Managing Expectations in the Law School Classroom

On behalf of Andrew Henderson, PhD Candidate, ANU College of Law, The Australian National University

Developing a relationship with students in an online setting is a challenge. There are the problems with technology (‘You’re muted!’) and the usual interruptions (‘I’ll come and watch Paw Patrol in a minute’). But all those usual tricks we use as law teachers to ‘read the room’, especially at the start of the semester, don’t quite work.

And that can be a problem. A recent survey of undergraduate college students found that their experience with ‘emergency’ remote teaching was not a happy one. And a lot of university professors felt the same way, especially when it came to student participation.

One of the ways I have often got out ahead of student satisfaction in face-to-face classes was to have an explicit conversation about expectations. But not just the standard, finger-wagging ‘you will do the reading’ diatribe. I ask students specifically about their expectations of me.

The idea of writing’ classroom rules’ together in schools is common.  There are lots of books, articles and blog posts about classroom agreements by school teachers.  The International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Program mandates what they refer to as an ‘Essential Agreement’.  The objective is to establish a collective agreement – with all the buy-in that brings with it – on how the class will function.

I was an elementary school teacher. I often wondered why, when I moved to law school, law teachers didn’t do the same thing.  Especially when they’re subject to a much more explicit student evaluation process.   

There is some valuable research on whether student evaluations have value as a performance assessment or management tool.  But, where they are completed honestly and sensibly, evaluation comments tend to fall into common categories.  Usually, there are comments about assessment preparation, assessment tasks and feedback. There are often comments about what was taught or how it was taught. And there is usually something about individual teaching style.

But, by the time the comments appear, it’s generally too late to do anything about a lot of them.  Assessment tasks were locked in with the faculty board months or even years ahead. And lectures are ‘done and dusted’.

Getting that feedback earlier on would, of course, have been valuable. And in an online environment, grabbing some of those expectations can be even more useful given that both students and teachers are doing something new.  Some of the comments might even explain why law students were really engaged.  They might also explain why they performed poorly or didn’t participate. It might have had nothing to do with you at all! But it will also tell you about things that you might have been able to do, or stop doing if you had known earlier.

Traditionally, I would do this in class and usually in the first seminar. I would also get students to give their expectations to another student to encourage openness. And I have talked about that more traditional process on my own blog.

But how can you do this in an online environment where no one really wants to sit in a Zoom room for more than an hour? And how can it be done to preserve a degree of sincerity and openness, especially in a first meeting?

Maybe one of the simplest ways is to use a shared document or even create a Google form with some simple questions. The settings for Google forms can be adjusted so that the respondent doesn’t have to enter their email.  Responses are helpfully collected anonymously in a single Google Sheet that can be reproduced and published.

I have also found another tool that can do the same thing in a way which is more familiar to students. A web-based app called Parampara allows users to create a questionnaire that looks like a Facebook Messenger conversation in a web browser.  Although it seems like a conversation, responses can be pre-programmed with alternative answers depending on the options that the respondent picks. I have found it much more ‘friendly’ than a Google form. And it’s free for the basic account.

While the process of collecting expectations in the classroom was valuable, I have actually found that collecting them through an online tool even more useful. Students would appear to be happy to express themselves more freely and openly. They will often talk about their expectations and where they believe they need help with aspects of the content or skills development.

For example, students have asked for specific things to be covered in more detail because they aren’t sure they understand them. Some have asked for specific advice about particular skills, like essay writing. Some have even expressed their concerns about being called on but also suggested how I can help them manage that anxiety so that they can actively participate.

Overall, it has meant that I have been able to adapt my teaching and the content to respond specifically to students’ interests and needs. Put another way, students have been actively engaged in the development of the course.

Setting out expectations at the start of the semester can be a valuable process. From a selfish perspective, it can give an early ‘heads up’ things that can be addressed before student evaluation time. But, the more valuable outcome has been that my teaching overall has improved. Using these online tools has meant that expectations are captured accurately, clearly communicated and expressed in a way that has further enhanced my teaching.

(Parts of this post appeared in the author’s blog, The Mermaid’s Purse, on 12 February 2020)

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