Being excited about your first day of class can improve your students’ marks

Being excited about your first day of class can improve your students' marks.

The first day of the semester at law school is rapidly approaching for law school in the southern hemisphere.  You’ve spent days (or even weeks) compiling your curriculum, your reading list, and writing assessment tasks.  You might have also 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? Your law students are forming impressions about you and your course from the first moment they step into your lecture. Being excited about your first day of class can improve your students’ marks.

Are you excited?

Over on the Chronicle of Higher Education, in ‘How to teach a good first day of class’, James M. Lang writes:

Thin slice judgements [are] powerful enough to condition [students’] 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 real.

Lots of law teachers have had the experience sitting in what they thought might be another lonely student drop-in session. 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. You hope that your well-thought-out and provocative musings on lawyers’ duties will ignite a furious debate. But … *crickets*?

I know we might 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?

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and academic emotions

Since the 1950s, there has been a series of studies on student anxiety 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.

They found a positive correlation between students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to study, and positive emotions like enjoyment, pride and hope.  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. That is, 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 complicated than that.

What’s your own emotional response?

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:

enthusiasmcycle

… and, well, you can see the pattern.

Being excited about your first day of class can improve your students’ marks at the end of the semester. While this might sound ‘touchy-feely’, go back to the start of this journey for a minute.  The focus for this last little bit has been on enthusiasm and enjoyment. But remember that these positive emotions have a positive effect on academic performance.

Enthusiastic teachers produce high performing students

Being excited about your first day of class can improve your students’ marks. So, what does that mean for your first day, and for your law students’ first day?

One piece of advice that Lang offers is 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 essential.  But it’s lazy. And your students can see that!

What do you think it’s doing to your law or legal studies students’ assessment of your enthusiasm?

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

I have taught civil procedure. I structure the assessment for the unit around a litigation simulation. In my first lecture, I don’t walk through the syllabus (which even I find tedious). I walk through the stages up until trial.   At each step in the overview:

  • We talk about what we’ll learn in the unit that will help to understand that stage of the proceedings. It will also help with the assessment.
  • Where I can, I use example documents to show what the stage might look like in terms of process. Again, they need to know for the assessment.
  • 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.

The first lecture isn’t just a dull recitation of the syllabus. It’s already linking to the assessment and putting it in the context of the whole course. It’s also priming your students to think about their expectations of the course.

Lang talks about it engaging students’ curiosity.  I think it does more than that.  It puts the course into a narrative and shows them how much care you have put into curating the course.  And 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?

About Andrew Henderson

I am a law school teacher in Canberra and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, researching the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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