Advice for a New Law School Instructor
April 22, 2016 1:25 PM   Subscribe

What advice and resources would you give someone teaching at law school (or the university level in general) for the first time?

This fall I will be teaching a new, upper-level course at a highly ranked law school. Although I have given guest lectures to undergraduates and taught Continuing Legal Education courses for attorneys, I have never taught an entire course by myself before. As is usually the case with law school professors, I have no formal (and very little informal) training in education. What advice and resources would you suggest?

Some details:

1. First off, in my opinion the Socratic method is a terrible way to teach in a live classroom setting, and I will not be using it, so don't worry about tailoring your answers to that modality.

2. I have the assistance of a tenured faculty member in developing the syllabus, so I'm not flying completely blind, but I will be on my own for the actual teaching and grading.

3. The nature of the course is such that there will be at least a few guest lectures. Any specific advice on integrating guest speakers would be helpful.

4. The class size is limited (under 20). Specific advice for working with smaller class sizes?

5. Unlike most law school courses, this one will involve several homework assignments, which I have very little experience with developing and grading. I have plenty of ideas for assignments, but I'd appreciate advice on how to include concrete, gradable requirements, keep the time required to complete (and grade!) the assignments to a manageable level, and grading in general. The class will be graded high pass/low pass/fail, so precise grading is not as important as it might otherwise be.

6. I am a white, cishet male. I want to be very careful to be aware of and work against my own biases in class and while grading. I would really, really appreciate advice and resources on this. For example, how to avoid disproportionately calling on white men and how to fairly draw out, include, and respect the contributions of woman and minorities in the classroom. For what it's worth the actual content of the course is not politically or legally controversial.
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
So, I use a modified Socratic method when I teach law classes (although it's pre-law to undergrads in my case). Basically I have them prepare briefs ahead of class of specified cases (you could do this with whatever material you like), and they have specific questions they know I will ask, and then I randomly choose from a list of the students to answer those specific questions. I have found this solves some of the major issues of cold calling (i.e. major student anxiety/BS-y answers) because they have the chance to prepare ahead of time, but also increases participation in nice ways (there is no possible bias in calling on students through this list, as I go through the whole class before re-starting the list, and once people get called on in this segment of the class, they are more likely to volunteer during the open Q&A portion of our discussion).

More broadly -- even if you don't want to do Socratic, I would suggest getting as much discussion going as possible, especially with this small of a class size. Listening to someone drone on for 60 minutes or however long your classes are is pretty much guaranteed to put people to sleep, even if you are a great lecturer (and you probably won't be at first, since you are just starting). Getting students to be the ones to present the facts of cases, to draw out ideas, and to debate each other is way way way more engaging and will keep them involved in class rather than checked out.

In terms of grading, I cannot recommend blind grading enough! Instruct students to place their names ONLY on a cover sheet of the exam or paper, and then turn those back before you begin grading. You can also do this by having students only identify themselves by student ID on all assignments, and then you don't match things up until after you have assigned final grades. Again, this will solve any unconscious bias since you do not know which exam/paper matches up with which student. (And there are always surprises, in both directions!)

In terms of structuring assignments, I highly recommend creating a rubric. Basically think in your mind of what a "high pass" paper would look like to you and work up a list of those things. Then for each paper, go down the list and assess whether they did that or not -- in your case, there's no need to do it with points, each item could just be labeled H/high (if they did that element really well), L/low (if they did the element, but it wasn't amazing), or F/fail (if they failed to do that element or did it really poorly). Then at the end you can quickly look and if there are mostly H's, it's a high pass, etc.

Finally, for your lectures, I would suggest doing Powerpoint slides at least at first. I have found that doing a really good lecture without slides is a real skill -- slides can be a good crutch at first. BUT, do NOT write out verbatim what you are going to say on the slides. Do lots of photos of the people involved in cases, short bullet points, etc. -- basically things to organize your thoughts and add visual interest. Plus, students seem to like them. :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:04 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

On Course is a pretty good book on teaching college classes developed by a college teaching and learning center. Some of it will apply, lots of it won't, but there's lots of good ideas and strategies for getting students engaged and assignments and participation and so on.

"For example, how to avoid disproportionately calling on white men and how to fairly draw out, include, and respect the contributions of woman and minorities in the classroom."

One tip for this, which I think I got from this book, is to give each student three post-it notes and they stick their post-its to the front of their desk every time they contribute to class discussion, so you (and they!) can see who's already participate and who hasn't been heard from yet. You can use it as an actual RULE to cut off further contributions from the big-talkers, but just having the visual reminder (post its or other method) often helps the verbose students check themselves so they don't dominate, and the more reticent students make an effort to speak up.

Some of the suggestions in the book I was like, "Dude, who would ever do that in a college classroom? Are we all FOUR?" but many others were either really good tips, or helped me think about assignments/participation/whatever in new ways that I could adapt to my own needs. (I didn't actually love the authorial tone of the book, but the ideas were helpful.)

"Finally, for your lectures, I would suggest doing Powerpoint slides at least at first. I have found that doing a really good lecture without slides is a real skill -- slides can be a good crutch at first."

For me it went the other direction -- I found it really easy to chalkboard lecture and write key points as I went, but lecturing to powerpoint was a skill that took me some time.

Also last thing before you go in the room on your first day, check your fly. Otherwise you'll spent half the first lecture going "IS MY FLY ZIPPED? Is there any way I can check???" Or maybe that's just me. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:34 PM on April 22, 2016

I highly recommend McKeachie's Teaching Tips. Also, in my opinion, less is more, focus on 10 to 15 student learning outcomes (things you want your students to be able to do) and use a combination of lecture, discussion, multimedia, homework, classwork, etc to deliver the content.
To plan a class I use a "Teach, Show, Do, Review and Evaluate" model. This allows you to cover theory (Teach), model how you want the students to think (Show), give them a low-stakes chance to try it for themselves (Do), review for exams (review) and finally see if they get the concept (Evaluate).
To get more folks to participate in class, follow the "think, pair, share" where you ask a question and give them time to think of an answer, then pair with a neighbor to discuss before you call on them to share with the class.
This is a different generation, they all got trophies just for showing they expect "A's" prepared.
Also, tons of stuff on teaching law on the internets....Most of all, showing your passion for the law will go a long, long way....
posted by drthom at 3:41 PM on April 22, 2016

I'm a K-12 teacher, so YMMV, etc.

Make sure that you guide activities. That means you give them something to do whenever you're giving information or teaching something. Don't assume that "take notes" is good enough. When you have a guest speaker, be clear on what they are there to do, and have your students prepare so they can ask good questions. If the expert is coming to talk about the rules of evidence, have your students study a source that helps them build background and context before the lecture. They need to come to class with questions, confusions, or thoughts (that's better than just "questions" - having a confusion is valid, and different).

Leading a discussion in class is a skill developed through practice. You have to be able to direct it without it feeling like that's what you're doing. I used Socratic Seminar a lot in my AP/upper level 12th grade English classes. They read the text, and focused on a particular skill, then brought their own questions to the discussion. I had them submit those questions and then I chose the starting point. I also will play devil's advocate, or draw out people who look like they want to talk but haven't had the courage to jump in yet.

Be okay with making mistakes and admitting that you don't know or that you messed up. Be open to learning from your students. I learn stuff from my 6th graders all the time. I like them to see that I am primarily a learner, just like them.

When you give homework, make sure it's worthwhile. Don't give homework for the sake of giving homework. Don't give homework that expects foundations you haven't built in class. Do the assignments yourself, especially at first, so that you know what your students are doing.

In terms of grading, I often fall into all or nothing thinking; if I can't finish it all, I don't start. That's a terrible way to grade. Do five at a time. Don't let it sit for more than a day or two. The students should get feedback from you, and to make it meaningful, it has to be pretty quick.

Finally, there are never enough hours in the day to do everything. Make sure you prioritise the rest of your life, as well as resting well. Good teachers are the ones who aren't slavishly spending 100 hours a week doing ALL OF THE THINGS. It's easy to burn out.

Don't expect this class to be perfect. But you're asking the right questions and a lot of teaching is learned by doing, and by screwing up. When I started teaching, I had been a TA in undergrad for one class, and led summer camps/museum programs. So basically I had no experience at all. Now, I can't imagine doing anything else.

Good luck - HAVE FUN!
posted by guster4lovers at 4:19 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm two weeks away from graduating from a decently-ranked law school where professors in most upper-level classes cold called but were not especially Socratic. My advice comes from what I found to be helpful as a student in my upper-level classes.

The worst classes were the ones that my friends and I referred to as the "gunner olympics," where a few students would use the class discussion to try to show how smart they were, and the professor did not anything to reign it in. This was most likely to happen with those topics that were like nailing jelly to a wall, if the professor asked very broad questions. I would suggest having a good idea of where you want discussion to go and asking narrow questions to avoid subjecting your students to the long-winded thoughts of some of their peers.

One professor had a very simple way of making sure that it wasn't always the same group of people who spoke every time: he'd ask a question and then when the hands went up, he'd say, "How about someone we haven't heard from in a while." It was a surprisingly effective way to keep the gunners down.

In one small seminar, three people signed up to be discussion leader each week. The discussion leaders met with the professor a day or so before the class to discuss the material and where they thought the discussion should go. Then, during the class, the discussion leaders asked most of the questions. The professor also jumped in, but it was a nice way for students who wouldn't have spoken up otherwise to get a chance to be in charge of the discussion.

Another thing that I found helpful was a well-edited casebook or information from the professor about what we should look for while reading. It's easier to feel confident enough to jump into the discussion when you can focus your preparation on the important stuff.

As long as don't spend the whole class stringing together buzzwords and talking about the millions your firm makes, you'll be an improvement on one of the adjuncts my law school hired this year, so I'm sure you'll be fine!
posted by capsizing at 6:10 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Make an appointment with your school's librarians. They'll know what resources are available for teaching at your school. They may even have an online guide for adjuncts. They'll also tell you how to access resources like Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg Law. and other library materials. Many are trained to show faculty how to use classroom technologies, too. They will know if your school has special video technologies to record classes and stream live guest lectures (if you have any who will be presenting remotely).

You can invite the librarians in as guests, too. They'd love to demonstrate any resources that will help your students with their assignments. In my law school, we librarians give lectures on both research resources as well as how to use technologies like Word to complete student assignments.

Find out how to set up a course website, and see if that website has tools which will help with making your grading anonymous.

The more "lifelike" the assignments are, the more helpful they will be. Law students are looking for more experiential assignments these days.

Stay in class for your guest lectures. Law students tend to respond well to dialog between guests and faculty.

Communicate regularly with your students - keep them up to date about changes in your syllabus, news relevant to your topic, or follow up information after class presentations.

Good luck. Law students these days are a diverse crowd - different backgrounds, ages, life experiences, and more. The upper level students have developed confidence and should have a lot of ideas of their own.

And when in doubt, ask a librarian.
posted by debgpi at 8:40 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few thoughts. First, the very fact that you are asking this question is a good sign that you'll be a better instructor than many.

I have taught undergraduates for over 15 years (English lit and women's studies), so although I have no law experience, I can answer some of your questions about uni level teaching in general. It's great that you have a small class--IMO those are ideal for learning.

I really encourage you to have students do reflective journals for assigned texts. This does two things: makes it difficult for the students not to do their reading, and makes them think critically about what they're reading. Here is an article specifically about the use of reading journals as a reflective tool in law education.

Have them work together in groups to create mock exams. I had great success using this as a review activity before the cumulative final exam in an intro women's studies class. It was very eye-opening for the students--they realized how well they needed to know the course material before they could create an exam. I always told them I'd consider using the best student-created short answer or essay questions on the real final exam (and I often got fantastic questions from the students...and yes they appeared on the final).

Read up on assignment design. Make sure when you design your assignments that you have a clear purpose and evaluation scheme. Rubrics can be useful for this. A lot of people scoffingly mistake "being clear with expectations" for "handholding" or "spoonfeeding," but they are not the same thing. (Yes yes, you'll hear lots of people say, "Well, when we were at university many of our profs just gave us vague assignments and expected us to read their minds and we did fine." That just means those profs were crappy at instructional design but somehow we managed to glean what they wanted anyway DESPITE their lack of skill.)

Finally, this thread from WMST-L (UMBC) may provide some ideas about how to encourage participation from women in your classes.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:22 PM on April 22, 2016

The best way to get great discussions that everyone can participate in is to require preparation -- short pass-no pass reading quizzes with a mercy provision is the way to go. (If you have 22 class sessions, you only need 19 reading quizzes to ace that portion of the grade requirement.) This also indirectly incentivizes attendance.

Anonymous grading is great. A HUGE disincentive to obnoxious gunning and office hour butt kissing.

Socratic is a great way to guarantee a strictly proportional class contribution ratio, but in general I'd be wary of coming across as patronizingly solicitious to the women and minorities in your class. There are two kinds of top school 2L or 3Ls: engaged ones, who only take seminars on subjects they really love and will love to talk about, and disengaged ones, who take seminars that strike them as relatively painless to sit through as often as they have to go. A non-white-male who cares will be plenty vocal, if he or she isn't vocal it's because she's exercising the exact same prerogative as a white male student to bide his or her time until the post-bar world tour and starting up work as a first year associate.
posted by MattD at 9:46 PM on April 22, 2016

This isn't strictly a book about effective law school teaching, but I found Elizabeth Mertz's The Language of Law School surprisingly illuminating in thinking about the dynamics of the classroom. She's looking at how 1L students are taught to "think like lawyers" from a sociological and anthropological perspective; I disagree with some of her theoretical premises, but she includes lots of transcripts of interactions in the classroom, from 8 different law schools, and makes some comments that are very useful for understanding the impact on students. I think it could be useful to skim (or skip!) the theoretical parts and just read Part II of the book, which has the transcripts and their analysis.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:34 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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