Skip to main content

Cultivating Trust in the Classroom

Cultivating trust is one of the keys to effective collaboration. This is especially true in the classroom. The relationship between instructor and student can have a huge effect on how much the student learns. But how do we cultivate trust?

Here are just a few ways:

1) Creating "psychological safety." In a study by Google of what helps teams collaborate well, Google found that psychological safety, as measured by taking turns in discussions and team members demonstrating high degrees of social sensitivity. In the classroom context, this means students need to feel free to ask questions and speak up without fear of rejection by those sharing their classroom space. Instructors can foster this by making it clear that there are no "stupid" questions, by cultivating a supportive classroom atmosphere, and by encouraging students who ask questions or make comments with positive reinforcement.

2) Listening actively. When students feel that instructors and classmates are listening carefully, it creates mutual respect. When students feel heard, they are more likely to believe that their contributions have value--and when people feel valued, they are more likely to want to contribute more frequently. Too often, we are listening to respond, not to hear what's actually being said. Consider contributions before responding to students' comments and questions too quickly. Your students will know that you're actually contemplating what they've said. Pausing doesn't make you seem unprepared; it makes you seem deliberative.

3) Being authentic. Instructors can show students their authenticity by being honest with them. In the classroom, we like to see ourselves as the knowledgeable figure in the classroom. (In fact, I got through my first semesters of teaching by repeating one mantra to ease my insecurity: "Remember: you know more than they do.") But, it's important not to break trust by giving an answer when you don't necessarily know it's the right one. Students respect their instructors more when they respond honestly with "I don't know. But I'll find out and get back to you." Not only do students appreciate their instructors' authenticity in these moments, but they feel even more valued when the instructor does take the time to look into an issue and reports back to them.

4) "Taking students seriously." One of my all-time favorite articles is Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"  43 J. Legal Education 247 (1993). He notes that students are particularly astute at knowing whether their instructors like and respect them. Or more importantly, they know when their instructors don't. When students know you enjoy and value your time with them, it builds a certain rapport and trust, which Syverud explains allows students to forgive a lot in the classroom. If there's trust, students are also likely to value what you're teaching more--which may be especially important given the traditional place of legal research skills in the law school curriculum.

How do you cultivate trust in your classroom?

Popular posts from this blog

Research Instruction and Resilience

Law students can quickly become frustrated when they struggle with legal research--perhaps due to the fact that one of the narratives they tell about research is that it's easy. This may be especially true for students suffering from a fixed mindset

Students need help building resilience to overcome this frustration and to be able to accept critical feedback.  Legal research instructors can help students overcome these struggles and stay engaged in their intellectual growth by taking concrete steps to build their resilience.  In fact, most research courses are well-positioned to help students grapple with failure because most already include multiple assessments that will give students room to practice and develop their skills throughout the semester. These multiple opportunities for performance allow us to observe and point out our students' growth.

In her recent article, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, Professor Kac…

Reflection in the Legal Research Classroom

Reflection is a critical component of experiential learning.  We see in ABA Standard 303 that experiential courses must include multiple opportunities for self-evaluation.  Self-evaluation is critically important to legal research.  Students must reflect on and assess their research methodology each time they research to continue becoming more efficient legal researchers and to determine what research strategies work best in which situations. [1]

Reflection relates to several ideas found in cognitive theory that have been shown to result in stronger learning and retention:

Retrieval: recalling recently-learned information; Elaboration: finding a nexis between what you know and what you are learning; and Generation: putting concepts into your own words and/or contemplating what you might do differently next time. I've been contemplating how to better incorporate reflection into legal research classes. At the beginning of this semester, at the recommendation of a workshop I attended …

Changing the Narrative About Legal Research

I attended an interesting talk by a colleague and friend recently that has me thinking about re-writing narratives. Specifically, I've been considering how to re-write the narrative about the importance of legal research in legal education.

Legal research instruction has long taken a back seat in the legal academy.  It's even been described as the "stepchild in legal education."[1] As a skills course, it's traditionally been considered of less import than doctrinal courses, though thankfully this seems to be improving. Even within the first years skill course, the dedicated time for students to learn legal research, research often takes a backseat in time and emphasis to legal writing and oral arguments, despite being the foundation needed to be successful at both. This happens despite those hiring new attorneys commenting regularly about their discontent with students' research skills.

It's unlikely in most cases that more time is going to be formally al…

Four Aspects of Effectual Teaching (& Why Instructional Design Is the One Missing In Many Law Courses)

There are four general components of teaching, which all must come together for a teacher to be successful:
Knowledge of the Subject Matter: Most instructors in higher education have this covered. The largest potential hurdle of this aspect of teaching is perhaps remembering to view the material from the perspective of the beginner learner, as opposed to from the teacher's own advanced learner status. In my first year of teaching, I found this to be an issue, as I jumped over steps that were so obvious to me that I didn't even notice them anymore. It was only by students asking questions that illustrated I was missing an important step in their comprehension and by watching the legal writing professor I co-taught with that I began to break down my material into pieces that were more digestible for my students.

Interaction with Students: Instructor-student interaction can take a myriad of forms. As L. Dee Fink writes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences,

"Teacher-stud…

Battling Law Students' Fixed Mindset

Many students show up to law school with fixed mindsets--the belief that each person is born with a particular intellectual ability and that they there is little to nothing one can do to surpass that innate intellectual level.  A large proportion of law students were classified as smart early on in their learning experiences and have been academically successful their entire educational careers.  Many faculty members had a similar experience as they advanced from primary school to secondary school to undergrad and finally to law school--where most continued to succeed academically.

For some law students, however, law school is the first time in their lives that they have struggled to succeed immediately.  This can have a disastrous result, because those with fixed mindsets have a tendency to equate mistakes with failure.  These students then have a tendency to avoid challenging themselves, to ignore constructive criticism, and to give up or not try.[1]  In their minds, they are just n…