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November 9, 2007

Laptops Again

The ABA Journal reports that "more law schools are banning [laptops] as a distraction." 

The tiered seating arrangement of most law school lecture rooms allows students to easily see what others are doing. “Laptops are pedagogical nuisances,” [Suffolk Prof. Kate Nace Day] says.

The article quotes our very own Doug Berman, who supports students rights to use laptops in class.  Ironically, however, the quotes themselves suggest the problem--as they show that Doug himself can be distracted by basketball scores on a laptop screen!

Ohio State University law professor Douglas A. Berman isn’t bothered by what his students do in class. If students want to play poker or watch porn during class, so be it, he says, though he knows his opinion is out of the mainstream.

“I have students who don’t come to class. I have students who are paying attention and say dumb things. But so be it,” Berman says.

Berman’s only concern is when one student’s behavior distracts another’s learning experience. It is a lesson he learned all too well when sitting in on a colleague’s evidence lecture during the March NCAA basketball tournament.

“I noticed a student’s laptop with the basketball scores on the screen,” he says. “I got distracted looking at the scores.”

I suspect that more professors will encourage students to rethink their use of laptops.

Anupam Chander

November 9, 2007 in Technology -- in the classroom | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 7, 2007

Structural challenges and cross-institutional collaboration

If you look for research on innovation, you will find that much of the literature is in the field of business.  Innovation, of course, is key to business success and is often rewarded with profit and wealth.

One of the challenges in discussing innovations in law school is that much of this literature does not apply.  In business, innovation often comes from people starting a new business.  They are the ones who provide the new ideas, whether it is a product, marketing idea, or service.  In the legal academy, we don't have that option-- we can't very easily peel off to start our own school.  Thus, those individuals who do innovate must do it within institutional structures that sometimes creates disincentives to innovation-- for example, through a tenure process that rewards fitting in. 

Still, we have new innovators in teaching, scholarship, administration, and curriculum development.   Much of that innovation grows out of collaboration between diverse individuals, which allows ideas and personalities to meld and become something new. 

In the last several years, the amount of collaboration between scholars at different schools has greatly increased.   As this blog illustrates, the internet has made new types of inter-school collaboration possible.  The fact that we lack the ability to form new units (as business innovators do) make this development all the more important. 

One thing I wonder, though, is whether this collaboration needs to be limited to scholarship?  Is there a way to develop, through the use of the internet and other technologies, collaborative teaching across institutional lines?  Specifically, would it be possible to teach the same class in two places?  At the very least, it seems like it should be possible to share not just a syllabus, but teaching and testing materials for groundbreaking types of classes. 

Has anyone come close to cross-institutional teaching?

-- Mark Osler

November 7, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 6, 2007

Do law profs have a duty to help student deal with disappointing grades?

I just saw via SSRN this new paper by Grant Morris, entitled "Preparing Law Students for Disappointing Exam Results: Lessons from Casey at the Bat," which asserts that law professors have a duty to help students deal with disappointing grades. Here is the paper's abstract:

It is a statistical fact of life that two-thirds of the law students who enter law school will not graduate in the upper one-third of their law school class.  Typically, those students are disappointed in their examination grade results and in their class standing.  Nowhere does this disappointment manifest itself more than in their attitude toward their classes.  In the fall semester of their first year, students are eager, excited, and willing to participate in class discussion.  But after they receive their first semester grade results, many students withdraw from the learning process — they are depressed and disengaged.  They suffer a significant loss of self-esteem.

This article considers whether law professors should prepare their students for the disappointing results — the poor grades — that many are certain to receive.  I assert that professors do indeed have a role to play — in fact, a duty to their students — to confront this problem.  I offer a strategy by which professors can acknowledge students' pre-examination anxiety and deal constructively with their impending disappointment.  There are lessons to be learned from Casey at the Bat, Ernest Lawrence Thayer's immortal poem about failure.

November 6, 2007 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 5, 2007

An interesting take on scoring student participation

I recently posted a short note on scoring student participation.  The following response from Hillary Burgess, an Adjunct Professor at Rutgers School of Law - Camden, was more thorough, insightful, and directive than my own blurb, and merits posting on its own:

In response to Mark Osler’s article on scoring participation, I will share with you some ideas I’ve used in the past, some more successful than others. 

I do score participation.  It’s usually worth 4% of a students grade, with 2% for answering thoughtfully when called on, 3% for volunteering sporadically but thoughtfully, and 4% for volunteering consistently and thoughtfully.  (Because I use a 1000 point scale, it’s 20, 30, and 40 points, so it feels a bit more significant to the students.)  I find reminding students about participation does help motivate them.

I start off the semester by telling them that I am attempting to have individual conversations with each student instead of lecturing at them.  My expectation is that everyone in the class will raise their hand when I ask a question because everyone is actively engaged in the dialogue.    I do give them the out that if they don’t know the answer, they should begin a dialogue with me about their confusion that demonstrates that they are prepared and thoughtfully considering my questions. Sometimes I add that I’ll assume that if they don’t raise their hand, they are unprepared, unless they tell me ahead of time that they are not volunteering for personal reasons.

I’ve also encouraged students to divide up the classes and have 2-3 “super-prepared” students for each class.  Everyone must read the material and be prepared to discuss it generally, but the “super-prepared” students will be responsible for the bulk of the discussion.  I’ve found that this solution takes the burden of participation pressure off of the professor and creates social pressure from peers to volunteer on their designated day.  If they don’t, the burden falls back on everyone else who resents the unprepared student, not the professor.  (I also organized this technique as a student in Chief Justice Rehnquist's class since the reading was so copious.)

In a couple of classes where literally, my problem was getting the students to participate LESS, I devoted the first few lectures to topics of opinion, where no answer could possibly be wrong, though people had very strong opinions one way or another.  For example, I started a class on Privacy with the question:  in wake of 9-11, should the government be allowed to wire tap every phone without probable cause?  What about video-tape everyone’s house?  (As an aside, be VERY afraid of what is going to happen when this generation comes of age.  Most of my students who were teeny boppers in 2001 had no problem with the government audio and/or video taping every aspect of their lives, including bedroom and bathroom.)

I think success rests a lot on pumping student’s egos up when they do volunteer.  No answer, no matter how incorrect, is wrong.  I’ve been known to say, “I’m so glad you gave that answer because I’m sure many other students read the material and interpreted it to mean X, too, so lets talk about it.”  Of course, this approach can lead to students coming unprepared to class if used too much, so I’ve found it best to use the technique only in the beginning of the semester and expecting more as the semester progresses.

Mostly, I’ve found that it’s a “critical mass” issue.  Once I’ve been able to get 1/4 or 1/3 of the class regularly participating, the entire class will chime in, minus a two students who would rather have their teeth pulled than say anything in front of a group.  If it doesn’t happen in the first 2-3 weeks, it’s not going to happen.

Here are some strategies I’ve heard other professors use, but do not use myself because I find them too punitive:

1.  Pop quiz if students don’t volunteer or don’t know the answer when called on.

2.  Dismissing students from class if they aren’t prepared when called on.  (For a great discussion of the pros and cons of this solution, which has made me reconsider how to incorporate this technique into class, read “Here’s a Shocker” by Tracy McGaugh in The Second Draft Volume 20, No 1. http://www.lwionline.org/publications/seconddraft/aug05.pdf  

3.  Giving students three days to come unprepared during the semester.  If they indicated they were prepared, they needed to participate or be prepared to be called on.  If they indicated they were prepared and weren’t they lost all of their participation points. 

4.  Give students the ability to pass one time during the semester if they do not want to participate, but then they are the main participant the next class meeting.  (Of course, I always thought that if I were called on, whether I was prepared or not, I would take a pass and then super-duper prepare for the next class.)

I don’t tend to favor these strategies because I want to build rapport with my students that lets them know that I am their biggest advocate in getting an good education and a great career.  It’s hard to employ punitive strategies and simultaneously be someone’s advocate - from their perspective. 

-- Mark Osler

November 5, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack