very much got in the way of my learning

You could even ask a follow-up, open-ended question without overburdening your students: Please explain why you feel that knowing the goals had any effect, positive or negative, on your learning or why you feel that knowing the goals had no effect.

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