Skip to main content

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:
  1. 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.

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

    "Teacher-student interactions is an umbrella term that refers to all different ways teachers interact with their students: lecturing, leading class discussions, meeting with individual students during office hours, communicating by e-mail, and so on. This aspect of teaching . . . is a skill that runs the full spectrum from poor to excellent. Some faculty members have a personality and a set of social skills that make it easy for them to interact naturally with students in a way that enhances learning. Others need to learn how to be more dynamic, establish better credibility, and otherwise relate better with their students."[1]

    Generally speaking, however, if instructors practice fairness, respect, charity, and civility in their classrooms and take their students seriously, students are likely to view them favorably--regardless of their ability to be "entertaining."

  3. Managing the Course: Instructors must be organized in their presentation of course material. This includes things like distributing assignments on schedule, returning feedback on assessments in a timely manner, and demonstrating that they are prepared for class. This is not a major issue for most instructors in higher education, but when it's a problem, it can damage an instructor's credibility.

  4. Instructional Design: Most faculty members follow the example of their academic discipline in how to teach. Unfortunately, many of these methods not align with pedagogical best practices.  As Fink notes,

    "Design of instruction, in contrast to interacting with students, is a skill which few college-level teachers have extensive training. Some have been fortunate enough to learn about the design of learning experiences because they went through teacher training as an undergraduate, had a course on this subject as a graduate students, or have participated in an in-service faculty development program on instructional design. But most faculty members simply follow the traditional ways of teaching in their discipline. They lack the conceptual tools they need to significantly rethink and reconstruct the set of teaching and learning activities they use."[2]

    Neither my undergraduate degrees in history and philosophy, nor my graduate programs in library science and law, included any course work in instructional design--and this seems to be true of most law faculty I have encountered. While we're experts in our fields of expertise, we are not experts in how to teach effectively unless we work at it. As such, it is important that our institutions provide training in pedagogical best practices--or that we seek other opportunities to train ourselves, whether at our own universities, at conferences, or by reading on the subjects of instructional design and educational theory. It is clear that lecture is not the best means by which students learn and having other teaching tools in mind when we design our courses is critical to maximize student learning in law school.

    While many law librarians do incorporate exercises ("active learning") into our research courses, lecture is still a significant component in many of our classes. Exploring resources on instructional design might be one way to develop ideas on how to better engage our students.


[1] L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Revised and Updated: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses 26 (2013).

[2] Id. at 27.

Popular posts from this blog

Elaborative Interrogation in the Legal Research Classroom

One type of activity legal skills professors can incorporate into their classrooms is elaboration. As described by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki in Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, "[e]laboration describes the process of adding features to one's memories."[1]  It helps with organization of information within the knowledge structures in one's minds, making it easier to retrieve this information later. But what activities will help students to add features to their memories?

Weinstein and Sumeracki recommend three elaboration techniques that can all be applied to the legal research classroom: elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding.[2] Studies of each has shown improvement in student learning and long-term retention. Today, we're going to look specifically elaborative interrogation.

With elaborative interrogation, students ask themselves questions about the reason and way things work.[3]  While it's easy to presume law stud…

Cold-Calling in the Law Classroom

In the years I've spent in legal academia, both as a student and a teacher, there's never been a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of cold-calling students. In the past year, however, I've heard arguments by faculty members that cold-calling works as a form of formative assessment for class, despite the fact that only one student is answering a given question. Recently, however, as I've been exploring brain science, I've been wondering about how much learning actually takes place inside classrooms where cold-calling is the primary method of instruction. Are we making learning more difficult than it needs to be?

I've written briefly before about the effectsof retrieval. Retrieval is the stage of the learning process in which students access information from their long-term memories.[1] Regular practice retrieving information leads to both long-term retention of information (basically, because we have had practice finding information in the knowledge st…

Intuitions About Teaching and Learning

Most learners rely on their own intuitions when selecting their study strategies. The same is true of teachers; we look back to our experiences as both students and teachers in deciding which strategies to use with our students. But how reliable are these intuitions?

It turns out, not veryreliable.

When relying on intuition, both students and teachers can select strategies that may not help learners be successful. We can see this in the tendency of college students to see reading and re-reading their textbooks and notes as the best way to learn.[1] Studies overwhelming demonstrate that re-reading takes more time on the part of the learner, but does not improve students' abilities to retain information in the long term.[2] To learners, however, re-reading feels good. As Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki describe it in their book, "The more we read a passage, the more fluently we are able to read it. However, reading fluency does not mean we're engaging with the informatio…

Making "Thinking Time" for Curricular Development

In academia, we often hear faculty discuss the need to find time to write.  I've recently been reading Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space, in which she discusses the need for those very things in writing.  In the first chapter, she notes, "[A]cademics talk constantly about making time, finding time, carving out time to write. We fantasize about having more of it, and we bemoan our chronic lack of it."[1]

I find the same is true for developing and assessing curricular programming. As librarians, true public servants, our profession is rooted in our service to others. Even if we are not scheduled for the reference desk or to attend a meeting, our "availability" is our calling card and in some cases our badge of honor.  It's expected that we will stop what we're doing should a patron come to our door or call on the phone.

The problem is that without free time to think, to think uninterrupted, we cannot innovate.  We keep with the stat…

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 …