5 steps to manage expectations in your law school classroom

Congratulations!  You’ve made it to the end of week 1, or you’re only hours away from it starting.  You have prepared your lecture, and you have rehearsed your seminar or tutorial lesson plan.  You’re primed to be enthusiastic and passionate about your law or legal studies subject (like we talked about a few weeks ago). Great job! But what if I told you though that now might be a good time to think about the end of the semester and student evaluations?  Have you thought about their expectations? Here are 5 steps to manage expectations in your law school classroom.

Getting ahead of student evaluations

At the end of the semester, Twitter comes alive with threads by college and university teachers about student evaluations – the good and the bad.  A big part of those threads is teachers’ disappointment with both the comments received and their concern for the discussion that they expect to have with their Dean about law student (dis)satisfaction.

There is considerable debate over the utility of student evaluations as a performance assessment or management tool.  The highly questionable (or just out-and-out objectionable and demeaning) content of informal, online evaluation sites like ‘Rate my Professor’ further devalue student feedback.

Where they are completed honestly and sensibly, law student evaluation comments tend to fall into some broad categories.  Usually, there are comments about assessment preparation, assessment tasks and feedback. There are often comments about syllabus (what was taught) or curriculum (how it was taught) design. And there is usually something about individual teaching style.

By the time the comments appear part of the way through, or at the end of the semester, it’s generally too late to do anything about a lot of them.  Assessment tasks were locked in with the faculty board months or even years ahead, and lectures are ‘done and dusted’.

A lot of the feedback would, of course, have been valuable to have early on.  Some of the comments might even explain why law students performed well or were really engaged at points in the semester.  They might explain why they performed poorly or didn’t turn up at other times (which might have had nothing to do with you at all) – things that you might have been able to do, or stop doing, if you had known earlier.

So, what can we do to get ahead of the game and attempt to address law student evaluation comments before students write them? 

There are indeed things that law students must do to succeed in law school and law teachers have seen enough law students not do those things and perform poorly.  When we talk about law teachers setting expectations though, what we picture is the traditional ‘expectations’ lecture – the wagging finger type, ‘thou shalt’ imposition of rules with which law students shall comply.  But they’re not ‘expectations’; they’re rules.

What’s an essential agreement?: Setting expectations

At the beginning of every semester, in the very first tutorial, I facilitate a discussion about expectations.  That includes things that law students should do to succeed, but it also includes asking law students’ what their expectations of the unit are, what their expectations of each other are, and what their expectations of me are.

The idea of writing ‘classroom rules’ together in elementary/primary school, and even in secondary school, is widespread.  There are lots of books, articles and blog posts about classroom agreements by school teachers.  The International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Program mandates what they refer to as an ‘Essential Agreement’.  Edna Sackson over at What Ed Said has a concise explanation of why:

In a PYP school, every working group (teachers or students) starts off by creating an ‘essential agreement’.  In the classroom, this means that, rather than teachers imposing rules, everyone works collaboratively to establish an agreement of how the class will function.

I’ve always wondered why, moving from primary teaching to law school, law teachers (who are subject to a much more explicit student evaluation process) don’t do the same thing.  In part, it might be the idea that the Pearce Committee’s report on Australian legal education, for example, referred to: law students don’t know what they don’t know – that is, they can’t direct the syllabus and curriculum themselves.

I also wonder whether it might be a concern about making ourselves immediately visible in the teaching process, rather than (in an Australian context) relying on the ‘strict legal formalism’ of the material separate us from it.  That is, the law is the law, and our role is merely to transmit it.

Why bother?  Can’t I just get on with it?

Setting expectations before you start teaching can have some huge advantages both for law students and law teachers.

If you have read the page about this blog and my teaching philosophy, I am passionately (wow, there’s a scary word for a lawyer) believe that knowledge and understanding are co-constructed. As law teachers, we facilitate the process.  Law students are active partners in that process, not empty vessels passively receiving information.  Formally acknowledging that role is an essential reminder for law teachers and our students.  Which leads me to the next point …

One of the finger-wagging, rules-type expectations that law teachers often cite is the need to ‘do the reading’ or ‘be prepared’.  What I’ve found is that by acknowledging the active role of law students, they will independently set that expectation for themselves, and each other.  As part of a discussion of their expectations of peers, it’s not uncommon for law students to talk about the need for participation and sharing opinions, which in turn (they point out) means that students need to know what they are talking about – and so they must do some preparation.

This might appear a little touchy-feely, but there is also some empirical evidence to support the process as well.  In the late 1970s, psychologist Richard L. Oliver began to question the dominant effect that independent expectations were thought to have on consumer satisfaction.  As that work developed, psychologists found that expectations could be negotiated before consumers’ experience.

While this had immediate implications for cars, whitegoods or restaurant reviews, it can also help us think about law teachers’ initial discussions with their students.  If law students’ expectations on us are made explicit, we know what they are and can work to them.  Alternatively, where they are beyond what’s achievable (e.g. ‘I want my marks back in 24 hours’ – I’ve never had that, it’s only an example), we can explain why that can’t or won’t happen and thereby avoid the end of semester evaluation that, for example, feedback wasn’t fast enough.

Five steps to creating an essential agreement

Step one: The icebreaker

In the very first tutorial, I ask law students to participate in the usual ‘icebreaker’.  Most icebreakers are cringe-worthy and seem to be designed to fill time.  However, rather than the ‘two truths and a lie’ or whatever the activity du jour might be, I ask them to introduce themselves to another law student and ask that student two questions: ‘What are your expectations of the convenor?’ and ‘What are your expectations of your peers?’.  I then get each student to introduce their partner. Getting them to ask someone else and report what they heard, removes some of the tension from the exercise.  It can be a bit confronting to say ‘I want you to …’ whereas ‘They want you to …’ means that there is less risk of being personally embarrassed. And it’s good advocacy training to put a position on behalf of someone else.

Step 2: Capture everything

I capture all the suggestions on a whiteboard.  It’s vital that nothing is rejected or edited at this stage.  Refusing to put something up or editing something to sound different suggests that you’re being a little dishonest about the process or changing it on the run.

Capture law students expectations early

Step 3: Reading the terms and conditions

Once you have captured it, then you can start to work through the expectations.  You can accept them, group them into ‘like’ expectations (e.g. ‘approachable’, ‘helpful’ and ‘supportive’ might all be trying to say the same thing, depending on the context) or explain why something might be difficult.  Because you have opened the discussion, and you are seen to engage, my experience has been that so long as you explain your concern reasonably, students are prepared to engage with you, to ask more questions or put alternatives.

Once the review is complete, I ask students to confirm that they are comfortable with what’s there.  It’s not uncommon for a student to ask that something is clarified or added – or even to suggest that what they were trying to say can be grouped with something else.

Step 4: Record it

I then take a photograph of the whiteboard (it’s more manageable than trying to write it down) and turn it into a word cloud.  I have found that word clouds are a good way of reflecting what is there since everything will appear, but where an expectation has been referred to several times, the software that creates the cloud will make it larger or bolder and highlight the priority for you and the students of various expectations.

Step 5: Revisit it (often)

But for it to be effective, it can’t be left to sit.  It must be put somewhere prominently (I usually put it on the front of the unit learning site page) and referred to throughout the semester.  One of the references that I often find useful is to say is to point to the expectation that they have of one another to be supportive and prepared.

This is, of course, only one way to do.  There are lots of ways to have this discussion and to record its outcomes.

Do you think this might be useful in managing your end of semester evaluations?

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