New Semester’s Resolution

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December 2014 Idea

By Emily Grant from Washburn University School of Law

’tis the season of reflection on the past year and the current state of nearly all aspects of our lives – the expanding waistline, those neglected foreign language CDs, the still untidy basement storage room. Most glaringly for educators, the semester break presents an opportunity to regroup, step back, assess our performance over the past four months, and to lay the groundwork for a more effective classroom experience the next time around.

Dig out the syllabus from this past semester and maybe your class notes, and evaluate the big picture structure of the course. Did you cover the material you had hoped? Were there topics that seemed to just drag on for days and days? Did you incorporate active learning exercises as regularly as you intended? If you can identify some needed changes, perhaps now is the time when you might have some space to think about how many days you spend on each topic or which chapters you might wish to rearrange or whether someone on your substantive topic listserv might have a teaching exercise for a particularly dry or difficult subject.

I, however, tend to close the book on a semester and promptly forget anything that happened before yesterday. But I also hate that nagging feeling I get when I’m teaching…. “Oh right! This didn’t go well last time I tried it. I should remember to do something different next time.” And so I’m learning that self-assessment and modification shouldn’t be left solely for the end of the semester.

So here’s my suggestion for you over this break. It’s not time consuming at all, but it will lay the ground work for regular and continuous assessment over the course of the next semester. As you’re putting together your syllabus, save a copy on your desk top called Postscripts. (Yes, yes… you can call it whatever you want, but it’s my column so I get to pick.) That’s it. That’s your assignment for over break. That’s all you need to do. Save an extra copy of your syllabus on your desktop.

AND THEN. Next semester, right after each class, open that document, scroll down to that day’s topic and reading assignment, and make yourself notes about how the class went down. Were the students confused about a particular case? Did they have lots of questions about a topic you weren’t expecting? Did a classroom exercise go over well? Flop completely? Too much time on a topic? Not enough?

Now you’ve created a reference sheet for the next time you’re planning out your class syllabus and notes. You can avoid previous mistakes, repeat the successes, and continue the iterative self-assessment process for the next time and the next time after that….

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning