New Year, New Perspectives

By: Professor Drew Simshaw, Visiting Associate Professor of Law, Legal Practice, Georgetown University Law Center

Teach the students, not the course.

As a new legal writing professor, I have sought and received lots of good advice over the last few years.  One piece of advice I received this fall has had a particularly powerful impact on my lesson planning, feedback approach, and teaching philosophy as I begin my second semester teaching legal writing.

The advice was: “Teach the students, not the course.”

For veteran educators, this sentiment might not be new.  After all, its message isn’t profound or complicated.  Essentially, it recognizes that even with the best of intentions, what teachers teach isn’t always what students learn.  As a result, the value of covering every topic on the syllabus has to be put into perspective.

To be sure, it is imperative for law professors to provide students with comprehensive exposure to the breadth of complex legal doctrine and skills they need to become well-rounded attorneys and effective advocates.  But at the completion of a class session, semester, or year, our success as teachers should not be measured by how much of the syllabus or textbook we covered.  Rather, it should be measured by how much our students learned.  Sometimes lessons do not go as planned.  Sometimes the students in a class face different challenges than others.  “Teaching the students, not the course” means sometimes taking a step back before you can take the next step forward and being okay with that.

Of course, succeeding in a more flexible class structure like this means knowing when students don’t understand the material and being able to effectively adapt one’s teaching accordingly.  It also means making tough judgment calls when it comes to prioritizing different parts of a course’s intended coverage. 

“Teaching the students, not the course” is not a one-dimensional pedagogical approach; it requires careful curriculum design, attention to measurable learning outcomes, an appreciation of cultural competency, and resiliency.  But when approached comprehensively, colleagues who teach large first-year classes have shared how this philosophy has also impacted their teaching – and their students’ learning – for the better. For example, some professors have decided not to attach topics on their syllabi to specific days, opting to instead provide a list of readings and topics to be covered at the pace that ends up being most appropriate for the particular set of students in the class.  Others have built “open days” into the class schedule to return to topics that need extra attention or to play “catch up” because some classes did not cover as much course material as had been anticipated.  These professors admit that it is sometimes frustrating or uncomfortable to not cover every topic they had hoped to teach in a session or a course, but at the end of the day, they say that students’ comprehension of the material that was covered makes it worth it.

I’ll admit, I was somewhat skeptical about how this philosophy would translate to a legal writing course.  After all, legal writing professors can’t, for example, just drop oral advocacy from the syllabus because students need more time learning to draft an effective persuasive Statement of Facts.  Moreover, the course’s frequent deadlines limit the amount of calendar shuffling we can reasonably undertake without driving our students and ourselves crazy.  Still, I have found “teach the students, not the course” to be incredibly helpful advice, and I have adopted it as more of a mindset than a strict pedagogical rule.

For example, in the classroom, I have placed greater emphasis on checking in with the students and providing opportunities for questions (including in anonymous form) about any topic we have covered.  This might mean pushing some course material to the next class.  However, that next class often is more effective (and efficient) because students have a better comprehension of the prerequisite material.  On my written and oral feedback on student drafts, I am determined to ensure that my comments acknowledge where students are in their individual progression, not where the rest of the class is or where I want the individual to be.  For instance, if a draft memo is not correctly organized around the elements of the law, it does no good to gear all my comments toward case analogies (even if the rest of the class is focused on case analogies).  Taking a step back from where I am in the syllabus to revisit or reinforce a skill with which a student is struggling is sometimes the only way a student can take a step forward.

Many of these teaching techniques are not new, and are in fact ones that I have used for years in both the clinical and legal writing settings.  Even so, “teach the students, not the course” has proven to be a helpful, all-encompassing mindset that enables me to accomplish many of my classroom goals and also helps me help my students to be the best they can be.  It is the most beneficial advice I have received as a new legal writing professor, and one that I am already passing along to colleagues every chance I get.

What was the most helpful advice you received as a new law professor? Share it at [email protected]

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Honoring our Veterans in the Classroom and Beyond

By: Abigail Perdue

This Veterans Day, Teachlawbetter.com wants to extend a heartfelt thank you to all members of the U.S. military and their families for their outstanding service and tremendous sacrifice. As educators, it is important that we celebrate the courage and dedication of these brave men and women. Here are a few ways that you can use your next class session to honor them:

  1. Have a Moment of Silence: Have a moment of silence at the beginning of your next session in honor of all those who have fallen to secure the freedom that we too often take for granted – the same liberties that we, as attorneys, pledge to respect, preserve, and protect.
  2. Introduce the Veterans Court: If you teach a course on the judiciary, federal courts, etc., use this session to introduce the veterans law system to students, including a discussion of the unique role of the Board of Veterans Appeals (“Board”), U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (“CAVC”), and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The CAVC, which was created in 1988, enjoys exclusive jurisdiction over Board appeals. Although based in Washington, D.C., the CAVC hears cases across the country. It exemplifies the diversity of the judiciary and calls attention to critically important specialty courts about which students may not yet have learned.
  3. Invite a Guest Speaker: Invite a current or former service member, military judge, CAVC judge, JAG attorney, representative from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or a veterans law advocate to speak to your students about the realities of military service, the military justice system, and how they can assist veterans once they enter the practice. Continue reading “Honoring our Veterans in the Classroom and Beyond”
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A Few Thoughts on Providing Written Comments on Student Work

By: Professor Luellen Curry

As a Legal Writing professor, commenting on student papers is one of my primary tasks. It is an essential teaching tool, but not one that always comes easily or naturally. I’ve found over the years that it has been a continual learning experience for me, one that I hope has resulted in improvement over time.

I’d like to share a few insights on commenting. I’ve gleaned many of these from colleagues; others I’ve developed through trial and error. Note that effective commenting can not only take the form of written comments delivered either electronically or on a hard copy, but also live feedback delivered during a student conference. It is even possible now to combine written and verbal feedback, as Professor Abigail Perdue interestingly described in Listen Up: The Advantages of Audio Commenting. My focus in this post is on written comments, but some of the advice translates to live verbal feedback as well. Continue reading “A Few Thoughts on Providing Written Comments on Student Work”

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Teaching Technophiles to Collaborate

By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue

Millennials are so named because they were the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. According to a 2010 Pew Center survey, technology use is the number one factor that makes Millennials unique. In Teaching and Reaching Millennials: Fresh Perspectives from an Insider, I explored specific ways to adapt law school pedagogy to the characteristics most commonly attributed to Millennials so as to better prepare these “digital natives” to exceed the expectations of their (mostly) non-Millennial supervisors.[1] Similarly, in Gen Z Goes to Law School: Teaching and Reaching Students in the Post-Millennial Generation, my esteemed colleague, Professor Laura Graham, notes that Gen Zers, who were born between 1995 and 2010, are likewise “saturated with technology.” Yet unlike Millennials, Gen Zers generally dislike collaborative work. This interesting research on generational theory spurred me to develop an exercise that would teach my technophile students how to use technology to meaningfully collaborate. Continue reading “Teaching Technophiles to Collaborate”

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Listen Up: The Advantages of Audio Commenting

By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue 

One of the most surprising things about teaching is that each new semester brings entirely new challenges. Just when you think you’ve finally mastered the craft, Life throws you a curveball to keep you on your professional toes.

I experienced one such curveball this semester when I began experiencing persistent discomfort in my wrists and fingers, which often made typing onerous and even painful. As a Professor of Legal Writing, this pain simply wouldn’t do because I must provide oral and written feedback on multiple written exercises for my three classes and 50+ students throughout the term, not to mention the countless emails I must draft on a near daily basis or the book manuscript I’m currently trying to complete. Continue reading “Listen Up: The Advantages of Audio Commenting”

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