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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