Student Engagement in Lectures

For the past 8 years or so, I have taught Family Law to second- and third-year law students in a lecture course.  For several years, I taught the course both Fall and Spring semesters while operating my clinic simultaneously. Next year, thanks to a brilliant colleague who also teaches Family Law, and my new role directing our externship program, I will not teach the Family Law lecture course.  Uncertain about when I will return to this course, I’ve experienced quite a bit of nostalgia as I prepare for each class period. Fueled by that nostalgia is a desire to engage my students as effectively as possible.

Years ago as a new  law professor, I preferred the Socratic method even in this upper level course, partly because it provided me with information about student engagement. I still use it to an extent, but this semester I have used some creative methods alongside it that have been transformational in my classroom.

QUICK WRITES: giving students a writing prompt during class, and then a few minutes of silence to reflect on that prompt in writing, is a technique I have come to love as a teacher.  This semester I assigned one during Day One of class, using a quote from the introduction of an old casebook I used years ago as the prompt.  The quote summed up the theme of my course, but I didn’t tell them that before assigning the quick write.  Quick writes help students focus on the material and synthesize it without getting caught up in their own insecurity about responding to their professor.  There is no time for that as I only give them around 5 minutes to write.  Furthermore, the written submissions being visible only to me provides a layer of security that speaking in class does not.  I have used quick writes a handful of other times this semester, and the process of giving direct written feedback on them to each student keeps me fresh as a teacher and helps me tweak my upcoming material in a targeted manner.  –N.B. this is burdensome in a large course unless you have a teaching or research assistant to help you read and respond to the quick writes.

PROBLEMS:  Twice this semester I have spent extensive time during class working a problem with the students that illustrates the material in the casebook. One problem was in their assigned reading, and we worked it in class together.  The other time I used this method, I broke them into groups and asked them to develop potential solutions, based on the legal  authority we had already studied, and to report back in writing. Each group member had to report on a separate aspect of the problem.

OTHER GROUP WORK: Building on a prompt in my casebook’s teaching manual, I recently stopped in the middle of class and divided them into two small groups, each of which was assigned one of the remaining cases we had yet to discuss during class. These were cases in the reading they had been assigned for that day.  I gave them prompts on PowerPoint slide regarding the fairness issues, the court’s analysis, and the justifications for the decision compared to the court’s alternative resolution not chosen.  They  met in groups for 10 minutes and then reported back to the entire class orally.

Engaging my students with these methods has drawn out even the most reserved student just a little bit. It has also given me the opportunity to engage deeply with each student privately through written exchanges on substantive and reflective issues. That private, written feedback enables me to guide their expectations about writing for my exam as well.  Finally, these creative teaching methods enrich and embolden our classroom environment. Students ask more daring questions and frame their responses to doctrinal questions with more sophistication than I have seen in prior classes.  If I have to take a break from teaching something I love so much, this is a way to enter that break with a sense that I have cultivated some innovative learning about the law.


4 Responses

  1. Jill, congrats on your new directorship and thank you for these really helpful live-tested examples of engaged learning in a traditionally core legal education course. I know my colleague Melissa Breger uses some similar techniques in her family law course. I look forward to connecting the two of you!

  2. Thanks for sharing these inspiring techniques. We are all looking for new ways to help students connect with the material and it’s great to hear techniques that have worked and are manageable to try!

  3. Great article, Really useful information. I will bookmark this one.

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