Making students’ work visible

making students' work visible

Law school lectures and seminars traditionally run the same way.  A figure of authority – ‘the sage on the stage’ – leads the lecture or the discussion.  It’s simple.  And it’s easy to do.  Sometimes it’s also necessary when we need to get a piece of critical information across.  But making students’ work visible in the law school classroom might open a range of new opportunities to critically analyse material, foster professional skills and provide useful feedback.

New wine in old bottles

Over on the Education Week teachers’ blog, Justin Minkel wrote a piece about making elementary students’work visible.  He asked an interesting question:  How much of the stuff in your classroom is written by adults?   His question is about children’s classes.  But it prompted me to think about the same question in a slightly different way: How much stuff in my classroom is written by old lawyers?

Obviously, in a common law context, most of it has to be.  Precedent is all about the historical development of the law.  Even the title to this section has a venerable history – biblical and legal.

But one of the problems is that teaching the law as pre-written rules tends to externalise it.  It’s a thing or object to study, not the dynamic force that reflects changes in the community that it can be.  It’s natural then that, as law teachers, we tend to appear as the ‘experts’ in a body of frozen knowledge to our students.

But it also means that, while students focus on memorising that static knowledge for an exam, it’s challenging to get them to critically question it.  That’s worrying since critical thinking is something required in the Australian law curriculum, and valued in US law schools.  It also means that they might limit their engagement with it based on extrinsic reward. That is, if they remember it as taught, then they’ll get a good mark in the exam.

Personal connection and motivation

I have written in another post about how effective learning is about personal experience.  We learn better when we directly experience the material we’re learning.  The idea isn’t a new one. It goes back as far as Aristotle and Locke.

Our personal connection also drives an intrinsic passion for learning.  Daniel Pink writes extensively about the idea that our ability to see the connection between what we’re doing and things that we value motivates us. It also means that we focus less on external rewards and more internal satisfaction. 

For lawyers and law students, that’s even more important.  Back in 2005, Martin Seligman and his peers asked the question ‘Why are lawyers unhappy?’ One of the reasons was that young lawyers, in particular, have little control over what they do and how they do it.  There is no personal connection or autonomy, which Seligman argues is demotivating.  For law students who feel they need to regurgitate the ‘right’ answer, there isn’t a lot of independence either.

Fostering professional skills

For law students, there’s another good reason to create opportunities for them to expose their work to peers and get feedback from them.

Reflective thinking is part of the Australian law curriculum. All Australian law school graduates must be able to ‘reflect on and assess their own capabilities and performance, and make use of feedback as appropriate, to support personal and professional development’. The American Bar Association’s Standards for the Approval of Law Schools includes ‘self-evaluation’ as a skill for ‘competent and ethical participation in the legal profession’ in Standard 302. Self-evaluation must also feature in clinical units.

Creating opportunities for students to present their work and receive constructive feedback on it also provides the chance to talk about receiving, reflecting on and applying that feedback.

Making students work visible

So how can we make law students visible, especially when there are rules to learn?  Here are just two ideas to try something new, or enhance something you might already be doing.

Student-led discussions

Student-led discussions are an excellent opportunity to make their work visible to peers. But, if you ask students how excited they were the last time they sat through a student presentation, they will roll their eyes.  Remember though, they learn from what they see.  If your style is ‘ talk and chalk’, then students will follow the pattern you set.

Opportunities for student-led discussions need to be scaffolded. It’s not enough to create a rubric with a criterion that the student must ‘engage with peers’.  You need to explicitly teach and demonstrate the skills to engage peers in that discussion.

The Australian law curriculum also helps here. It requires that law graduates develop the ability to think creatively when generating their response to an issue. It also requires them to learn to communicate appropriately and persuasively taking into account the needs of their audience.  Teaching those skills isn’t an unnecessary distraction. It’s required.

But student-led discussions aren’t a one-way street.  There’s another group in the room whose skills you need to scaffold.  Constructing and delivering feedback in a professional setting may not be a skill that students naturally have.  In fact, experiences in other classrooms might have taught them a grossly unprofessional way of providing feedback.  Setting your expectations, and the expectations of peers, is a critical part of the process.  And you can find some ideas about to do that in another post.

Writers’ workshops

One of the things I have done is to ask for samples of students’ writing that I use as a teaching tool.  I ask students to volunteer examples of their writing, often for an assessment task.  I will take the time in class to display the sample and comment on its strengths and areas for improvement.  It’s also a fantastic opportunity to model constructive feedback, to set expectations about professional communication, and to encourage peers to practise providing feedback.

This can be intimidating. As a way of addressing some students’ fears about doing it, I have often done it on the promise that the student will remain anonymous. I also usually wait until a little later in the semester to do this since it allows time for students do develop trust in me and in each other that no-one will tolerate ridicule.

While it might not sound like something that students’ would flock to, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  It has now got to the point where the number of samples exceeds the time available!

Skills, motivation and visibility

While teaching the frozen body of knowledge that law sometimes is, we need to remember that there are other aspects of the curriculum that need to be included.  Making students’ work visible, especially as a teaching tool, provides the opportunity to do just that.

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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