The first day of semester at law school is rapidly approaching for many of us in legal education in the southern hemisphere. You’ve spent days (or even weeks) compiling your curriculum, your reading list and writing assessment tasks. You might have even started to (re)write your lectures and lesson plans. But have you thought about your first day in the classroom? More specifically, have you thought about what the first day will tell your students about what to expect for the rest of the semester from their legal studies?
Are you excited?
Your law students are forming impressions about you and the subject you’re teaching from the first moment they step into your lecture theatre or seminar room.
Over on the Chronicle of Higher Education, in ‘How to teach a good first day of class’, James M. Lang writes about students’ ‘thin slice judgements’ being ‘powerful enough to condition their attitudes toward the entire course, the effort they are willing to put into it, and the relationship they will have with you and their peers throughout the semester’.
It sounds a little frightening, but it is frighteningly true.
Lots of law teachers have had the experience of getting part of the way through a semester, sitting in what they thought might be another lonely student drop in session, when a nervous looking law student taps gently on the door. After spending 20 minutes answering questions and providing guidance, the student smiles and says with a certain amount of unconcealed relief and surprise, ‘Gosh, I wish I had come to see you sooner’.
Or, even more commonly, what about those awkward silences in class as you pause, expecting that your well thought-out and provocative musings on lawyers’ duties to clients will ignite a furious debate over the relevance of fiduciary duties in a ‘law as business’ world, but … *crickets*?
I know lots of us would drop our heads into our hands at that point and wonder what’s wrong with law students ‘these days’, but what if it’s as much about you as it is about them?
Since the 1950s, there has been a series of studies on student anxiety, particularly in assessment, and its effect on academic achievement. However, in the early 2000s, a small team of researchers led by a German clinical psychiatrist, Reinhard Pekrun, began to look at other ‘academic emotions’—like enjoyment, hope and fear—to see whether they might also be influential in student achievement.
The team found that that there was a positive correlation between students intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to engage in study (like breaking the usual monastic solitude of student drop in sessions) and positive emotional responses like enjoyment, pride and hope. They also found that the results were consistent regardless of whether the students were in secondary school or university. Students positive emotional responses predicted their academic achievement and exam results: positive emotions predicted high academic achievement.
But what causes students’ emotional responses to a subject like their legal studies? We might all feel a touch of empathy, shock or even schadenfreude for poor old Mrs Donaldson when she was confronted with her unwanted ‘special prize’ at the bottom of her ginger beer, but its probably a little more complex than that.
In 2009 a team which included Pekrun, but lead by colleague Anne Frenzel, looked at the extent to which teachers own emotional responses affect those of their students. More specifically they looked at how the teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject and their enjoyment of it could be transmitted to students. While Frenzel’s study looked at students in maths classes, there are some potential take home messages, especially for law teachers in compulsory or core law or legal studies units in which students have little choice but to enrol.
In a large longitudinal study of a cohort of students in grade 7 and then again in grade 8, along with their teachers, researchers found that there was a positive correlation between student enjoyment and teacher enjoyment. What was even more interesting was that teachers who reported enjoying teaching were more likely to be identified as enthusiastic by their students leading the researchers to suggest that teacher enthusiasm had a mediating effect on student enjoyment.
More recently, Frenzel and her colleagues have found that enthusiasm and enjoyment are in fact reciprocal. That is:
… and, well, you can see the pattern.
What was even more interesting about this later research is that teacher enthusiasm at the start of the year can positively affect student enjoyment later in the semester.
While this might all sound a little ‘touchy-feely’, or one giant ‘love in’, go back to the start of this journey for a minute. While the focus for this last little bit has been on enthusiasm and enjoyment, remember that these positive academic emotions have a positive effect on academic performance.
Put simply – enthusiastic teachers produce high performing students.
So, what does that mean for your first day, and for your law or legal studies students’ first day?
One piece of advice that Lang offers in his article, which is very valuable, is try to avoid handing out copies of the syllabus and laboriously taking students through it.
I have done it – it’s low stress, low preparation but feels important. But it’s kind of lazy, and your students can see that!
Coming back to this idea about enthusiasm, what do you think it’s doing to your law or legal studies students’ assessment of yours?
But before you leap into the comments and stress the importance of reading the syllabus, no one is suggesting that you avoid the syllabus entirely.
Use the syllabus as a teaching tool.
In my first lecture each semester on civil procedure, rather than walking through the syllabus (which even I find tedious), I walk through the stages of civil proceedings up until trial. The assessment for the unit is structured around a litigation simulation so the proceedings are often the civil matter that they are about to act in.
At each stage in the overview:
- We talk about what we’ll learn in the unit that will help to understand that stage of the proceedings.
- Where I can, I use example documents to show what the stage might look like in terms of process.
- I’ll ask questions about how that stage might appear in connection with the matter in which they are acting – they may not know, but they will have started thinking about it.
Lang talks about it engaging students’ curiosity. I think it does more than that. It puts the course into a narrative. It shows students how much care you have put into curating the course. It demonstrates your enthusiasm for the material and for teaching it.
It puts them (and you) on the right track for success.
So what do you think?
Does your enthusiasm as a law teacher affect your students’ academic success?