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March 22, 2010

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Tim Zinnecker

In my two UCC courses (Sadistic Transactions and Payment Systems), in which I usually draw at least 40 (and sometimes 70 or more) students, I use random recitation (allowing students a prescribed number of "passes" during the semester which must be declared before the specific class beings). Maybe once each week I'll ask for a volunteer. I'm always surprised that very few (if any) hands shoot up immediately. And if no one volunteers ("going once, going twice, ..."), I skip that problem/material and move on to the next problem/material. Believe me, I get volunteers the next time I ask for them. And I don't hesitate to tell a frequent contributor that while I appreciate a willingness to volunteer, I'm looking for someone who has not yet contributed to the class discussion. If I relied exclusively on volunteers, I dare say that at least a third of the students wouldn't say a peep during the entire semester. That seems wrong to me, given the importance of communication skills in our profession.

Are students better prepared in a class which utilizes random recitation? I don't know. I'm guessing it varies from student to student, and perhaps from class to class (varying at least in part with any possible penalty for failing to be adequately prepared). I did not use random recitation when I first started teaching. I did find that after instituting my random recitation policy I gave fewer low grades (C and below). Maybe the policy made a difference in grade performance.

I like using random recitation in my problem-oriented classes. To a great extent, the problems include the questions I'll be asking, removing some of the fear associated with the "unknown."

In my smaller classes (e.g., enrollment less than 15 or so), I tend to schedule "panels" of students on specific days. The smaller classes are "electives," and even with "panels" I can call on specific students several times each semester.

Mike Madison

This has to depend on what you're trying to teach. I don't cold call, but I'm not interested in recitations or ensuring that students have done the reading and are able to engage in a conversation about the case. On-one's-feet performance is a skill that I don't care about very much. (Few practicing lawyers need to be able to do this, and those that do practice in settings that don't resemble law school classrooms in the least.) I seed many classes with examples and hypotheticals, often not taken from the reading, to elicit questions and comments that serve as entrees into conversations with students. In other classes I appoint students to perform in role -- usually in scenarios where there are multiple roles, so that students need to play off of each other, rather than (only) me. Students who haven't done the reading have a hard time keeping up and are occasionally embarrassed. They respond in a variety of ways. But I don't care that much about live performance as a skill in itself; the point of my courses is to keep students sufficiently engaged in the classroom that they are willing to put in the time on the real meat of the course - the out-of-class writing assignments.

Ben Barros

I'm with Mike - it depends on what you are trying to teach. I would actually tend to think that cold calling as described in the Times Magazine article would be better done in small groups than in large groups, in part because I am most comfortable cold calling when I have a really good command of student names. It is really hard to get all the names in a big group early in the semester. Also, I think that the cold calling described in the article is in response to specific problems being discussed in the class, not about the material in general. So, in a small math class, a teacher can present a problem, let the students think about it, and then ask a random student for the answer. I could see using this strategy in some law classes. But, especially in big classes, I prefer to have the students take a few minutes and write out a quick answer to a problem and/or discuss the problem in small groups.

Jacqueline Lipton

Thanks for those comments. I should also clarify that I often break students into small groups and do problem-solving exercises, so I'm only referring to class sessions where I'm standing in front of the class mediating a discussion and being more directive than I am in small group and problem solving sessions. I should note that when I focus a lot on problem-solving and peer interactions in class, I do get comments on my teaching evaluations where students complain that they want to know what I think about an issue and not what their classmates think. I always find it somewhat ironic that they don't always seem to understand that: (a) legal problems don't always have easy one-line solutions; (b) even if they did, my personal view wouldn't necessarily be any better than anyone else's; and, (c) in the real world they will have to engage with multiple views of their peers on transactions, litigation, advice letters etc so they may as well get used to practising the skill in law school.

Colin Miller

If you haven't seen it yet, I recently did a post (and accompanying poll) on what approaches law professors use for questioning students: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2010/03/as-noted-in-aprevious-post-a-staggering-ninety-seven-percent-of-those-teaching-first-year-classes-reported-using-the-socrati.html

I have another post planned about the potential problems with volunteer (or all volunteer) approaches in classes where students can get a grade bump based upon class participation. I will probably have the post up tomorrow or Wednesday.

Howard Wasserman

In three of my courses, I do *no* cold-calling and rely entirely on volunteers. Perhaps it is my weakness as a Socratic professor, but (in my first time teaching, when I tried cold-calling) I would find myself stymied by an unprepared or lost student and unable to work through things to get the answers out of her. Not to mention what it does to my already-tenuous ability to get through the material. What I then do is make class participation a somewhat significant (10-15 %) of the final grade, an (I believe) strong incentive to participate.

The one exception for me is Evidence, which I teach via a problem method, so the class discussion focuses on going through problems and having students argue them. And it helps that I am slowly getting a feel for when a student is entirely unprepared.

anon

I'm with Mike and Howard on this one. For some students, cold calling produces a great deal of anxiety, and actively detracts from their learning experiences. It can also slow the class down to a crawl. Panels or going down a row creat a lot less anxiety.

Chris

Pure cold-calling may work to teach K-12 students their math, but I wonder if it also teaches them some other things about authority, about individual initiative, and about the value of group participation and input. I get a little anxious when the teaching techniques that are held up as models start to look more and more like those used in military schools. This may be less of a concern in a law school setting, where the students are arguably less impressionable and are at least there voluntarily, but I do think it's true that our choice of teaching styles can send messages that aren't just about Contracts and Torts.

I'm bothered by how many students seem to see themselves as passive recipients of, rather than active participants in, their education. I wonder whether pure cold-calling might aggravate that tendency, despite its other benefits. Becoming comfortable and experienced with speaking up and with asking good questions is at least as important to a lawyer as understanding the issues in any one subject area. In my dream class, I would come with no presentation planned, and would simply take questions from the students about the material -- the diametrical opposite of pure cold-calling, I guess.

Jeff Lipshaw

I'm with Howard on this one. I stopped being paternalistic about my classroom a couple semesters ago in favor of the view that students are primarily responsible for their own education. (My line on the first day is: "Nobody will work harder than I to get you to water, and nobody will have more joy than I when you drink, but nobody will care less than I if you make the decision that you don't want to drink.")

I tossed the seating chart (in favor of name cards) as well as any pretense at cold-calling. What I do like to do is identify "proto-volunteers." At least in the class and room of the size I have (about 50 students) I can get close enough that I can see someone is engaged and might not be inclined to volunteer. I give that person my best puppy dog look and say "what do you think, Emily?" (Hoping of course that the person's name is indeed Emily.)

Jacqueline Lipton

I really like Chris's and Jeff's comments because I sometimes wonder how much of a favor we are actually doing for our students by insising on the Socratic method (at least those of us who do insist).

Chapin Cimino

Interesting to me that, from this sample, it seems like those who prefer volunteers tend to be men. I am not a man, and I don't prefer volunteers. I think there are gender issues inherent in this question and that's the reason for my comment.

I teach Contracts. I have tried volunteers -- on the theory that students are adults and they should be responsible for their classroom experience -- but it turned out that the volunteers tended overwhelmingly to be men. So I'd call on them, and bingo: a bad gender dynamic developed, with me leading the charge. I'm sure the women in my classroom felt marginalized as a result. Obviously that's not tenable. So I don't rely on volunteers any longer -- and I don't even take them at all until after everyone's been called on a few times.

The gender dynamic is a two-way street. I know of male colleagues who admit to problematic gender dynamics developing from the photo-negative: when they cold-call, they tend to (inadvertently) "pick on" the women, and voila - another (unintended) bad gender dynamic takes over the class.

I wish I could teach from the POV that "they are all adults," but I can't. I've found from lived classroom experience that it is just more complicated than that, at least for me.

Jeff Lipshaw

Chapin, I have only the vaguest notion if this is correct empirically, but I'd agree that men volunteer more than women, but only marginally so, and more of my "proto-volunteers" (i.e. people who look engaged and only need a little eye contact to say something) are women. And I don't "pick on" anybody (except myself), but as a older white alpha-ish male, I probably wouldn't know if there were a bad gender dynamic.

Chris

If the problem is that women's voices are not being heard as much as men's, then pure cold-calling can fix the problem. But if the problem is that women are less comfortable asserting themselves, and asking questions, in front of the group, then cold-calling just sweeps the problem under the rug. One possibility would be to raise the topic openly with the group: "I've noticed that I get fewer female volunteers than male volunteers, and that concerns me. Why do you think that is? Does it concern you? What can be done about it?" etc. Anything that gets them thinking about their own educational experience is usually to the good.

And you never know what the students' take will be. The first year I taught, I assigned the students to whatever seats they took on the first day of class. I soon noticed that all the seats in the center were taken by men, with women entirely on the periphery. When I asked the students why that was, the women responded: "Because we got to class earlier. Nobody wants those center seats!"

Chapin Cimino

Chris, I don't think it does sweep it under the rug. I think it's a gateway to a fix. Having been a "proto-volunteer" myself in law school (good description, Jeff), I can really relate to the many students (probably more women than men, but men too) who are teetering on the edge of the conversation, but who just can't get themselves off the fence on their own. Cold-calling gets them off the fence for the first time.

One huge benefit to getting the "protos" off the fence for the first time is that those students then become more comfortable not only in answering the next question put to them, but also in asking their own questions. Having done both volunteers and cold-calling, my observation is that more women will ask their own questions after they've participated once. I use cold-calling to get them over that hump (Jeff uses his best puppy dog look, which for multiple reasons, I can't/shouldn't). Regardless I think class is better with more students over that hump.

Chris, your suggestion about addressing the issue openly is a good one, but not in class. I'm pretty confident that students who are not comfortable volunteering in front of the group are not going to feel comfortable talking Oprah-style in front of the group about why they are not comfortable talking in front of the group! I have previously suggested to the administration that it might be helpful to have some kind of organized, institutional conversation about gender in the law school classroom, but I don't think that contracts class is the place.

Anyway, my whole point was that gender (of both prof and student) is one of the many metrics that should be in the mix of this conversation. (and yes Jeff, as "an alpha-ish" male, it may be happening without your awareness... !)

Chris

Yes, I agree with everything you're saying there. ("Sweeping under the rug" was an unfortunate choice of words.) I'm still uncomfortable with pure cold-calling for other reasons, but I can't deny that it does pay some dividends, including those you describe.

Tim

Use the koosh. I had a teacher who would throw out a koosh ball at the start of class. The person he threw it to would be the first one called on. The next time a question was asked, the student with the koosh would have to pick another student and throw him the ball. Takes some of the onus off the professor, and the students tended to strike a balance between looking for volunteers and trying to ambush people who hadn't done the reading.

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