In an effort to self-assess and improve my teaching, as well as to provide the 1Ls I will be teaching next Fall with tips from successful prior students, I sent an email with several questions to the students that earned an A- or A in my Contracts II class this Spring. Here is the list of questions:
- How did you prepare for class?
- How did you approach your time in class?
- How did you prepare for the exam?
- Did you use any commercial study aids? Helpful or not? Which ones?
- Did you participate in study groups? How often? How many people? Helpful or not? (No names, please.)
- What can I do to improve my in-class performance? (Please be frank and candid about my in-class weaknesses.)
- What do I do in class that is helpful?
- What would you keep about the class structure? (reading assignments, going over problems, hypos, cold calling, etc.)
- What would you change about the class structure?
- What are your thoughts on the exam structure?
- Do you have any other comments?
Of the responses received thus far, all students answered number one along these lines: did the reading and took notes before class. Shocker, I know. But, I believe this will be good info for the incoming 1Ls: It’s not rocket science, but it requires hard work.
Here is a specific response to question 6:
I would suggest trying to explain some of the subject matter first, and then using the cases to apply it. I felt like most of the time, we did it the other way around--went through the cases and then relied on the notes after the cases to extract what subject matter we needed to pull from the cases.
The student is correct about the methodology. Here was my response:
There is a pedagogical reason. If I tell students the rules upfront, students will tend to memorize rules. If students have to work through the cases and notes, then students will better internalize law because they formulated the conclusions more on their own. This is part of the “thinking like a lawyer” meme students often hear from law profs. I never want to leave students hanging, and telling the rules upfront helps students know them more quickly, but I’m not confident they understand the rules / rationales more deeply. This is similar to the idea that a student who makes their own outline knows the material better than the student that simply received a prior student’s outline or a commercial outline. It’s the hard work and struggle that builds a lawyer’s mind. That said, you don’t have to agree with my approach and I will certainly continue to think about this issue.
I am curious about your thoughts on how to approach classroom learning. Do you have any thoughts on the student’s view or mine? Is stating the rules upfront a better approach? A good approach? What techniques do you use with 1Ls?
p.s. Crosby Stills and Nash’s Teach Your Children or Steely Dan’s My Old School would be fitting songs for this post, but David St. Hubbins Michael McKean is on my mind after being hit by a car in New York City yesterday. McKean's leg was broken and he is expected to make a full recovery, but understandably will not be performing tonight in "Gore Vidal's The Best Man." Get well soon, Michael and remind your understudy of this mantra: Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight!