On teaching

March 2012

The Law Teaching Network is a Faculty initiative designed to encourage professors to share ideas and inspiration for how to teach and learn about the law. Talking Teaching, a Q&A series from the teaching network website, provides highlights from conversations with different professors. Here, Shauna van Praagh and Alana Klein talk about how to encourage students to ask good questions and to recognize their role in shaping how law operates in society.

How do you know that your students are learning and how do your students know they are learning?

Shauna van Praagh: First, I want to make sure that my students know they are supported, so I use a mix of both formal and informal markers to indicate that they are learning. In my large classes, where I may have 130 students, the markers tend to be more informal because it’s logistically impossible to give and mark over one-hundred assignments every class. So I’ll often divide the students into small groups and give them unmarked classroom exercises, where they have to work through a problem or answer questions with reference to what they learned last class, last week or last month. This allows them to self-assess – to test themselves for what they have learned.

As well, at regular intervals I will give them marked or pass/fail tests and assignments in order to see how they are engaging with the class. These more formal markers are part of the participation component of the course and they help me see how well the students have grasped the material we’ve covered and how well they can articulate answers to my questions. Thus, either verbally or through graded methods, I will periodically point out what they are learning so that they can see where they are making progress and where they are off track.

Since questions are a good indicator of learning, I gauge a lot by the quality of questions students ask. Ideally, students come to class with questions that indicate not only that they understood a recent discussion but that they actually want to explore it further, moving beyond the initial topic. Conversely, if they arrive with questions that indicate that they are somewhat lost, that tells me that we need to review certain areas or that some students should follow up with me individually. In a twist on that, I do an exercise with my first-year students – which often surprises them – where I put them in small groups and ask “What would you do in the class? What questions would you ask your fellow students to get them to examine the following kinds of concerns or issues?” This helps them see how they and their peers are learning and to see if their notes on cases have prepared them well for our discussions or not.

What do you want students to take away from your courses and how do you make your teaching meaningful for them?

Alana Klein: One of the most important things I learned during my legal education was that the law isn’t a fixed set of values that we argue about and interpret, but that as jurists we can have a much more active role in shaping the way the law operates in society. This is a key message I want my students to hear – and it’s an important one to understand – that law is not a monolith that they’re fighting against or arguing about, but that law works in conjunction with social influence and social relationships. I try to convey this in my teaching – that my students are agents of the law in more ways than they realize.

I like to engender this notion through certain assignments, such as one in my undergraduate criminal procedure class where I ask my students, on the first day of class, to write a law from scratch. This makes some students anxious because there’s an assumption that they won’t be the ones making the laws. I remind them, however, that the law is a reflection of human experience, something that they’ve been engaging in their whole life. I tell them that in many ways I believe they are in a better position than some lawmakers to find ways in which the law can be brought in step with our society.

This approach encourages them to not just play by the rules, as it were, but to take a more active role in the law, to see themselves as capable of effecting change on a broader scale. I also want them to understand where the other players are coming from and what they’re dealing with because a good lawyer can’t always win with logic alone – I want them to see there are always important social and psychological elements. And by understanding that there can be a range of answers to every legal question, they will better understand their role as advocates. In the end, I want my students to be active agents of all the wisdom and knowledge they’re exposed to – and to truly see how legal forces interact – so they can engage with the world and be effective in it.

Find out more about the Law Teaching Network by visiting their website at www.mcgill.ca/law-teaching/

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