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Monday, September 20, 2010

What 'We' the Teachers Owe to our Students

Another great post from Mark Caldwell at NITA.

What do we owe our students?

I just finished teaching a program where many of the instructors had not received any formalized teacher training. All were experienced trial lawyers and genuinely caring individuals who wanted to help improve trial skills. I was struck by the number of comments that began with “I really liked what you did....” This was followed by additional comments such as “You asked good open ended questions and the witness seemed engaged with you. Keep up the good work.” I observed the disappointment in the eyes of the students as they recognized this experienced trial lawyer was not actually going to offer them any assistance.

It is not that these comments were disingenuous - those complements were rooted in truth, as many of the performances demonstrated a working knowledge of the skills we were focusing upon. The students and I were disappointed the instructor failed to find a teachable moment in the performance.

Just what is it we “owe” to students when we teach? Our obvious goal is to help our students gain knowledge and improve their skills through experiential teaching.

I believe we “owe” a number of things to those we teach. Let me give you my list:

1. Honesty. We all want to be “liked” by our students. Does this mean we should cushion the blow of a diagnosed issue with some sugar? I believe the answer is no. The common refrain in today’s teaching is choose one point and offer a strong solution to the problem. When we front our comments with a throw away point it diminishes what we really have to say. Students recognize this fairly early in a course and learn to not listen to this first does of pablum. Often program evaluations suggest students wish some instructors would be more forthright and probing with their comments. They attend to learn and our job is to tell them how to improve. We need to honestly diagnose problems and offer solutions. There are times when a positive comment is warranted. By using it as a teaching point for the others we maintain our honesty as well as continue to teach.

2. Being prepared. If we expect our students to know the facts of the case and to be ready to perform we owe the same to them. This means we should read the case file and know the facts before each class - even if we have used the file many times before. We should be ready to perform in the same way as our students. This means every instructor should be able to stand and deliver the same performance as our students. Preparation also means reading the schedule and understanding the teaching goals of each session. If someone else developed the schedule and you do not understand the goals we owe it to the students to find out what is intended. If there are teaching notes, read them (even if you read them during an earlier program). Attend faculty meetings.

3. Think about the skills you teach. So many instructors have told me they never consider what they do at trial. Whether teaching, or practicing, we have an obligation to our students or clients to consider how best to persuade. If you have never considered why you do something I can not imagine you can explain how or why you “do that thing you do.” Reflection is one of the key points of adult learning theory. It helps you recognize why something worked or failed. It helps to cement the experience in a way that allows you to employ it in a similar or, in the case of failure, a new manner. If we expect students to reflect on our teaching we should do the same for them.

4. Be positive. There are always two ways we can deliver a message. The spin we place on our comments can give a student encouragement or suggest they are failing. When I watch the best teachers offer advice I notice they are always presenting the information in a way that suggests a student can build upon what their performance. Granted, there are some performances that offer little from which to build. Just the same, if you offer a ray of hope it helps. Recognize that most students believe experiential classes are far harder than representing someone at trial. They bring an extra level of anxiety to their performances because they are afraid they will embarrass themselves in front of their colleagues (and sometimes those who control their destinies). Offering someone information that allows them to take their skills to a higher level is far different then suggesting they did something “wrong” and you will fix it.

5. Be on time. Judges do not tolerate tardiness. Neither do our students. Start and end your class sessions based upon the schedule. When you are ready to go and start on time it sends many messages (including one of professionalism). When you end on time it allows people the full measure of their breaks, lets them get to the next class on time, or even allows them to pick up children from day care without paying added fees.

6. Follow the method. There are various schools of teaching in experiential programs. Regardless of which method you employ - use it uniformly. We are taught from the first day of law school that one of the reasons our system works is because of predictability. The same is true about our teaching. These models work and are based upon serious research and refinement. After a few classes our students expect we will follow the process.

7. Do not unfairly change the schedule. Students have spent time preparing for class. When you change the nature of the exercise or fail to allow them to do what they have prepared you send the message - don’t prepare. If you wish to modify the schedule let people know in advance so they can prepare accordingly and be successful. If you plan to change on the fly, follow the schedule for the first set of performances and then make your alterations. The process is frustrating enough without you changing the rules.

There are most likely many other things we owe our students and colleagues as we teach. This list is not exhaustive. Some may disagree with my inclusions or ideas. My goal is to spark a dialog. I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Reflection. That is the word that struck me as I was reading Mark's comments. I agree with everything he said, but I would also like to underline/highlight the following thought. "If I am going to teach advocacy, then I must commit to being a lifelong student of advocacy." There are lots of different ways to do this. Reading, writing, trying cases, all of these come to mind. My most recent forary has been in the reading area where I have been taking in David Ball's "Reptile" a book about what it means to be a plaintiff lawyer looking for the argument that overcomes the anti-litigation poisoning of the last twenty years. I'm not ready to comment on it yet, but reading it makes me reflect on what it means to teach - and that is always a good thing.

  2. Mark raises a good point about following the teaching method in an advocacy course. I think this comment might apply more specifically to NITA-style short courses than to law school teaching. In these courses, uniformity of method is valuable not only to the students, but also to the course manager. People who teach in these courses should, as a matter of professional courtesy, be willing to and actually follow the method chosen by the course manager or administrator.

    This does not mean, of course, that there is no room for individuality. For example, within the four-step NITA method, there is plenty of room for creativity. An instructor can, for instance, use a variety of techniques in the "prescription" section--everything from a brief explanation to a mini-demonstration. The key is adhering to the 4-step method, the learning-by-doing methodology, and the opportunities for equal student performance time.

    Other courses, such as Charlie Rose's Educating Advocates training seminar, may permit and even encourage multiple critiquing methods. A variety of approaches is tolerated and welcomed.

    There are multiple critiquing methods in existence. It's fun to debate them, think about them, and refine them. But when participating as an instructor in a course that has a predetermined methodology, we ought to respect the chosen process.

    In a law school environment, the atmosphere is less rigid. There's more room for experimentation. But even there, as Tom Stewart has pointed out in a previous post, it's important for instructors in the same course to work together and not in conflict with each other.

  3. Mark's keen, but untrained faculty,had the right idea when they started with some praise for the student. Even a little praise can do a lot to induce and maintain motivation.

    I think it was Mark ( or if not him, then a colleague on one of Mark's programs) who pointed out to me and others that another good reason to praise first is that the student may have done it by accident and so needs reinforcement to do it again.

    Using fellow students as my main critical resource I require everyone to:

    praise first; then select a point for improvement, explain why, and either show how, or get me to come across and demonstrate the fix. It works very well.

    Another reason why the praise plus 'improve point' works is that I explicitly tell everyone that my classes are built on mistakes, the more the better, by me and by them.

    As a student included in their course evaluation last week it was wonderful to be 'free to fail' because then learning was so much easier.