Screens Off, Brains On

By: Professor Meghan Boone, Wake Forest University School of Law

I often teach in the dreaded mid-afternoon time slot. It’s a hard time to teach at the start of the semester, when the lingering summertime air warms the classroom and suggests that perhaps a nap is in order. But it is truly difficult towards the end of the semester, as the light that filters in through the windows is already fading towards dusk, causing everyone’s mind to drift towards a hearty dinner and a cozy armchair from which to take in an episode of their favorite reality television show. It is difficult to marshal my own energy at this time of the day, much less expect my Civil Procedure students to stay engaged.
We have often been told that students cannot handle more than twenty or so minutes of lecture before needing a break in the form of a more active style of learning. While this insight is important, I have found that if I start with twenty minutes of lecture in the mid-afternoon, I’ve already lost them for the rest of the day no matter what enticing interactive exercise I place in the middle of the class period. The tone has already been set at that point. And the tone is one of passive disengagement.

How to counteract such a negative result? Instead of placing interactive exercises in the middle of my class, following an introductory lecture, I start every class by asking students to participate in short, interactive exercises. Importantly, they are not permitted to use laptops during these exercises, which I glibly refer to as our “Screens Off, Brains On” sessions. Some days, they involve asking the students to stand and “battle” by arguing on either side of a tough hypothetical fact pattern. Other days, I ask the whole class to “Vote With Their Feet” and stand under one of several signs reflecting varying opinions on an issue that we have been discussing, such as the desirability of different pleading standards. I may have them break into groups and do a “treasure hunt” to determine when a certain motion would be due under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These exercises can be as simple as asking students what ten things they remember from the last class and rewarding those who volunteer answers with candy. I even have had great success asking students to write Haiku about civil litigation. The important thing is that in every instance, the students must DO something – whether it is move, write, or speak.

Whatever the particular exercise, the goal is twofold. First, I hope to simply get students actively engaged at the outset of class with the expectation that this initial engagement will carry through the rest of the class period. Second, and depending on the exercise, I hope to help them review what they know, practice applying law to facts, or think more broadly about how the specific concepts we are learning connect to the larger themes of the course.

Students love starting class this way. As one student said, “I like the mini games before class. It not only helps me better assess my knowledge of the information but it also helps me get into the right mindset for class.” And another student reports that these exercises, “turn us all into active participants in the class, which is impressive considering the dry material.” (I do, after all, teach Civil Procedure….)

Developing these beginning-of-class exercises is not challenging. Almost anything can be made interactive with a little creativity. And when the warm afternoon light drifts into my classroom and falls on forty 1Ls – moving, talking, thinking and learning, I find that the afternoon time slot is much more enjoyable.



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