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

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend,

Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training. 

There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you today. 


First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"…

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching, there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog.

The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new in…

Gratitude in Teaching

My favorite poet is Mary Oliver and what I love most about her work is the awe and gratefulness she exudes in merely observing the world.

She writes,
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
This is, I think, good advice for teachers.  As teachers, we tend to focus in, with laser-like precision, on anything that goes wrong in our classrooms. This is important--we must reflect on what doesn't work in our classrooms to improve as instructors. But, what we too often fail to do is take note of our successes.

In Chapter 3 of her new book, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, Professor Jessamyn Neuhaus has a wonderful section on the importance of gratitude in teaching. She describes gratitude as "an inner attitude [that] leads to an expression of thanks--taking an action--toward someone or something. It means recognizing what you received from another person or from the circumstances in w…

16x16 Challenge, or How A Tweet Resulted in Building a Community of Law Librarians Thinking & Writing About Teaching

Twitter is a space in which I've made connections with so many Law Librarians and many others within legal academia--and strengthened connections with others--and learned so much from and been inspired by colleagues across the country.

This past weekend, Emily Barney, Technology Training & Marketing Librarian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, was live-tweeting a panel from the WP Campus (Where WordPress Meets Higher Education) Conference called "The Infamous 9x9x25 Challenge," by Todd Conaway, from the University of Washington--Bothell. Started in 2013 at a community college in Arizona, faculty members were challenged to write 25 sentences a week for 9 weeks about teaching and learning. It gave faculty members the chance to reflect on what they do, share experiences and ideas, and see what their colleagues are up to over the course of the semester. And the challenge has spread in various iterations to college campuses across the United States.

This seemed like a wonder…

Embracing Learner-Centered Pedagogy

Most educators pride themselves on putting our students first and try to make teaching decisions with our students' best interests in mind. But, what does learner-centered teaching really mean?

In their 2017 book, Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice, Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook set out to answer this question--and how it can be applied to teaching in a librarianship context. When asked to articulate what having a learner-centered approach means, most point to individual exercises or classroom techniques they employ or try to avoid, but are unable to describe the philosophy as a larger concept.

Ultimately, Klipfel and Cook's definition of learner-centered pedagogy is "who we are as people matters."[1] They explain it in further detail as: "Our conception of learner-centered pedagogy encourages library educators to encounter the learner as an individual with personal interests, preferences, and motivations, and uniquely human set of …