Starting in the Middle of Things

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By Jeremiah Ho from Washburn University School of Law

February has graced us and we’ve broken the seal on the new semester. Although the time has passed for planning just what that very first introductory day of the semester, I think now is a fairly good point in the semester to assess how that day went and to change things for the next time if needed. Some might think that when it comes to the first introductory day of the semester, it’s a toss-off day filled with busy “housekeeping” work for the class. But the first introductory day of a course is a particularly important day for instruction because this is that first “Hello, there” between instructor and students. This day grounds the rest of the class days of the course. This day sets the tone of the course. It is really the make-or-break day.

Interestingly, I have found that I prefer starting the course in medias res (i.e., in the middle of things)–or at least seemingly so with my students. I want to capture the students’ attention in the course and set up the subject matter in a way that allows them immediate engagement, allows them to get into the course as soon as possible. I’m not concerned with introducing myself. Instead, I borrow a technique from storytelling and set up a factual situation involving the entire body of law that we’re about to embark upon for the remainder of the semester-a pretty encompassing hypothetical or a problem that walks my students through the major tenets of whatever law I’m teaching them.

For instance, I’ve given a mock exam on the first day of my Products Liability course. Without even introducing myself, I walked into the lecture hall that first day and started passing out a 1-page product defect hypo that involved all the major doctrinal issues of the course. I cajoled the students to complete the exam by claiming that the exam was possibly worth up to 5% of their grade and that they had nearly the entire hour to complete the exam. And although they had no law to accurately answer the question, I had instructed only to use the law that they had remembered between first-year Torts and Contracts. After time’s up, I went over the fact pattern and walked students through a discussion of all the major tenets of Products Liability that was demonstrated by the issues embedded in the fact pattern. For those students bearing the deer-in-the-headlights look about an early exam affecting their grade, I revealed that the exam was worth only participation points.

There are several pedagogical reasons for this choice:

(1) students immediately saw the kinds of facts that trigger product defect litigation, which was at the crux of the course;

(2) with only limited knowledge on the law (from their recollections), students had to negotiate between Torts and Contracts to resolve the fact pattern, which is mimetic of the fundamental struggle courts face between the two bodies of law in Products Liability;

(3) students walk away with a comprehensive fact pattern involving most of the major issues of the course, a fact pattern they can revisit throughout the semester to double-check and see how much they had progressed in terms understanding the course;

(4) students can begin forming a roadmap of the doctrinal topics of the course;

(5) by collecting the students’ answers, I have a file of diagnostic exams that allows me to quickly address exam writing issues with certain students; and

(6) last but not always least, giving an exam on the first allows me, the instructor, to set the tone or authority in the course.

I’ve done this with several variations. For my Remedies class, this semester, I gave a problem on Powerpoint visuals that told a story about a construction remodeling job that went bad and set up hypotheticals that demonstrated to students that roadmap of the class (Damages, Equity, and Restitution). When I was teaching strictly academic support courses, I gave out a Torts hypo and started the course by dividing the class into two sides of a litigation and paired students up to do oral arguments. From their arguments, however novice, I was able to point out what resembled legal reasoning, what kinds of facts were important, what kinds of rhetoric was available in persuasive reasoning, and anything else skills-wise that would be helpful.

And then of course we talk about the syllabus, the course policies, and all that other good stuff.

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