Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Getting Called on in Class

This is being my blog, I of course think that everything I post about is interesting. (Modesty, where art thou?) Yet some subjects invariably generate more traction with readers.

My last post was one of those. If you have not read my post entitled "Reading for Class," please do, and please read the comments. It started out as an observation by me about how some students respond when called on, and from there--well, a lot of people had a lot to say. Which is absolutely great. Thanks to all who have commented.

Some of the comments addressed the pros and cons of how professors call on people in class. Different professors of course do it different ways. There is no one right way, but I suppose there are a number of wrong ways. So does anyone have any thoughts? Some points I'd like to see comments on are as follows (feel free to add others as you see fit):

  • Is it better to know that you are going to be called on in a particular class, or is a random method preferable?
  • Do you like the Socratic Method? Or, for that matter, do you really understand what it is? And if so, do you buy into learning from each other's comments and student-professor discussions in class? Why or why not?
  • What method of class participation or in-class commentary is your favorite? (Or perhaps more accurately stated, which method do you least dislike?)
  • Should class participation count toward your final grade?
  • Does it matter if everyone is called on in class?
  • Once you are called on, should you be off the hook for the rest of the semester?
  • What do you think of "group projects" or "group presentations" in class?

I am looking for a general sense of what law students across the country might think about the subject of class participation, especially now that the nation's 1L students have nearly a full semester under their belts. This is helpful--helps me keep my finger on the pulse, and all that. Teaching a law school class is not a popularity contest, so the point is not that law profs always should do whatever students like. But profs who do not have a sense of where their students are coming from risk losing touch with their students. And when that happens, it's really sad, both for the students and the profs. Both lose in the bargain.

So please let me know what you think. And thanks for reading.


Wha? said...

I wish there were more group projects/presentations. 1L's that aren't forced into study groups together need some way to learn how to help each other out. Everybody wants to be a 'lone wolf' the first semester; exam results and familiarity with classmates may cure that, but not until students have lost the opportunity to benefit from group dynamics during the semester that it would help them the most.

Group projects/presentations also help those shy folks who are really on-the-ball express some of their genius w/o all of the attendant anxiety. Finally, they're good for teaching teamwork, group dynamics, management skills - probably why MBA programs love them so much. My guess is that these same skills are just as important in a legal, ESPECIALLY a firm, setting.

Anonymous said...

Socratic Method is an effective way of teaching the law if it is used well. However, it typically degenerates into a conversation between the professor and the same three or four students who seem to believe that they are the only ones who have something intelligent to say, and they are going to say it often. They monopolize the professor's time with inane hypotheticals that have little to nothing to do with the class. If these studenst can be reined in, then useful discussion can flow from Socratic method.

Anonymous said...

I think the Socratic Method has its place but may be over-relied upon in some instances. Once the semester is well underway, students should have probably started catching on to the important aspects of the cases in their readings, and the Socratic Method may no longer hold as much bearing; this is not to say it shouldn't be used after the first weeks of class, just perhaps it shouldn't be the only method relied on.

Personally, I like when the professor opens class discussion on a given topic, especially if it is a difficult one; hearing other student's personal approaches to a problem can often help one understand it himself. That said, sometimes students choose to continue a line of discussion or ask questions that might be better posed in a one-on-one discussion with the professor (this can happen when one student is "stuck" on a problem and continually asks the professor in class about it, whereas a bulk of the class no longer needs instruction on it). I guess there needs to be a good mix of both the Socratic Method and open discussion for class to flow smoothly and still allow for student feedback.

As for group projects, we haven't really done any yet. I think it would provide a good forum for students to work together and help teach one another, but I also think there might be a trend of several students in the group doing all the work with one or two cavalier students... well, not doing anything and taking credit. Everyone can remember the days of high school and later undergrad group projects where this occurred. If we were to do a group project (which I think would be a lot of fun and a good change of pace from the rest of our workload), the Professor would definitely have to set up a system of ensuring that students who did no work not receive credit.

That's just a little bit of my two cents (which isn't worth much, I know, quiet down, you fellows in the peanut gallery). That said, it's back to... prepping for finals!

Anonymous said...

I don't think that class participation should count at all towards your final grade.

For example a student who always volunteers should not get credit just for talking or making class discussion.

We have only one test for a reason and its not fair to the student who thoroughly prepares and recieves a B+, to see the one who merely talked all the time and got a B?
Oh no...wait a minute since you participated I will bump you up to a B+ even though you didn't know enough to get this grade, here ya go thanks for you delightful participation.

I think that participation should be a factor only and only if that person, "has his day in court" and fails to perform.
Before everyone jumps down my throat for this....I mean that if someone is clearly not prepared or not paying attention.... then the student should be allowed another chance at a later date (why not 3 strikes??) before they are penalized. But how can you penalize the guy who screws up and doesn't seem prepared for class yet they AmJur??

Don't tell me you would lower him to a B+?? Never in a million years

Therefore NO GO on participation....also we have too many people who like to hear their voice and just let me tell you it is the most annoying thing about law school...

Drvies so many people crazy with the What if... or Well I was this once....

Who cares??

Anonymous said...

Deer in headlights? eventually as a first year student it will happen to you and every day after that the fear of the day that you will be called on to brief a case in class and either have prepared for the firing squad or be horribly embarrassed in front of one hundred of your peers for saying something stupid will be enough to ensure that you at least have some idea of what is in your case book. As much as we all hate it, it forces us to read the material whether or not we'd rather be watching the newest sitcom the night before or gossiping at the gazebo before class. If we know that there is a good chance that we're going to get called on, we will prepare more.

I don't think it should count towards our final grade. The embarrassment and the fact that the prof can lower the grade for any reason is enough to put the idea in the back of our heads that not knowing the information requested of us is bad. Whether it is explicitly stated in the syllabus or not, I tend to think that even if the grade isn't lowered, it definitely would be raised if I do not demonstrate some understanding throughout the semester when I am asked to do so.

For those of you who think you want to do a group project, hehe, just wait, you will discover that you can't get more than 3 law students to decide where to eat lunch, right along what to do with an assignment that is a substantial portion of your grade. When and if that debacle falls in your unsuspecting lap please me more diligent than I was and film it, the arguments that ensue are the stuff of reality TV.

I was itching to see a blog on the laptop controversy, but I'll wait and hopefully it will make an appearance later...

wha? said...

I never had a problem with group studies or projects. Always worked out pretty well for me, guess I just must have been lucky.

Anonymous said...

I tell my students what they have to prepare to discuss because I have never encountered a situation where, as a lawyer, I am expected to prepare to argue any of a dozen motions intelligently, only to find out which (if any)of the motions will be heard when I get to court.

If law school is supposed to teach students about the practice of law, then we need to get rid of the bizarre practice of choosing students randomly to discuss a case. Have the students sign up for the case(s) that they will handle at the beginning of the term.

Anonymous said...

Random method basically forces every student to do the assigned reading, but I prefer knowing when I will be called on (as does everyone). I think the Socratic method is effective in that it encourages classroom discussion, but I feel that a more relaxed atmoshpere is more effective and encourages participation (a strict Socratic method probably prevents a real open discussion). Class participation should absolutely not count toward a final grade - some students are more outspoken and have an easier time speaking in front of the class. However, that doesn't mean a "shy" student should be penalized - the final exam measures a student's true knowledge of a subject. I enjoy a professor that lectures and then opens up the floor to discussion, rather than targeting one student. I had a group project this semester in Civ Pro - did NOT like it. I was stuck with 4 other students who didn't have a clue, and given the fact that the assignment was done in phases, you had to rely on other students to perform well. Group projects are fine, as long as students are given the opportunity to choose their own groups.

wha? said...

I still like the idea of group projects, but you really can't get around the fact that there's an accompanying "weakest link" syndrome. Perhaps the students should blindly grade their fellow group members?

At some point, any teaching/grading scheme has to rely somewhat on the will of the student to learn. I can slack in random calling b/c I have a big class. I can slack most of the time in "on call" or "ABC" b/c I KNOW that I won't be called on, except in specific instances. I can slack in a group if other diligent group members will take it up (and they will, to save their own grade)....

The only place you really can't slack is the exam, but if you're going to make the exam the be-all and end-all of the grade, and not expect some kind of class-participation, then what does that say about the ABA's push for mandatory class attendance? And if you throw that out the window, what does that say for the necessity of law school?

Writing on to the bar is so damn difficult in the jurisdictions that do allow it, I think it probably presents the opportunity for less lawyers of better quality. Now THERE'S a public-policy interest. Anyone know of a judge that wants to hear it?

Anonymous said...

I’m actually not a big fan of mandatory attendance. I think students learn differently and some students could very well pass by just showing up for the exam. I know that there was more than one class in undergraduate where once it was decided that there was no attendance policy, I literally only showed up for exams and did fine. I think that there is a good probability of shooting yourself in the foot if you never go to class, but at the end of the day, it’s your grade and the understanding of the law that you can demonstrate that matters.
If we are required to be there, which due to powers beyond our control we are, shouldn't class at least be engaging and full of discussion? I mean, if I read and understand the material, I'd much rather hear different discussions from my class mates than having it read back to me with emphasis on the part that might be on the final.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Sounds like you are the exception and not the rule. Since most people benefit from attendance, an attendance policy's benefits would seem to outweigh the downside. And don't forget that law school is different than undergrad. You are trying to learn how to apply the law, not just restate it.

As for having class be engaging, I certainly think it should be. Students learn more when class is interesting. This isn't a constitutional right, of course, but law schools are there to educate, and the educational experience improves when students are engaged in the process. So yes, I agree with you on that.

Anonymous said...

Why do people assume that undergraduate education doesn't require analysis?

Just curious.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

That's a good question, and one that points to some tension between law schools and other institutions of higher learning.

For the record, I think undergrad programs do teach analytical skills. But the point is that the focus in law school is generally different. It is hard enough to learn a subject and be able to discuss it intelligently in a "compare and contrast" essay. Yet the traditional law school exam takes things one step further and requires students not just to understand a subject, but also to be able to apply its legal rules and principles to a hypothetical set of facts. What is important is not so much the answer as the reasoning. So as compared to many undergrad exams, law school exams require something more.

Of course, as with all generalizations there are exceptions. All undergrad courses are not created equal. And one can imagine an undergrad course that tests in this way too (international relations, for example). Yet I find that many 1L students are surprised at the difference between typical undergrad exams and law school exams. Not all students, but many.

So I am speaking in terms of generalizations, and as the saying goes, "All generalizations are bad." And yet there is a difference.

Anonymous said...

I assume many prospective law students are reading this blog as I did before coming to law school. I think most of the recent discussion on this blog demonstrates one thing and that is, law school is no fun, to put it nicely. Yes, it can be done but before jumping in one really should consider rather or not they want to suffer for three years and probably reach near insolvent status to fight for a spot at the top of their class. Unfortunately, it seems only the top five percent has a chance to earn any real money after their first year. Even after graduation a six digit income is very far fetched outside of the top ten percent of the class, yet six digit debt doesn't seem so remote. Professors and everyone else at law school seem to be really good at discussing the "great" opportunities for unpaid positions or next to volunteer employment. I am aware these "great" opportunities provide experience for higher earning down the road when you just couldn't make the top of your class for a real paying job that provides experience. It is frustrating to realize that you are working harder than the average college graduate and were probably at the top of your undergraduate class and still making far less with far more debt. The point of this post is to advise those thinking about law school. If you have a good career but law school is one of those things you always wished you could do, then you should be careful what you wish for. This is what happened to me and I am dealing with it. All of that said if I hadn't gone the law school route I would have always questioned that decision too.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

That is a great comment. Your frustration rings true, and your note of caution is very good advice for prospective law students. And I can tell you that while I always enjoyed school, when I got to the first year of law school I just simply wanted out. I am glad I stuck it out, of course, but there were times when I thought about doing otherwise.

That being said, there are positive aspects to law school. In the spirit of the recent Thanksgiving holiday, therefore, perhaps that will be the subject of my next post.

some guy said...

I'm now finishing my second-to-last semester of law school. I think I had only one class (contracts) in which the professor used the actual Socratic Method the entire time. I learned absolutely nothing about contracts and to this day, know nothing about contracts other than the mailbox rule. So, no, I don't think truly being Socratic works very well.

Anonymous said...

Let's reflect a bit about the Socratic method. As a former LL.M. student at a U.S. law school I was suprised to see how far away the law school understanding of the Socratic method is away from it's Greek origins. As far as I understood the original meaning (what a nice term in this context) was that the Greek philosphers found a way of explaining concepts, ideas, and theories by directing his scholar using a wide set of questions that allowed the scholar to understand the ideas by himself, led by the questions. I can imagine the wonderful Stoa at the Athens market place. A philosopher joined by a scholar is wandering the halls, enganged in a dialogue which will eventually lead the scholar to the "right" insights. The whole atmosphere is made up by a meaningful dialogue, respect for the questions of the philosopher and the scholar, and the shared enterprise to find further insights on the matter.

In contrast to that it seems to me that at "my" law school, professors especially in Con Law tried too hard to grill students on the required readings instead of using those reading to create questions to lead students to different kinds of views on the issue. Students felt intimidated because they feared not having "understood" the case. Often, the professors' questions - for my taste - touched the students regarding their own personalities. While another student was asked, the rest of the class did not listen in a way to understand the questions and answers as leading to a better understanding of the issue. The whole question game was often interrupted by students who asked questions on details so that there was no straight line of questions visible for the rest of the class. The professors understood themselves as knowing the issue and the more preferrable, convincing answers, and they managed to let the students feel that difference. All in all, a lot of times it seemed to me that I was watching a bad parody of the original Socratic method. At the end such courses students had the feeling that they had learned nothing.

So how to improve that? Nobody doubts that mandatory readings have to be done by the students, and that the cases read have to serve as a basis for a discussion on certian issues. But besides that I see no reason to let students look stupid in class in front of their classmates. Questions should be directed to the issue, no to question the personality of the student asked. What I missed was a clear statement, backed by every-day practice, that even hard questions would just matter towards the issue, not in regard of the person. A good professor will know how to create a work athmosphere that will take away students' fear to be called on. I actually like the idea posted above to assign a case to a student so that the students knows when she or he will be on call. No attorney will be chosen for a court appearance 2 minutes before the court session starts out of a crowd of attorneys.

Gregory W. Bowman said...


That is a very thoughtful comment. Thanks for sharing your insight. I agree fully that "Socratic" in the modern law school context is very different from the original Socratic method. And if I remember correctly, it started being used in US law schools around the turn of the last century, as a way to control large classes.

Personally, I am not a fan of strict Socratic teaching. The whole idea is to encourage a classroom dialogue, as well as student preparation. Both speaking in front of people and handling a large workload are important practice skills to develop and hone. But getting people to speak in class does often devolve into "tell me what you think, and if I disagree with you I will tell you why you are wrong," which does not encourage voluntarily and meaningful discourse. And the best courses I had in law school--those with the best class participation--did not have profs who tried to impose their opinions.

Interestingly, my own experience with "discussion leaders" in class has been mixed. I find it works well in seminars, but in larger classes, both from my perspective as a student and now as a teacher, I haven't thought it worked as well. But that's not a strongly held view; perhaps I will try it again at some point.

Part of the problem with the so-called Socratic method in modern US law schools, perhaps, is that the scholarship required of modern law profs requires them to develop and assert unique or different positions on their subjects of expertise. Might it sometimes be hard for profs to turn it off in the classroom, with the result that discussion is squelched? I think sometimes the answer is yes. Not always, and perhaps not even often, but sometimes. I hear that concern voiced by current students sometimes, so I am not alone in this view. In many ways, teaching is a different skill than scholarship, although they are complementary. But there is perhaps some tension there.

So thanks again for the insight and discussion of how the Socratic method really isn't so Socratic.