Time Capsules

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By Jeremiah Ho from Washburn University School of Law

As another semester begins, now is the perfect time to plan your first day of class. While it is always helpful for a professor to give out her own course objectives to students at the very beginning of the course, here’s a technique to invite students to develop their own objectives, whether personal or professional, for the course. This exercise—using makeshift “time capsules”—will assist students and will help your students see your course as personally meaningful. This exercise works best if you do it very shortly after you have introduced your course objectives.

Here is the suggestion:

(1) Use blank sheets of loose-leaf paper for individual time capsules and pass out one sheet to each student.

(2) Invite students to take a few moments to reflect upon the introduction of the course—especially now that you have presented what the class experience might be like and have announced the logistics of the course (e.g., reading materials, assignments, examinations, policies, etc.).

(3) Ask students to write down what they would like to get out of the course that they might not have thought of when they enrolled in the class. Purposely ask “what you would like to get out of the course” (or something similar) so that this task is broad enough to allow students to design all sorts of different objectives ranging from skills-related goals (e.g., “I’m hoping to use the case readings in this course to deepen my abilities to read critically”) to professional goals (e.g., “I am taking this course on Agency because I’m interested in practicing employment law and would like to sharpen my understanding of employer-employee relationships.”). Invite students to write down as many goals as the time allows.

(4) Now ask students to take their written objectives and brainstorm how they will achieve those objectives (e.g., “I’m hoping to use the case readings in this course to deepen my abilities to read critically by always taking an assigned case and asking how a judge who might have disagreed with the opinion would analyze the facts of the case differently.”). Give examples so your students get a sense of your expectations.

(5) After students have finished writing both their objectives and plans for achieving those objectives, ask students to fold their sheet of paper in half and write their names on the folded paper. Then pass around a hand-held stapler and have students staple together the open ends of the paper in order to seal what they’ve written. They have now created their “time capsules.”

(6) Finally, collect the time capsules from students, making sure that the students have written their names on their capsules. Tell them that you will not read their objectives but that you will return their time capsules at some point in the semester.

(7) Midway through the semester, have the time capsules placed in your students’ school mailboxes. Do not make announcements about passing back the time capsules until after they have been returned to the students. Students seem to enjoying getting the time capsules back as a surprise. When they have received the time capsules and re-visited their own written objectives for themselves in this course, ask students to evaluate how they are doing in terms of reaching their objectives—whether they are meeting their goals and/or need to develop new ways of achieving them or whether they now have new objectives for themselves and need to come up with plans for accomplishing the new objectives. You could also tie the exercise back to the course and ask whether there is anything you can change in how you are teaching the class to help them further their own course objectives. At that point you may even choose to do another round of time capsules. All in all, the time capsule exercise serves as a very low-tech, understated way to do some meaningful personal goal-setting at the start of the semester and then some quick subsequent evaluation so that you, the instructor, can foster another relationship dimension between the course and the students. Hopefully it’s another technique to make classes more student-centered and meaningful.

* Variations on this exercise could involve course and/or personal student expectations instead of personal objectives. Or an instructor could ask students to list several questions about the subject matter of the course in their time capsules (e.g., “What happens to the gifts in a will if the person who is supposed to receive the gifts dies before the testator?”). Then, when the capsules are passed back, the capsule can serve as a reminder to pay attention because the course will soon be addressing their questions. Although the make-shift time capsules are quite simple, stagnant pieces of paper, the possibilities for their use are far reaching.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning