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Friday, March 18, 2016

How Do You Spend the Last Five Minutes of Class?

The following guest post was written by Mark Caldwell, Program Development and Resource Director at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy.

Sometimes Face Book leads you further than updates of restaurants your "friends" have visited, Selfies of others bragging about where they have been, and reminders of a friend's birthday. This past week a post from my friend, and teaching colleague, Marianna Hogan directed me to a wonderful article on the Chronicle of Higher Education's page titled, Small Changes in Teaching: The Last 5 Minutes of Class (http://chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/235583) by James M. Lang. I commend this article to your personal reading, along with the other posts from Prof. Lang.

Lang opines that, "most faculty members eye the final minutes of class as an opportunity to cram in eight more points before students exit, or to say three more things that just occurred to us about the day's material, or to call out as many reminders as possible about upcoming deadlines, next week's exam, or tomorrow's homework." In reading this I had one of those "cosmic whacks on the side of the head" as I recalled all too many sessions where I attempted to cram in one more performance or offer one more "critical" piece of advice that I knew would make every student a vastly improved trial lawyer. Lang reminded me of just how wrong I was. I was shamed into considering his solution and reminded it was a tool I had foolishly abandoned.

Lang's solution is not something new or revolutionary. In fact, it goes back to the basics of adult learning theory. Lang recommends the use of the teaching tool of reflection. Kurt Lewin[1] suggested experiential learning is circular in nature.  There are four stages in Lewin's Cycle which follow from each other – Concrete Experience is followed by Reflection on that experience on a personal basis which may be followed by the derivation of general rules describing the experience or the application Abstract Conceptualization(applying  known theories to it), and Active Experimentation (ways of making the experience unique to the individual), leading to the next round of Concrete Experience. In truth, this is what we do when we teach advocacy skills - we allow student performance (experience) and then make suggestions on how the student can change their behavior to improve their performance. We expect they will consider the reasons for change that we give them and apply them to both future classroom performances and then to make them portable to take to the next case (conceptualization). We presume the student will reflect on our recommendations and then own them. In reality, a busy practitioner or student may not have the time to actively reflect on our teaching.

Lang refers to the concept of the minute paper.[2] There are a number of variations on the theme of the Minute Paper, but Lang suggests using the last few minutes of class to have students write out the answers to two questions:

1.            What was the most important thing that you learned today?
2.           What question still remains in your mind?

Question 1 forces students to consider the information presented in the workshop, choose what they found to be most helpful to them and articulate what that was. This short reflection truly cements at least one point in the student's memory. The second question forces them to consider what they did not understand or something they still need to master.

I am proud to report that my organization, The National Institute for Trial Advocacy, has flirted with the concept of an organized reflection period off and on for over ten years. I admit to abandoning it because of the natural skepticism of lawyers. One comment from a teaching colleague put me over the top in rejecting the idea of organized reflection. My teaching companion compared the process to the skits during Saturday Night Live, called Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.[3] Admittedly, the sarcasm overwhelmed my own teaching instincts. I was wrong.

Under Lang's idea the One Minute Papers were kept by students as a personal journal of their learning. NITA asks participants to share this information. This is done in one of two ways. First, the papers are collected and the Program Director reviews them each day. This helps the PD confirm whether the teaching goals of the day have been met and provides information on what participants are struggling with - allowing faculty to do additional teaching on those specific points. The second option replaces the writing with oral comments and creates lists for all to share. I prefer the latter for these reasons. First, it presents reminders of multiple teaching points for everyone to consider. Second, much like the brainstorming process, one person's idea may spark additional ideas in others. This gives traction to lesser learning points that still may have great value. Third, by maintaining lists from each workshop or day you can building a valuable list for students to carry forward. This latter proves the point of a sum being greater than its parts.

Sometimes, it helps to be reminded about great ideas. Reflection is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of experiential learning. Making it a part of class as one of our tools is a fabulous idea. I've seen it work, experienced its benefits as a student, and heartily recommend you consider adopting it in your classes - experiential or not.

[1] Kurt Lewin (1890 - 1947) was originally a Gestalt psychologist in Berlin. Lewin moved to the United States in and originated theoretical work on adult learning and group dynamics. Lewin is little read today because of his pseudo-mathematical style but is considered the grandfather of many ideas. The diagram at Appendix 2 is taken from "The Experiential Learning Cycle at http://www.dmu.ac.uk/~jamesa/learning/experien.htm.
[2] A technique made justly famous by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross in their book Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers.
[3] Between 1991 and 1998, Saturday Night Live included Deep Thoughts on the show as an interstitial segment between sketches. Introduced by Phil Hartman and read live by Handey (neither actually appeared on screen), the one-liners proved to be extremely popular. Hartman would intone "And now, Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey...", and peaceful easy listening music would play while the screen showed soothing pastoral scenes, much like a New Age relaxation video. Handey would then read the Deep Thought as the text to it scrolled across the screen. They became an enduring feature of SNL, which often had multiple Thoughts in each episode, and made Handey a well-known name.


  1. It had never occurred to me to do reflections as a routine after learning each lesson or carrying out an assignment. But just reading Mark Caldwell's views above resonates so well with me that I will use it in many areas of experience for me including learning, work, court/arbitration sessions, relationship building etc. It reminds me of a sermon by a famous American Preacher and author, the late Neville Goddard. The sermon is entitled "The Pruning Shears of Revision". It advocates going through the events of the day before retiring to sleep and processing and storing them in certain empowering ways in the mind. Looking at what the write-up above and the sermon suggest, it is very clear in my mind that there is great value in reflection
    Nyagah B. Kithinji, Nairobi, Kenya (Stetson University Student)

  2. Loved this blog, Please write more blog like this.

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    Law Graduation College