Collaborative Doctrinal Teaching Across Institutions: A Successful Experiment

By:  Andi Curcio and Eileen Kaufman

For most doctrinal faculty, teaching is a relatively solitary activity. While our clinical and legal writing colleagues regularly collaborate, and we encourage student collaborative learning, doctrinal faculty tend to draft our syllabus, develop our lesson plans, teach our courses and design and administer our assessments largely without input from colleagues.

We operate this way because it is part of legal academic culture, because we deem solitary class planning to be more efficient, and because we value independence in deciding what to teach, how to teach and what and how to assess.

Last Fall, two of us – experienced law professors working at different law schools and both teaching a large section Evidence course- decided to break with the cultural tradition of flying solo when it comes to doctrinal teaching.

We found that collaboration did not take more time than working on our own. Nor did collaboration impinge on our academic freedom. In fact, the collaborative process challenged us to engage deeply with both the material and our pedagogy in ways that made us stronger teachers.

Below, we raise questions to consider when deciding to collaborate, describe our collaborative model, and highlight the benefits that resulted from our collaborative work.

Questions Before Collaborating

Why collaborate? The first question you must answer is whether you want to collaborate and if so, what you want out of the experience. For example, do you want to engage in give-and-take that enhances your teaching, have a sounding board for tough doctrinal or teaching issues, experiment with new teaching materials and techniques, improve your efficiency by a “divide and conquer” approach to class planning and/or assessments?

How extensive a collaboration? Once you identify why you want to collaborate, you can better decide how much collaboration works for you. The collaboration could be as informal as simply using each other as a resource when confronting tough questions. You could take the collaboration one step further and agree to a common syllabus. Or you could dive way in and co-design all teaching materials, assessments, and grading rubrics.

Who should you collaborate with? The final, and perhaps most important, question is who to work with. Do you want to work with someone who has a similar teaching philosophy, prepares in advance or tends to wait until the last minute, has the same or a different level of teaching experience, works at the same institution or a different one? Whatever the answer to those questions, the key to a successful collaboration is finding someone you respect and can communicate with comfortably, freely and honestly.

Our Collaborative Method

We briefly discuss our collaborative method, answering the questions above, to illustrate one way to engage in doctrinal teaching collaboration.

Choosing A Collaborator and Collaboration Method:  We had known each other for years and had worked together on other projects. One of us had taught Evidence for 15 years, the other, although an experienced teacher, was relatively new to the subject. We deeply respected each other as teachers and knew we would learn a lot from each other.

We chose the full-blown model of collaboration that included using the same course materials, employing clickers in the classroom, and co-designing all teaching materials, assessments and grading rubrics.  Our collaborative goals included enhancing student learning of complex and difficult material, improving our teaching, and developing fair and reliable assessments.

Implementing the Collaborative Model: With our collaborative goals in mind, we selected a book that neither of us had previously used, that we thought would work best for both sets of students. We then made decisions about course content and coverage and the number and type of assessments. Once those decisions were made, one of us drafted the syllabus and the other edited it.

Although we each prepared our own classes, we shared power points and hypotheticals so that our classes fairly closely mirrored each other. If one of us taught a class first, and ran into an area or problem that confused students, we alerted the other to the problem and discussed ways to remedy the confusion.

We utilized a number of assessments – TWEN quizzes, practice essays followed by detailed grading rubrics, a self-assessment, a midterm and a final exam. For all of the assessments, one of us took the lead and the other edited the exam. We reversed roles for the grading rubric – if one of us drafted the exam, the other drafted the rubric. This distributed the workload and helped enormously in spotting ambiguities or problems that might undermine the question’s validity.

While we spoke somewhat regularly, most of our collaborative work was done via email so we could do it at our respective convenience.

The Benefits

The collaborative process allowed us to benefit from each other’s knowledge, skills and ideas. We had a sounding board to discuss how best to teach a complex doctrinal issue. We had another set of eyes to help ensure exam questions were clearly written, and that the questions, as well as the overall exam, tested what we sought to assess. When grading, we were able to compare how we were making the “close calls.”

Teaching Benefits:  As the semester progressed, we shared thoughts and ideas about how to shift our teaching when students struggled with either concepts or analyses. For example, we realized early on that the use of clickers in the classroom was helping students on multiple choice questions but was not addressing analytical skills. Since we were using the same classroom materials and assessments, we were able to track and compare performance and make important adjustments as the semester progressed.

We discussed problems we both observed with our respective students’ legal analysis. We brainstormed solutions and decided we should: take a minute of class time for students to write out a rule before launching into hypotheticals or discussions of the rule; require students to provide more analysis in their explanations of clicker questions; and use clicker slides to drill black letter law and application of law to new facts.  We added more practice essays and incorporated teaching methodologies that focused on building students’ analytical and essay writing skills.

These changes to our teaching methodologies may not have occurred had we both been teaching our own courses.

Assessment Benefits:  Working together on assessments was tremendously helpful. The drafting stage took somewhat longer because another set of eyes resulted in changes to the initial draft, but the collaboration unquestionably improved our efficiency when it came to grading.  Because we engaged in fairly extensive give and take in the exam drafting process, we avoided some of the drafting mistakes that sometimes lead to grading issues. Additionally, comparing how we were applying the rubric reassured us that our judgment calls made pedagogical sense and allowed us to more efficiently grade because we did not angst over the judgment calls.

Our Take Away

For the reasons outlined above, we believe that the collaboration improved our teaching, and hopefully improved our students’ learning. It also simply was fun to work together.

While collaboration amongst doctrinal faculty members may not be the norm, and may not be for everyone, we found it incredibly rewarding and we encourage others to experiment with it.

As a true testament to its value, we are doing it again next Fall.

2 Responses

  1. I think that collaboration can certainly facilitate better teaching, if carried out properly, as you indicated.

  2. While Andi and Eileen talk about collaboration with other doctrinal faculty, and credit clinical faculty with regular collaboration, the type of fully integrated collaboration they describe seems far more programmatic and engaged than that I’ve witnessed in clinical teaching. Surely, those who teach clinical courses often collaborate by sharing syllabi and other teaching materials, suggesting books, film clips, and other enhancements to our programs, but I’m not aware of (would love to know) two (or more) clinics that actively and simultaneously collaborate the way Andi and Eileen have done. Theirs is a practice I’d like to try. Especially for those of us who are geographically removed from other law schools, whether teaching clinical courses or not, using the same syllabus, texts, TWEN sites, and class exercises as another would be both lots of fun and a wonderful way to share insights about the course and improve it along the way.

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