Challenging Law Students to Become Active Learners

By: Professor Rosa Kim, Suffolk Law School

“While we teach, we learn.” – Roman philosopher Seneca

As a quiet but thoughtful student in high school, I was especially invested in my senior English class with Mr. B. He had the ability to make 19th century literature riveting and relevant. He was excellent with words and used them to captivate us and to make us care about each literary work and author. This was his gift, or so I thought.

After almost two decades of teaching legal writing, I understand now that Mr. B’s real gift to me and the students in his class came in the form of a daunting assignment: every student had to choose a novel among several writers and lead the class discussion of that novel. My choice was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was excited but terrified at the prospect of having to speak up, much less be the one in charge of the discussion. I could not imagine the sound of my voice filling Mr. B’s classroom. But I cared deeply about doing well in this task. Mr. B and the other students would be counting on me to be the Heart of Darkness expert, so I had no choice but to figure out how to meet that challenge.

As any teacher knows, and as I intuited then, preparation is everything. I knew that the only way to ensure that I would be able to lead this discussion effectively was to learn everything I could about this novel. I had to know Heart of Darkness better than anyone else. I had to offer more than just a summary of the story, description of characters, or explication of the obvious symbolism. I read, re-read, dissected, analyzed, hypothesized, synthesized, questioned, and evaluated the meaning of the story. I also studied my notes from discussions we had about other novels for context and theme. I imagined the possible questions and comments my classmates might pose, and the answers I would give. I drafted questions I would pose to the class, and rehearsed how I would conclude the discussion.

When it was my turn to guide the class discussion on Heart of Darkness, I was nervous but ready. All the work I had done to prepare gave me confidence to speak fluently about the book and, even more importantly, to listen carefully to each comment or question. I was able to process the question quickly, respond insightfully, and then offer a follow-up question. I was surprised at how natural it felt to guide the discussion and speak with authority to the whole class. Mr. B observed with pride. I knew I had risen to the challenge.

I now think of that transformative experience as my first foray into teaching. Mr. B’s assignment pushed me to become an “expert” on Heart of Darkness and to tame my fear of speaking in class. The confidence I gained was invaluable. I was not aware then, but I had successfully engaged in active learning – engaging in material by doing, rather than passively listening, reading or taking notes. By having to prepare to teach, I was also forced to exercise thinking skills at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid — synthesizing, evaluating, creating. These are the thinking skills that law students need to utilize in order to successfully navigate and “master” the level of intellectual discourse required in law school. If it is well-established that active learning involving high levels of thinking is the most effective kind of learning, why aren’t law professors utilizing these strategies more to challenge our students?

The answer to this question is simply that while most law professors are deliberate and intentional about learning objectives, i.e., knowledge or skills students need for the practice of law, we are less intentional about how best to teach material. Learning theory does not often enter the picture of how law professors prepare to teach, partly because these concepts seem to relate more to primary, secondary and even undergraduate education, not graduate school, but also because most of us feel constrained by the limited class time to “get through” a dense amount of material. Yet active learning strategies can be implemented at every educational level in various ways, big and small, and only require some thought and planning.

One easy technique to integrate active learning in a seminar-sized law classroom is to assign a student to act as Expert of the Day (“EOTD”). Some professors use the “on call” or “on deck” method to give students advance notice that they should be ready to respond to questions. EOTD takes this idea further, so that the student must actively lead the discussion, much like Mr. B’s English assignment. The EOTD must prepare and “master” the topic to be covered in advance of the class. There are many different ways to integrate this idea into the curriculum. For instance, the EOTD-led discussion or presentation could take just a small portion of the class time, either at the beginning or end of each class. The topic assigned could be narrow or broad, depending on the particular learning objective.

The EOTD idea is just one of the many ways that law professors can engage students in active learning. The key is to give students specific opportunities to exercise thinking skills at the highest levels. Challenging our students to learn by teaching, presenting, leading, guiding, and otherwise taking ownership of material can potentially be transformative. This is our gift to give.

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