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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Apr 25 2008

Exam Review Jeopardy

Today, I am offering a page from my teaching diary (for what it’s worth).

I conducted a review session today in anticipation of my final examination. I decided to conduct the review in the form of a jeopardy game. I divided the students into four groups. I gave the students the past exam question I wanted to use as the basis for the game one week ago, and I asked them all to write out their analyses of the hypo.

I then created PowerPoint slides in which I hyperlinked the points (I used points instead of dollar amounts) to slides with the answers for which the students had to provide questions. It did produce some very awkward and very long questions, “What is, on the one hand, . . ., but, on the other hand, . . .” The winning team was promised cookies.

Here’s what worked: The students were very engaged and very excited to participate, and they considered the material from a new perspective. The class went over by two or three minutes, and no one seemed to mind. The hypo was a very good one for teaching students many of the things I wanted them to learn from a practice exam review, and, as we went we discussed those meta-lessons.

Here’s what I will need to fix for next time: First, I made a few errors in my hyperlinks. Second, because everyone was providing the questions and was doing so orally and because I did not have slides that showed the answers, my students who learn by reading may not have followed the discussion as well as I would have liked, and, in fact, one student suggested that change to this exercise. Third, one team ended up far ahead of the others so that the final jeopardy was anti-climatic (that team bet zero because they were guaranteed to win with the number of points they already had).

~Mike

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Mar 24 2008

New Casebook Series

Published by under Innovation

This week, I will have two postings on teaching-related projects I hope you blog readers will find interesting. Later this week, I will announce a very interesting research project I am starting this month—for which I need your help.

Today, however, I will focus on a new series of law school casebooks to be published by Carolina Academic Press. The casebooks are being designed to implement the contextual and effective learning emphases of CLEA’s BEST PRACTICES IN LEGAL EDUCATION (2007) and of the Carnegie Foundation’s EDUCATING LAWYERS (2007). For example, BEST PRACTICES recommends that law professors set high expectations, “engage the students in active learning,” “give regular and prompt feedback,” “help students improve their self-directed learning skills,” “choose teaching methods that most effectively and efficiently achieve desired outcomes,” “employ multiple methods of instruction,” and, in particular, “use context-based instruction.”

Accordingly, books in this series will:

•    Emphasize active learning;
•    Make it easier for professors to create multiple opportunities for practice and feedback;
•    Use multiple methods of instruction;
•    Focus on the application of concepts in simulated law practice contexts with a particular emphasis on problem-solving;
•    Guide students’ development of self-directed learning strategies; and
•    Be explicit about the structure of the body of law, the text and public policy.

More concretely, here are some common features of the books:

Problem-Solving Focus : Each subject area will be introduced with a practical, law practice problem (presented as a memo from a partner, an e-mail query from a client, an excerpted transcript of a deposition or trial, a complaint that needs to be answered, etc.). The research shows that, when students read cases with such problems in mind, they are more likely to engage with the materials; they read the cases looking to learn things they feel they need to know. This approach is consistent with constructivist learning theory and research, which argues that students learn better in more authentic settings. It also provides context, which all students need so they understand why the things they are learning are valuable to learn.

In addition, at least one chapter in the books will be a “problem-solving” chapter that will focus on helping students weave together what they have learned to analyze more complicated problems a lawyer in each field might encounter.

Summary of Area of Law and Connections to Students’ Prior Knowledge : To provide the background knowledge the research shows expert legal readers need to develop before they read cases and because practicing lawyers develop background knowledge before delving into cases, the texts will provide an overview of the doctrinal area reflected in the cases before presenting the cases.

Inclusion of Learning Objectives and Lesson Overviews and Guidance as to the Big Picture of the Body of Law the Students are Learning : To empower students to control and evaluate their learning, the texts will provide students with learning objectives and overviews of how students will be learning form the text. Studies show that students learn better when they are told what they need to know and be able to do, how what they are learning fits in with what they already have learned, and how they will go about learning the new material.

Emphasis on Active Learning : The texts will engage the students in actively interacting with and thinking about what they are reading. Readers will be prompted to write, question, reflect, and analyze as they read their assignments.

Emphasis on Developing Students’ Self-Regulated Learning Skills : Studies of learning across all educational disciplines strongly suggest that students are more likely to move towards expertise when their instruction facilitates their application of cognitive strategies to learning their course material. The texts will include exercises that ask students to create their own graphic organizers, classroom note-taking guides, self-generated problems, visual concept metaphors, problem-solving methodologies, checklists, etc. First-year texts will provide greater scaffolding for students’ use of these strategies, and upper-division texts, while continuing to emphasize the need for such activities, will place greater responsibility for them on the students.

Use of Multiple Instructional Strategies : The texts and teachers’ manuals will make it easy for users to adopt multiple instructional strategies, including small group work, think-pair-share, free writing, Socratic questioning and discovery sequence instruction.

Careful Sequencing of Cases and Materials to Help Students Build Towards Mastery : The texts will be carefully sequenced with a focus on building students’ skills.

Integrated Opportunities for Practice and Feedback : Practice and feedback are crucial prerequisites to mastery; the texts will provide multiple opportunities for practice and feedback with respect to the core skills on which students will be tested—spotting issues, applying the rules, applying and distinguishing cases and analyzing with policy. Many such problems will be included in the texts and teacher’s manuals. By providing such questions and answers as a resource to professors and students, these texts will encourage professors to integrate such questions on their course webpages and classroom PowerPoint presentations.

You should not be surprised to learn that all of the law professor bloggers for this blog are authoring casebooks for this series: Steve Friedland will be writing a criminal law text; Barbara Glesner-Fines will be writing a professional responsibility text; Gerry Hess will be writing a civil procedure text; Sophie Sparrow and I will be writing a remedies text, and I will be writing a contracts text. I expect the Contracts text will be finished by November 2008.

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