Jun 20 2008

Teaching by Showing Good Stuff

Ok, guilty as charged – it is really easy to critique others’ performances. When a student speaks in class, or writes out analysis, my default is to look for what is missing or ineffective – for ways to improve the student’s work. We do this a lot in law school. But what if we shifted this approach?

My bet is that world-class athletes don’t get better by watching novices do their sport, or by watching others mess up. Sure, they probably review and critique their own performance, and then watch as many outstanding athletes as they can. If I am a mediocre golfer, wouldn’t it be better for me to watch Tiger Woods play than to critique someone at my level?

No question that developing a critical and analytical eye is crucial to improve performance. But perhaps we need to balance this approach with emphasizing good examples and noticing what people are doing right. A clinical colleague tells me about lots of videos that can be used to teach clinical skills. But most of these movies show bad examples. Turns out, it is hard to find good examples. As my colleague pointed out, it is really scary to put yourself out there as a good example. What if people disagreed? What if colleagues and students found flaws in your performance?

This brings up a question. If we the educators have a hard time putting together a video or sample document, how hard it is for the student? Perhaps we might need to adjust our expectations a tad.

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Apr 28 2008

Improving Learning by Listening to Students

Published by under Innovation

As is reflected in numerous articles, conversations and email discussions, getting feedback on your teaching by looking at course evaluations provides limited information. There is no time for elaboration or follow-up. This year, in part because I was using a completely new teaching strategy, Team Based Learning, and wanted to know more about students’ experience with it, I accepted a colleague’s offer of spending half an hour with students to learn about their perceptions of the teaching strategy in greater depth.

Similar to the Student Group Instructional Diagnoses Gerry Hess referred to in his earlier blog, I prepared three questions for my colleague. What aspects of Team Based Learning had worked well over the semester? What could be improved? What suggestions did students have for adapting the Team Based Learning strategy to other courses? I introduced my colleague to my Remedies students at the beginning of the last class of the semester, and told them that she would collect their feedback anonymously. I left the room; she exited 30 minutes later with pages of notes.

When we talked about her findings the next day, it was fascinating to hear about students’ perceptions. A skilled interviewer, my colleague was able to listen to what was said as well as what was unsaid. She also asked a number of follow-up questions to clarify her understanding of students’ comments. Several of the findings were particularly surprising. For example, many of the students really liked the Team Based Learning model, as it reduced stress, greatly eliminated the sense of working in isolation, allowed them to learn more by hearing the classmates’ perspectives and reading their classmates’ analyses of problems, and made the time go faster because they were more engaged. But many of these students commented that this approach worked only because this was a small elective course and because most of them already knew each other. It would not work in a large required course, such as Torts, which is exactly where I am considering trying this strategy next fall.

Not only was the material from my colleague’s class interview fascinating, but it also provided helpful information that I hadn’t received from a variety of minute papers and course questionnaires I used during the semester. For example, by the end of the semester, students had heard from a guest speaker, had practiced making trial-level arguments about the validity of different kinds of remedies and how to measure them, completed a team assessment project and written a number of different documents. At the end of the course, they came up with a number of creative ideas for how we could have applied a number of different problems and different projects to the Team Based Learning.

It’s great to have this kind of in-depth feedback during and at the end of the course. I’ll take what my colleague learned and compare it to the student course evaluations. And even though they suggested otherwise, I am planning to use a Team Based Learning approach to teaching Torts and Legal Writing next year. I’m hopeful that I can persuade my colleague to again come to class and learn about how it worked the second time around.

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