By Craig Forcese

Full Professor
Faculty of Law

Email: cforcese[at]uottawa.ca

Twitter: @cforcese

 

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Bleaching Law

Welcome to my blog on teaching law.  I have entitled it "bleaching law". This is an obvious contraction of "blog" and "teaching".  It is also a play  on words capturing the endless struggle of a law professor to convey as neat, tidy, proper and well-starched things that are emphatically not, like the standard of review in administrative law.  All opinions are my own and do not reflect on anyone else who I work with, for or around. 

Wednesday
Jun122013

Lifehacking: Productivity and the Standing Desk

In tribute to the truly idiosyncratic nature of this blog, I occasionally include entries on tools and techniques that I think make working in my profession easier.  I figured it was time for one on which a lot of people have commented.

Specifically, I think by this point every colleague and student who has visited my office has reacted to my workstation set up. To wit, I use a standing desk.  I am often asked why.  The short version is: I think I am more productive.  The longer reason is: the literature on prolonged sitting and the irreversible micro-damage it does to the body is pretty scary. 

The productivity claim is more hypothesis than empirically demonstrated.  I have been administrator and not scholar during the period in which I have been using a standing desk.  So "productivity" means "I write a lot of emails".  But my impression is that I am more alert for longer using a standing desk, and less achy at the end of a lengthy session. 

I want to also emphasize that my standing desk is not an act of perpetual penance.  I do not stand all the time.  My setup allows me to move relatively seamlessly from sitting to standing and back.  In other words, I bob between positions.  That is what makes me more alert -- I am not lulled into inactivity.  The bobbing facilitates thinking.  It's better than simply jiggling a leg while seated.

How to Do It?

A number of people have said they would like to try it.  So here is my "lifehack" guide to a standing desk.  First, do not buy a standing desk.  The reason for this is simple: price-tag.  A decent sized standing desk is some notable percentage of the cost of the average fighter jet.

In my office, I have a desk procured by the university.  It is not, as best I can tell, a standing desk.  It is a drafting table.  It is meant to be elevated, but does not elevate to the level required for my standing height.  And so I have had to tinker with it in various workarounds that are imperfect.

When I decided to move to a standing desk platform at home, I aimed to avoid these problems and the ridiculous cost.  And so I searched for a hack.  I am by no stretch "handy".  There is a reason why I am an academic.  And so the solution had to be idiot proof.  Eventually, I found some suggestions on using various Ikea parts to construct a large sized standing desk, and tinkered with them to suit my needs.  I also procured an inexpensive drafting stool from Costco that elevates to great height, allowing me to bob from seated to standing with ease.  On top of the desk, I also purchased some narrow profile shelving that fits under the desk and in which I can discretely placed the various printers, external harddrives, routers etc. to which my computer is attached.

The result is pictured below.

What do you need?

Here are the specific Ikea items I used for this project:

 

 BESTÅ VARA (shelving unit doors)

Door, black-brown

Width: 60 cm

Height: 64 cm

Article Number : 801.058.33

$20.00

2

$40.00

 

BESTÅ (shelving unit)

Shelf unit/height extension unit, black-brown

Width: 47 1/4 " / 120 cm

Depth: 15 3/4 " / 40 cm

Height: 25 1/4 " / 64 cm

Article Number : 201.021.54

$100.00

1

$100.00

 

LACK (Monitor table)

Wall shelf, black-brown

Length: 74 3/4 " / 190 cm

Depth: 10 1/4 " / 26 cm

Thickness: 2 " / 5 cm

Article Number : 401.037.51

$29.99

1

$29.99

 

VIKA AMON (Desk table)

Table top, black-brown

Length: 78 3/4 " / 200 cm

Width: 23 5/8 " / 60 cm

Thickness: 1 3/8 " / 3.4 cm

Article Number : 501.214.53

$59.00

1

$59.00

 

BESTÅ (Monitor table legs)

Leg, square, chrome plated

Min. height: 3 7/8 " / 10 cm

Max. height: 4 3/8 " / 11 cm

Package quantity: 2 pack / 2 pack

Article Number : 801.341.90

$10.00

4

$40.00

 

VIKA BYSKE (Desk legs)

Leg, chrome plated

Diameter: 2 1/8 " / 6 cm

Min. height: 27 1/2 " / 70 cm

Max. height: 42 1/8 " / 107 cm

Article Number : 846.090.85

$30.00

4

$120.00

 

The Vika legs can be adjusted to a range of heights.  If you are very tall, the Vika legs may not be quite long enough at their maximum extension.  For me (at 180 cm) they are perfect, with a little room to spare.  (Taller users could add shims under the table top, attaching those shims to the table top and screwing the legs into the shims).

Total cost: $249 for the desk and $389 for the whole unit, including the shelving.  This is a tiny fraction of the cost of a prefab standing desk.

I also added inexpensive "drawer lighting" that I picked up on Ikea to illuminate the underside of the monitor table and the keyboard. (The photo also shows an older set of ideas drawers I had kicking around and kept.)

There, now I have undermined my productivity by writing this entry on productivity.

Tuesday
Jun042013

Punditry and the Professoriate

The Globe and Mail published an interesting comment piece by Lawrence Martin the morning, entitled "Canada's political scholars fiddle while Rome burns".  The piece invokes a bygone era in which academics (and specifically political scientists) "played a more prominent role in national political debates" and bemoans the timidity/indifference/lack of clout of today's academic.  He urges that "[t]oday’s issues are just as important and, given their privileged positions, their Senate-like salaries and their great wads of free time, you might think the pedagogues would show more civic responsibility. Or guts."

It is worth addressing the pros and cons of this sort of public engagement, attentive to Martin's suggestion that academics are AWOL from today's key public debates.  In brief, he raises many valid points, but I think there is nuance and perspective to be added.  As this is an issue with which I have struggled, I thought it worth articulating my personal philosophy, derived from trial and error. 

First, a bit of context: I can't comment on the actions of colleagues in political science.  I am, however, more attuned to practices in law schools.  My law school colleagues tend often to be active in the media and beyond, both relative to their counterparts elsewhere in the university and other law schools. At one point, I too was much more active in the media, but have since become much more modest in my punditry for reasons I will recount.

The Professional Context

First, some comments on the professional context in which academics operate.  The classic formula for an academic's workload is the famous 40/40/20 formula: 40% teaching; 40% research; 20% service to the academic and broader community.  (As a vice dean, I must emphasize that the latter category includes the necessary but deeply unpopular administrative work that keeps an academic institution in operation (like reviewing student admissions files, dealing with exam appeals, planning and rationalizing program curricula, sitting on thesis juries, and general departmental governance and decision-making).  It is not all about making the world a better place -- what I shall call being a "public citizen".)

In practice, no single week is divided up in this 40/40/20 manner, and the relative distribution of activity varies over the annual academic calendar (and across an academic's career). 

It is worth converting these figures into numbers.  The average full-time professor in Canada earned $115,513 in 2010-11.  On a 40/40/20 breakout, that means the average professor is paid $46,205.20 for teaching, the same for research, and $23,102.6 for administrative duties and service to the community. (It is possible to use other statistics to break this down further and calculate how much professors are paid for each course, graduate supervision, and article they publish. Of course, that rather impressive figure would need to be countervailed by the fact that professors can reach close to early middle-age with virtually no income as they pursue first, second, third degrees and possibly post-docs or temporary teaching gigs, before landing a full-time academic posting.  Our profession, in other words, imposes a late start on income earning years and direct costs on the acquisition of higher learning that steeply discounts the face value of the salaries we then earn.  But debating the merits -- or not -- of academic pay is not the purpose of this piece. And there is much debate to be had there). 

This is not a profession that dockets time to be reviewed by an employer willing or able to dictate actions and compel adherence to the 40/40/20 formula.  There are, however, two anchor points.  First, academics need to turn up in class and do their grading.  Second, academics who don't publish risk perishing up until the point at which they receive tenure, after which there is longer a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. 

That said, academics do have substantial liberty to choose community service over many other of their activities, and to define that community service in a manner that would please commendators such as Lawrence Martin (although displease others).  Indeed, universities are more accommodating of such activities than they once may have been (at least at face value) -- universities compete on the basis of intangibles and media profile is one of those. 

It is less clear that tenure committees, unpredictably staffed, are always as impressed.  And so junior colleagues are advised not to be too much the public citizen and too little the scholar.  It is not, as Martin suggests, that academics quake at the prospect of being punished for their positions.  Instead, it is a question of being hurt by the opportunity cost of being polemicist rather than scholar.

There is a point of principle in play as well.  The bottom line is that academics are not payed by their employers (who are in turn financed by taxpayers and student tuition) to be pundits, polemicists or political actors, except to the extent that such activities reasonably lie within the allotment of time dedicated to service to the community or are reasonably tied to their research and teaching activities.  Put another way, academics are not supposed to be (just or even primarily) limelight-seeking norm entrepreneurs in the take-no-prisoners, unnuanced political debates of the day that galvanize the media.

Reputation

This raises a related point.  Those who live by the media may die by the media.  In my personal observations, an academic who is also a public intellectual may retain the respect of his or her peers only if he or she is an "intellectual" and not just "public". 

The media limelight risks drawing academics inexorably into areas where they may have little more knowledge than any attentive reader of newspapers.  Journalists tend to wish to rely on academics who already have an media profile, and they tend also to have a broad conception of the scope of expertise any one person can claim.  I have, in fact, been told that "it doesn't matter that you're not an expert, because you still know more than X" (X being the clientele served by that media outlet). I have also regularly encountered people in government who note wryly (and correctly) that they have entire sub-departments of people charged with understanding the multiplicity of complicated issues that prolific academic commentators may claim lie within their individual expertise.  I have no doubt, indeed, that such comments have been made about my own commentary, and probably with justification.

This is one reason why I now am very judicious in public commentary in the media, trying to limit myself to commenting on things I teach (recently) or on which I have written (in some detail, and recently).  It boils down to this: the facts matter and I don't like being wrong.

Quality Control

This raises a related point of quality control.  As in any profession, the calibre of journalists varies.  Some are subject matter experts who wish to probe nuance.  I am still very interested in speaking to these people, again assuming it crosses my expertise comfort zone.  Others are generalists who may struggle with the level of detail I may believe necessary in understanding an issue.  Still others may be looking for a name to affix to an idea; that is, they want a counterpoint to a point.  The latter objective has value of course, in the sense that there may be a counterpoint. 

On the other hand, they may not be tremendously interested if an academic's point is less counterpoint than agreement with the original point.  I have had the misfortune of being misquoted to varying degrees in order to create a sense of false discord.  In one notorious case, I expressed agreement with a position and was asked, hypothetically, what the opposing view might be.  I speculated on this, and then this speculative discussion was later shown on national television edited in a fashion suggesting that I was advancing that perspective.  I pretty much stopped doing television media after that point.

So much of what passes for reporting and commentary now is about inter-personal drama and not about the underlying substance or issues of the day.  As evidence, it is not uncommon for a journalist to seek comment on the personal qualities of a public figure -- not of their office, but on their personal manner or conduct.   When I was a more regular media contributor, I would get calls asking me to opine about someone's hiring, firing, and/or alleged misdeeds, matters on which I had no personal knowledge.  There are very few circumstances in which I as a legal academic feel qualified to offer an expert opinion on someone else's personality, unless I did have such personal knowledge and was, e.g., working on a legal case in which these matters were material and appropriately raised in the media.  

Professionals in the business no doubt note that I need media training to avoid these inevitable reputational snares.  But it is not my job to interact with the media.  In acting as a public citizen, I am performing the public duty of trying to communicate knowledge and perspectives that I have acquired as an academic, mostly at the public expense.  I am not trying to "spin" a message by managing the media.  Of late, I have taken the view that if "spin" is the only way in which one can communicate through the media, I'll abstain and confine myself to my writings, including this blog.

New Platforms

This last point raises another.  The media is increasingly an archaic means of being that public citizen.  It is an intermediary of public discussion and debate that almost daily appears to be losing ground relative to blogs, tweets and whatever other forms of mass (and at the same time, narrowly siloed) communication now web the world together.  It used to be that a media appearance on a given show or a given newspaper seemed to guarantee a fairly universal coverage.  No longer.  And so the virtue of media (the ability to engage a broad audience) is now much reduced, certainly relative to its downside: the lack of editorial control over how a journalist presents (or misrepresents) your comments.  

And in the new world of blogs and the tweetisphere, academics (at least the ones in my law school) are extremely active, including with views that regularly speak truth to power.

To so to revert to Lawrence Martin's preoccupations, it is almost certainly unfair to say that academics are fiddling while Rome burns.  It is rather that many of us are now playing different instruments.

 

Wednesday
May082013

Flipping the Classroom: The Results

 

As I have noted in prior posts, when I started my "flipped" classroom experiment, a key question for me was whether with a new "flipped" teaching methodology, I could close the "gap" between raw performance on the exam and the upwards adjustment of grades required to meet faculty course average guidelines.  Put another way, would a "flipped" format that displaced passive learning to podcasts and re-tasked classroom time as very practical problem solving "practices" change outcomes on a classic IRAC exam?

Faculty Council met this morning and approved grades.  I am now, therefore, in a position to comment on this question. A caveat at the outset: this is far from a scientific study.  Nevertheless, I believe it has some qualitative value.

I have compared exam performance in Winter 2013 with the last time I taught my administrative law course (using conventional lecturing) in Winter 2011.  (Winter 2011 was a typical performance for the 8 or 9 times I have taught this course.)

Put simply, the difference in outcome was marked.  They were different exams, of course, which makes any comparison imperfect.  But I certainly didn't mark any easier this year than before, and both were classic IRAC exams (albeit of different duration).  

It is clear to me that whatever other utility my conventional approach had, my new approach produces different and perhaps more representative results.   This may be particularly true since I suspect there was selection effect favouring comparably weaker exam writers — students most fearful of exams may have gravitated to my class (which included 30% of in-class work).

However, even when the mathematical effect of this 30% of in-class work is removed from the final grade, relative exam performance improved markedly in 2013 on average.  The adjustment I made to the raw final grade to bring the average within the Faculty's B guidelines was one of the (if not the) smallest I have ever made. Indeed, the raw average was 5% higher in 2013, coming in at 70%.

More notably, the mark distribution was radically different.  In 2011, a solid majority of the class -- 60% -- scored sub-B on the raw exam.  This number fell to 40% when the marks were adjusted upwards to meet the Faculty's B average guidelines. 

In 2013, 43% of students were sub-B on the raw exam.  Following adjustment and inclusion of the in-class component (where many students outperformed their exam result) only 25% of students are sub-B.   

Mark distribution has been of great concern to me given that several Ontario (and several other) law schools now place a “quota” on sub-B (and above B) grades. We do not -- our guidelines prescribe an average GPA but are silent on the mark distributions producing this average.  It is possible to meet these guidelines with a bevy of very strong grades and a long tally of sub-B grades -- that has been my typical grade distribution by happenstance, not design.  This year, through natural result, my grade distribution fell into a pattern typical under these quota systems, with a much reduced number of sub-B grades (and, interestingly, a less top heavy group of extremely high grades on both the raw exam grades and for final grades).

My take-away from this is that my conventional teaching tended to favour strong exam-writing students, clustered at the top range, and produced a long-tail of other students (struggling with issue spotting in particular).  My GPAs always fell within guidelines (always after an upwards mark adjustment), but the spread was wide. 

This year, the grades still fall within guidelines, but the spread is close to a perfect curve.   This is not to say that every result was stellar.  There were still failures on the exam (although not in the final grade, when the 30% of in-class work was factored in).  But generally, the flipped class seemed to help weaker exam-writing students disproportionately.  I take some comfort from this, as these same students produced often excellent quality in-class work.

All of this is to say that my grades this year are consistent with the following hypothesis: they may be a closer representation (albeit still imperfect) of overall student aptitude as opposed to a potentially idiosyncratic talent to “hack” law school and do well on IRAC exams administered after a passive learning class. 

Time will tell – I will likely be participating in a US project to try to measure the relative impact of active vs passive learning strategies in law school.  But so far, I am pleased by the outcome of my experiment, and will expand to my other classes.

 

Friday
Apr122013

Flipping the Classroom: The End of the Term Recap

I finished my last session in my "flipped" Administrative Law class on Monday.  In a few hours, the students will write their exams. 

When I started this experiment, a key question for me was whether with a new "flipped" teaching methodology, I could close the "gap" between raw performance on the exam and the upwards adjustment of grades required to meet faculty guidelines.  Put another way, would a "flipped" format that displaced passive learning to podcasts and re-tasked classroom time as very practical problem solving "practices" change outcomes on a classic IRAC exam?

Obviously, I cannot yet gauge outcomes against that criterion.  Along the way, however, other things become more important.  For one thing, whatever the outcome on exams, I believe (although cannot prove) that students completing this course will be roughly one year ahead of most other student I have taught in their ability to grapple with basic real world admin law problems -- and maybe more than admin law problems.  (I hasten to add that past students may have gained this advantage in some other course taught by a more enlightened colleagues. But they didn't in my old style courses.) Let me explain:

My Teaching Objectives

Flipping opened classroom time.  But flipping does not determine how you use that classroom time.  That choice belongs to the instructors.  My choice was to try to address as many of the practical realities of practicing in this area that I could, in response to this key consideration: "When I was in private practice for a few years after law school, what skills/capacity do I wish someone had developed in me while in law school."  The short answer was: I had a good substantive grounding.  I did well in law school.  I had no problem with the bar exams.  But darned if I knew the first thing about the mechanics.  I was a full fledged lawyer who knew less about the mechanics of getting stuff done with law than did a decent legal assistant.

And that made me like basically all the other junior associates.  And we learned through osmosis.  And that wasn't very efficient, and it was sometimes very unpleasant. 

Even the reformed law school will never be able to spit out freshly minted JDs who are the equivalent of today's third year associates -- something at least some law firms think we should do.  We will never be resourced for it, even if we all charged US or Toronto-school tuition levels.  We probably wouldn't be that good at it.  And even more fundamentally, we are in the business of producing architects of law and not just the law's pipe welders.  There is such a thing as a pendulum that swings too far back towards "trade school". 

But I believe that the best architects must know at least a little bit about welding steel.  And so my flip was combined with as much experiential and practically-oriented active learning as I could reasonably deploy in a class of 60.  And that is why I am hopeful the students will have a jump relative to where I was when I was in their shoes.

Key Points of Advice

My students are free to tell me I am naive and all messed up about the virtues of this approach.  But barring that revelation, let me outline some considerations for those who might be considering a similar flip. Elsewhere in my blog entries on the flipped classroom, I have detailed some of the "tools and techniques" I used in my "PIRAC" approach to active, experiential learning.  Here are some of the big picture issues/observations:

1. I Feel Good

Like anyone should care!  But actually, this year was the first in a number (maybe many) where I felt truly useful -- where I felt I was giving value-added that wouldn't be available had someone done all the readings and been given access to a transcript of my lecture notes and a few hours of Q&A time.  Apparently, research shows that students remember about 10% of what they are told.  And so why in heck is our tradition so oriented towards the verbal, bundled with usually an overwhelming amount of reading!

Talk at them: Podcast (check off auditory learners).  Show them: decision trees (check off visual learners).  Work through problem solving hypotheticals: Practice, practice, practice (check off kinesthetic learners, as best you can given the subject matter).

In doing this: I had fun.  It was a lot of work, but I didn't begrudge a minute of it.  Yes, I think I will be able to build on this year to bring the workload into the sustainable range in future years.  But even if in the end it proves to be, say, 25% more work than the "performance" of my conventional lectures, it is 100% more gratifying.

As I have noted elsewhere, the legacy of any professor is his or her students.  I still remember all of my professors, more than 20 years after I had them.  Many I remember fondly, others not so much.  I remember them for their classroom demeanour and their receptivity to student learning and the respect, or lack of it, they demonstrated to students who acted in good faith.  (The students acting in bad faith deserved what they got, and often worse). 

Meanwhile, I remember precisely nothing of what these professors wrote in their scholarship.  Zero.  All that scholarly output is dust, in libraries that few people visit.  Or superseded by events.  Or just really uninteresting, written for a small cadre of like-minded academics who have shuffled off this mortal coil.

What seems permanent -- ink and paper and now bits and bytes -- is actually transient.  What you do in the classroom, on the other hand, persists for a slightly truncated perpetuity period: it lasts for the life in being of the students in the class.

Feeling good about what you do in that classroom is absolutely the only way that anyone can last in this profession.  If you don't, it shows, and you can't sustain your teaching.  So feeling good about teaching is up there with "oxygen in the room" in terms of pre-requisites for a successful law school, or any other teaching institution.  So I do care that I feel good, and so should anyone who ever takes my class, and every associate dean who plans courses.

2. The Importance of Managing Expectations

What I did was radical by local standards.  If it is radical by your local standards, managing expectations is elemental.  I have described this before: the importance of a frank and detailed syllabus and clear expectations that this is not your usual passive experience, and clear messaging that resistance is futile and those inclined to resist may vote with their feet during drop/add, but not thereafter. 

3. Learner Centred Learning

I don't really know what "learner centred learning" really means.  But this is what it meant in my class: explain why it is that you are doing what it is that you are doing.  Nothing I did was "make-work".  Everything I did had a purpose, tied to the overarching objective described above.  And I did my best to explain why it tied to that objective.  And I also invited students into the learning tent: Hello my students who have been reading this blog! This is part of the tent.  We're in this together -- I want every single student who takes my classes to be an ambassador.  Because everything they do from this day on reflects on me.  I want them to be good.  And in that fashion, everything I did in the class was for my benefit, because it was in their's. 

That is true for any proferssor.  And so explain how what you do is in their benefit, oh, and make sure that it actually is.  And yes, they may not actually know what is in their benefit -- this is no insult.  It is true by definition that they lack experience as a lawyer or legal expert.  And so explaining why something is in their benefit is part of the job.

4. Embrace your own silence

In the past, I practiced "helicopter teaching" where I feared silences and swooped in to fill them myself.  Of course, once you do that, the lesson learned is that you are a silence filler.  In the active learning exercises, students were individually and collectively responsible for solving problems.  Yes, we would reconvene.  Yes, I instructed and corrected and guided.  But I tried as best as possible to confine my role to picking people up after the tumble from the bike, but only after they had pedaled on their own for a bit.  One thing I will change next year is to do more of this.

5. Gather intelligence on learning

The two minute essay, described elsewhere in my blog, is a creation of genius.  Thank you to whoever had the idea.  But so too: all the mini exercises -- it doesn't take 20 pages to know someone is struggling.  It can take 2.  And with 2 pages, you can make meaningful comments.  In a class of 60, with anything more than 5 pages, you are lost in a sea and there is no conceivable way you can provide more than superficial observations without driving yourself to exhaustion.  To which I would add: most writing I did in practice was 5-10 pages.  So why would I have them write more in a practically-oriented class?  It's an invitation for them to learn to write ineffectively.

A patter of small, manageable exercises (with NO anonymity) allows one to spot both individual and collective problems, which leads to this:

6. Practice early intervention

With a constant dribble of solid, individualized intelligence on student learning, you can course-correct early.  You can circle back to areas causing common difficulty.  You can intervene with individual students who are adrift.  You can map progress.  You can remember how individuals are doing.  This what one is usually doing in small group courses.  But it can be done in a large setting -- my class was 60.  I could handle as many as 80 before things would start to become more difficult.

7. Be nimble

...and because of your intelligence gathering and ability to intervene, you must be nimble.  In a flipped classroom, I don't need to "get through the material".  The material is on the podcasts.  The classroom practices are about darting about, practicing triage where necessary and administering first aid only to actual wounds. 

And you move laterally -- a totally flipped class will push you in ways that the choreographed classic lecture (or even regimented socratic) will not.  One ancillary benefit of this process is that I was pressed to expand my own knowledge base -- something that hasn't happened in a while when the content of the course was governed by a script, punctuated by some Q&A (usually similar to those from past years).

Some students found this in-class lack of structure difficult.  Success!  Just like the real world, they needed to lift the feet to the beat of an ever changing new rhythm.  And like with any new muscle movement, it's hard. 

More generally, I wonder, given this unpredictable dancing, about the possibility of conducting a flipped classroom in a new subject matter area -- one I have not taught before.  I think it would be harder -- with a very steep learning curve.  But then, I can also see virtue.  I think when I was a young prof in my first few years, I was often a better instructor than in my middle years because a) I remembered not knowing what it was I was teaching and so I could anticipate difficulties and b) I was usually only a few steps ahead of the students, and so I could show them the path I had followed.

If I were to flip a new course, I would deploy these advantages.  And in keeping with my emphasis on expectation management, I would frankly acknowledge my limitations and invite students along for a co-learning experience.  Look at the world's greatest coaches: very few of them are as accomplished an athlete as the person they coach.  No one expects them to be.  But profs are expected to be omniscient.  Speaking personally, I missed omniscience class when I was in grad school.

8.  Be consistent

If you are deploying active learning, be wary of slipping back into lecture mode.  It is hard to keep momentum.  The glaze descends over the class.  It is harder then to revert back to active.  At the very least, carefully partition into clearly demarcated active and passive learning units and displace them in time so that passive, inertness does not bleed into the active sessions.

9. Learn their names

This is huge.  Really.  It improves student experience.  It makes the process human.  I am lousy at names -- and when I mean lousy I mean things like names of close family members.  Have students sit with tent cards.  Active learning on a "hey you" basis is inadvisable.

Conclusion

So will I do it again?  Yes.  Will I expand to other courses?  Yes.  Indeed, some of my lessons from this large format class will now be deployed in my seminars -- a venue which has always been active learning based. 

Do I recommend it?  In a heartbeat.  Will it be everyone's cup of tea?  No. Should it exist in every course?  No.  Part of what might make it effective is novelty.  But more than that, there should always be a few courses law students can actually shuffle through.  Active learning is more work for students (although many of them will find that it true because they are revising well-worn time management skills developed in a passive setting).

Is it a panacea to all that ails legal education?  Of course not.  It is a brick in a larger edifice of reform.  Do I think that brick should be mortared into the fabric of my law school?  Absolutely.  Personally, I believe that the law school that gets this one right -- the mix of active and passive -- will be a place to contend with.

Monday
Apr082013

Exam Writing Tips Redux

The most beautiful time of the year has arrived!  The end of the teaching term, where one can relax for a few days and stop worrying about having a bad day in the classroom, catch up on some writing and then gird oneself for the worst part of the year: the marking season.  For those who find this moment less beautiful (i.e., the students entering exam season), you may want to listen (again or for the first time) to the exam writing tips I and others have podcast.  My exam writing blog and podcast are here.  Other podcasts by other faculty are here.

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