Let Your Students Run the Class

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February 2015 Idea

By Sophie M. Sparrow, University of New Hampshire Law School

One of my colleagues was recently hit with a bad cold that left her without a voice. For a variety of reasons, cancelling class was not an option, but neither was speaking. Instead, she turned the class over to the students. She set the class agenda, assigned students to groups, and had the groups present and discuss that day’s material to their classmates. A week later, one of her students volunteered that the student-run class had been one of the best in a course taught by an excellent and passionate teacher. This is not surprising; research shows that the more students are actively engaged during a class, the better their learning.

We don’t have to lose our voices to turn our classes over to our students. Below are three ways that we can engage our students in actively helping us achieve the class learning goals.

1. Going Over Assigned Reading

It’s tempting for us to spend a significant portion of class distilling the reading and identifying key points, especially when we know that students typically struggle with gleaming the material’s important principles. Instead, ask students to do this.

Method: Give students a few minutes to review their notes and the materials and ask them to identify important points. To provide more guidance, ask students to look for important tests, factors, policies, theories, or factual illustrations. To help them learn from each other, invite them to work in small groups. Call on students, go around the room, or get volunteer groups of students to provide their answers, getting input from a range of students. You or another student could capture this material on the board as students provide content. After the students provide the content, you can emphasize key points, add nuances, and ask follow up questions.

2. Applying the Reading Using Hypotheticals

Instead of generating all the hypotheticals for class discussion, invite students to design them. This works best if assigned in advance, but can be done during class as well.

Method: Give students-individually or in small groups-a few minutes to construct a hypothetical. For variety, assign different hypotheticals to individual or small groups of students. One group could design a straightforward hypothetical where an important principle/rule/theory clearly applies, another could craft a problem where the concept definitely would not apply, and a third could create a hypothetical where a rule’s application is ambiguous. Other groups could design hypotheticals that incorporate material from earlier classes or construct a sequence of steps that show their classmates how to analyze problems in this area. Once students have completed their assignment, a few groups could pose them to the rest of the class to work through the analysis, followed by a class discussion. Other hypotheticals could be posted to the course website or emailed to provide practice problems.

3. Facilitating the Discussion

Sharing the role of discussion leader may be one of the hardest methods; we may feel like we are doing nothing. In fact, we are empowering students by showing them that we see them as colleagues and future leaders. Having students facilitate the discussion works best when assigned in advance, but can be initiated in class.

Method: At the beginning of the class, let students know that one or more of them are going to lead class discussion. Call on students or take volunteers, inviting them to work individually or collaboratively in guiding the class flow. For example, in a 75-minute class, you could divide the class time in half, having a student or group of students facilitate the first 35 minutes, another student or small group the next 35 minutes. While their classmates are reviewing key class principles, you can briefly chat with student facilitators about class objectives and answer any questions. During the class, sit in the back or on the side of the room, supporting the student facilitators by nodding encouragingly and reinforcing important points at the end.

However you engage students in helping run the class, explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. The first time students develop hypotheticals, explain that this helps them on exams, the bar exam, and practice. Finally, thank your students for their part in constructing and shaping their learning.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning