Pass the Pen

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January 2015 Idea

By Andrea J. Boyack from Washburn University School of Law

In order to address the dual challenges of providing active learning opportunities and eliciting student participation in class, I periodically employ a simple classroom activity that I call “Pass the Pen.” The method is fun, compels rapt student attention, and gives individual students an unforgettable classroom learning moment.

A Pass the Pen session starts by the professor stepping away from the lectern and handing a student a dry erase marker, thus inviting her to temporarily take on the role of guest speaker. The student with the pen is asked to come to the front of the classroom and explain to the class a given case, rule of law, policy implication, or other concept. The student steps into the role of professor for this limited purpose, and when she is done, at the prompt of the professor (who poses another question or challenge for the class to explore), the student chooses a classmate to come to the front and lead the discussion of the next topic – designating her choice by passing this student the dry erase marker (the “pen”).

Pass the Pen puts students at the front of the classroom, in the position of teacher, and allows the professor to shrug off the “sage on the stage” role. Actually explaining a case or a concept to the class while at the front of the classroom, pen in hand, elevates a student’s learning to its most active phase. In this context, students go beyond merely hearing and remembering information or concepts and go beyond merely applying concepts to hypotheticals or answering questions based on their case brief. They must actually figure out not only how to answer questions, but how to anticipate issues and clarify ambiguities. Students have the opportunity to distill their legal knowledge by creating outline-type subheadings or bullet points to write up on the board. Students also use the board to diagram party relationships and key facts from a case. And, yes, all this is done on the fly.

That is not to say that student “guest lecturers” proceed without guidance. The professor must remain actively engaged, but more in the role of an encouraging coach rather than a player. The professor can ensure that the explanations are accurate and effective by providing hints and suggestions. And the professor can cheer on student successes or soften the frustrations of student mistakes.

This sort of active learning by teaching others is extremely effective. It allows students to get in the game and actually try their hand at articulating legal concepts. Putting students, pen in hand, at the front of a classroom to discuss a legal opinion or distinguish between various applications of a legal rule is akin to allowing baseball players time for batting practice. Student effort increases with responsibility. Plus, the pressure of being in the professor role, leads to greater student preparation, poise, and engagement – both for the student at the front of the class and for the rest of the class who anxiously observes that student (and awaits their possible turn at bat).

The Pass the Pen method has a bonus benefit of allowing students to “cold call” each other – removing from the professor the burden of having to select among the students someone to put on the spot. In a Pass the Pen session during a class, the professor need only call on one student (in the first pass of the pen), and the students themselves will do subsequent selections. Professors thus can avoid the sighs or grimaces that come with cold calling as well as the predictability of proceeding to ask questions down a row or in alphabetical order. Allowing students to choose someone to whom to pass the pen also makes the entire process seem somehow less top-down intimidating. Instead, Pass the Pen takes on a more game-like quality, complete with cheers and laughter. Everyone – including the student at the whiteboard and all those eagerly watching him – is in the same boat. (I do endeavor to pick less-active student participants to start a Pass the Pen session in order to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to actively engage and teach the material in this manner).

Pass the Pen provides a new sort of opportunity for active learning in class. It gives students the chance to think on their feet and speak in public. And it creates a fair – yet unpredictable – method for eliciting classroom participation. Some students may be nervous for their turn, but with batting practice in class today, tomorrow’s lawyers will be more ready to get out there and start hitting homeruns.

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