By: Rachel Pender (WFU Law ’20)
The first year of law school can be challenging. In my experience, most law students were the best and brightest at their undergrad and now have to compete against other, equally qualified candidates. Most 1Ls do not have any legal experience and are easily intimidated by professors who are titans in their fields. Despite these hurdles, my first-year professors have established warm and inviting classroom environments that put students at ease while still challenging us to improve. As a teacher turned law student, I wanted to share the following strategies that may help create a more positive learning environment in your classroom:
- Share your life experiences with your students: Occasionally incorporate personal information into class. Sharing your own application of course material while in the practice or relating a legal concept to your own life is a great way to humanize yourself without taking time away from teaching content. When you allow students to get to know you, a classroom community forms. This helps ease tension and competition between students and allows students to bond with their professors, even in large classes. For example, my Torts professor used his own experience in depositions to explain the professionalism required when asking difficult questions of personal injury victims.
- Allow collaboration: If you allow students to work collaboratively, students are encouraged to teach each other. Mandatory curves create a highly competitive environment and may result in information hoarding among students. Allowing students to collectively invest in a common goal encourages students to help each other and simulates the collaborative environment found in many workplace settings.
- Encourage students to learn from failure: Understand that student failure is part of the learning process. When a student incorrectly answers a question, instead of scolding the student, provide verbal scaffolding to help the student reach the correct answer. For example, when I incorrectly identified the issue of a case in my Torts class, my professor asked me to restate the important facts. After I correctly identified the facts, he asked successively harder questions that gradually led me to the correct issue. This teaching method prevents a student from comparing his or her wrong answer to another student’s correct answer and helps the whole class find a logical path to the correct answer. Additionally, when students are not afraid to answer a question incorrectly, students are far more likely to volunteer answers in class. This allows professors a chance to accurately gauge student understanding and gives students an opportunity to talk through challenging topics.
- Relate assignments to student interests: Many students are unfamiliar with most legal topics. Capitalize on students’ knowledge of pop culture by allowing them to apply new legal concepts to familiar topics. Teaching legal concepts using popular culture references also generates student interest. Even procedural information can be taught through a pop culture lens. For example, one of my professors used a recent civil suit involving a celebrity as a case study that we consulted for several weeks. We examined several court documents from this suit. Students were able to connect various aspects of the suit to personal knowledge of the celebrity and found the details of the case to be entertaining and informative.
- Provide encouragement: Remind students that law school is a difficult experience, and it is normal to struggle. Competition and impostor syndrome may cause a student to feel as if he or she is the only one struggling. Occasional words of encouragement from professors both validate student concerns and provide emotional support to students. A quick, whole-class email is a great way to congratulate students on passing a milestone or offer support after a challenging assignment. These messages take little time but make a huge impact on students. For instance, when my fall semester grades were released, some of my professors sent encouraging and supportive emails to the class. Each email contained only a sentence or two but had a meaningful impact on the way I viewed my grades and my potential for success both in law school and in the practice.
In conclusion, there are many ways to foster a positive and challenging classroom environment where students thrive emotionally and academically.
How do you create a positive classroom culture? Email your good ideas to [email protected]