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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.

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