August 25, 2008
Class Participation and the Importance of Teams
Posted by Gordon Smith

Teaching has become all the rage in the legal blogosphere over the past week, and Eugene Volokh adds an important contribution on the importance of class participation. This is a pitch I have been making to my students for years, and I made it again this morning in my first Business Associations class of the new semester:

I want to argue that students — though they of course pay lots of money to us — are not just customers of legal education, but are also in a sense a sort of employee: Law school classes rely on students' participating in the class, as a means of helping educate the other students. Learning, the theory goes, is a cooperative endeavor, in which students benefit from hearing each other's comments.

Eugene is engaged in a debate about whether banning laptops is libertarian or paternalistic, and I am not at all interested in that, but I am interested in the notion of students as participants in the learning process. For many years, I have used the "present and prepared" system (which I describe in my syllabus) precisely to reward students who contribute to the learning environment in the classroom. My own experience suggests that this is a more useful and less controversial means of inducing quality classroom discussions than banning laptops.

The most interesting aspect of Eugene's post, however, is his description of the modern Socratic classroom:

Most law school classes are between seminars and lectures: The professor talks more than he does in a seminar, and class discussion is less important than in a seminar, but class discussion still takes up a large part of the time, and the professor's conversations with the students — and sometimes students' conservations with each other — are an important pedagogical tool. Some question whether it's an effective tool; perhaps we'd be better off lecturing more and drawing the students in less. But most of our classes do heavily rely (rightly or wrongly) on this tool.

This means that whether students are paying attention in class affects not just themselves, but their classmates. Students who tune out, either because they're distracted by non-class materials, or because they are so focused on taking verbatim notes that they aren't really mentally engaging the information, aren't doing the job they're supposed to do. (Again, I recognize that they're not being directly paid for the job, but rather have to pay us; but part of the educational transaction is that they get an education and a credential in exchange for money and class participation.) When fewer students participate in class, other students get less out of the class discussion. When a student is called on and doesn't give a good answer, other students get less out of the class discussion (especially since time is wasted, and the conversation is interrupted).

Notice the classroom dynamic: the professor is speaking with some students (usually one at a time, though some professors manage to involve several students simultaneously) while other students listen. Or not. The non-participants may "tune out" because they are distracted or bored or busily acting as scribes.

In my view, student passivity is the core challenge in the modern law school classroom. Eugene observes that most classes are larger than seminars. As a result, a single teacher cannot engage each student in the classroom personally, so we resort to theater to hold their attention. We speak in excited tones to show our passion for our subject and we bring props (like PowerPoint slides) and tell stories or jokes. Or we become very rigorous in our questioning of the students so that, like Kingsfield, we scare the bejabbers out of them. (Or we hold auctions! I don't intend to be critical of J.W.'s exercise, which I did in my Securities Regulation class last semester. It's a wonderfully engaging exercise, especially for the first day.) At the end of the semester, if we have been entertaining or impressive enough, the students reward us with high scores on our teacher evaluations. Ugh!

If you are unhappy with that state of affairs, I would suggest that you give teams a try. Even if you don't like the idea of assigning team projects for grades (a topic that I will address in a separate post), using teams in class is a no-brainer.

I first experimented with teams several years ago, but my efforts were tentative. I asked the students to work as teams only a couple of times during the semester. Each time I requested that they form ad hoc teams for the day. These were serious design problems. My students had become accustomed to the modern Socratic classroom, and the team assignments disrupted their routines. As a result, the students inevitably wasted time getting organized and spent many awkward minutes moving from the passivity to which they had been accustomed to a group interaction. They viewed the teams as a "gimmick," and often never achieved any sort of meaningful discussion.

When my teaching advisors from CTL first suggested last fall that I move in the direction of using teams, therefore, I was very skeptical. But their pitch was simple for someone who was seeking a more engaging classroom: start from the first day, making teamwork part of the classroom routine, so that your students expect to be engaged with each other every day.

I tried this approach in both of my classes last semester, more systematically in Securities Regulation. One day, as I walked around the classroom listening to my students discuss a hypothetical problem from the casebook, I had a revelatory moment. Instead of having me and one student discuss this problem as a not-very-gripping theater performance, I was watching all 50 students in the class engaging with the problem. All of them were speaking the words of securities regulation. All of them were struggling to one degree or another with the basic themes of the course. They were looking at each other, not at their computers. And they appeared to be thinking!

And that's how I became sold on teams in the classroom.

P.S. For a provocative and insightful follow-up to Eugene's post, read Ann Althouse's thought experiment, concluding that students "should feel an ethical responsibility to the classroom community they asked to join and to the rejected applicants they are displacing."

I probably should note that I expect classroom participation beyond the team discussions (see the present and prepared system referenced above), but those portions of my class are now much smaller than they once were.

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