by Christina Glon
I always reserve the last class of the semester for student presentations. Both of my courses are broad, survey-type courses (Health Law Research and Technology in Legal Practice). While I teach the fundamentals, I assign a final short paper on a specific topic of interest to the students within the broader theme. Then, during our last class, each student gives a five-minute presentation on their topic. They are never very excited when they hear they have to give a presentation, but I push through the moans for several reasons.
1. Choosing their own topic puts them in control of something.
Law students have very few choices in law school. The first year curriculum is set in stone, and while electives are available during the second and third year, they are still confined to what is offered that semester and what fits in their schedule. By allowing them to choose a topic and focus on something they are truly interested in (or at least get to pick themselves), they get to have some control over their course work. This hopefully leads to more interest in the research and more retention of the information they discover during their course work.
2. Presentations give them a chance to be an expert in something.
Sharing their topic with the class allows students to be the expert, at least for five minutes. In an environment filled with competitive grading and gunners dominating class time, getting the opportunity to be the expert can be highly rewarding. You can see it in their faces and feel it in their presentations.
3. Short presentations force them to organize their thoughts.
For a new associate attorney, being able to articulate legal thoughts quickly is a critical skill. The sooner students learn to cut through the noise and get right to the heart of the matter, the better they will be as lawyers. With only five minutes to share their expertise, my students need to think carefully about what they are going to present. Of course, I warn them of the strict time limits and try to convey the difficulty of creating succinct presentations (consider Mark Twain’s famous quote: “I didn’t have time to write you a short story, so I wrote you a long story instead.”). Alas, few of them heed my warning and their presentations run long. But isn’t that the point of law school? To let them learn from their mistakes while there are relatively few consequences? Better them do it in my class than in the courtroom.
4. Presentations provide a chance to do some public speaking.
Who doesn’t need more practice speaking in public? I like to think that since these presentations are not graded, they are a safe opportunity to practice public speaking skills. But I have not been out of law school so long that I have forgotten the pressure to look good in front of your classmates. While screwing up a presentation in front of classmates may be embarrassing or hurt one’s ego, again, these are relatively minor consequences compared to those they could be risking when they are out in practice. It’s all part of the process of becoming a better lawyer.
5. Presentations provide exposure to 16 related topics in one class session.
And I don’t have to be the expert in any of them! I have been amazed (as have my students) at the breadth of topics shared during student presentations. It is impossible to think that I could have introduced them to each of these topics, no matter how long the semester. Pedagogically speaking, “exposure to additional topics” is all I am hoping for during this class. I don’t expect any of the students to actually retain much from any of their peers’ presentations; rather, I want them to sense the reach of the overarching topic (health law or technology) and try to understand their particular niche in that topic—or perhaps find a new niche!
6. And, it’s kind of fun!
Yes, it’s stressful to present in class, but there is also a thrill when you are the expert and in control of the material. Since the presentations are not graded (required, but not graded), the students don’t have to worry about competing with each other or impressing me. They are free to do anything they want to do with their five minutes so long as we learn something about their topic. Some of them really take advantage of this freedom! Others just do their time and move on, but for those students who decide to have fun with it, they really get a chance to shine. And they love it! There are always a lot of laughs and it is a great way to wrap up the semester.
If you’re looking for something new or want to shake up your class a little bit, consider saving the last class for student presentations. Students may moan and groan for a little while, but they will thank you for it in the end—maybe not verbally, but you will see it in there faces. And, hopefully they will be better lawyers for it, too.