It’s almost November. As thoughts turn toward the holiday season, I’m reminded that my first semester of teaching Legal Research is beginning to approach its final days. It’s been a tremendous learning experience for my students and for me. Reflecting on it now, I realize they teach me as much as I teach them—though the material differs. Here are five guiding principles that have made this semester successful:
Try New Things
Every week, I try new things. Some of them work, and some of them don’t. But I always repeat things that seem to be working well in an effort to enhance my teaching skills so my students leave this semester armed with mastery of the skills needed to move forward to next semester and beyond. Tufts University provides a short list on developing classroom activities that I find helpful.
Reach Out to Other Disciplines
A large number of helpful resources on teaching in legal education are available. And I find quick tips, creative ideas, and thoughts from a different perspective useful too. Two of my favorite sources are 1. Faculty Focus; and 2. Prof Hacker, a blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Engage in Frequent Evaluation
After every class, I return to my office and think about what transpired in class. I ask what went well, what didn’t go well, and what might have improved the class. I also frequently ask my students how they felt about various classroom activities. Did they learn from it? Was it helpful? Did it help them see what they know and what they don’t yet fully understand?
I also share with them what I think worked or didn’t work so I can get their perspective. It helps when everyone is on the same page.
Give Up Fear
Law school is a breeding ground for fear and anxiety. Some of that is necessary—just the nature of the beast, but encouraging students to give up fear in the classroom is important. A 2011 piece from Inside Higher Ed entitled, “The Freedom to Fail,” inspired me 1. to encourage my students to fail and 2. to fail in front of my students. Perhaps especially in a skills course, they need to feel safe giving wrong answers and learning from their mistakes. One way to encourage students to give answers even when they’re not certain they’re correct is to allow yourself to struggle a bit in front of them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff; it does mean that a slightly more free-form class with a lot of student questions and a lot of online demonstration in databases can help everyone learn more.
Assuming your foundational knowledge of the course material is in place, these additional tactics can help foster a learning environment that will serve the future lawyers we teach and our own profession. I’m reminded of Barbra Bintliff’s 2010 words in “Keeping Future Law Libraries Relevant.” She wrote, “We have not claimed the mandatory legal research instruction of first-year students as ‘our’ territory.” By continuing to develop our substantive knowledge and developing a research-specific pedagogy, we will be well on our way to staking our claim.
Do you have any tips to enhancing the classroom experience for your students? Please share them with our readers.