How should Queen’s Law teach?
I think Queen’s Law needs to rethink how it teaches in order to better engage students and professors. Here are my suggestions after three years of law school and classes with a couple dozen professors.
Evaluations should be a learning opportunity. Students should be evaluated over the semester through a series of tests and assignments. Currently, most students never see their exams and most receive minimal feedback on assignments.
Professors should provide clear instructions including examples of outstanding exam answers and assignments. They should also provide detailed feedback on the substance and style of students’ submissions. For the last two years, I’ve done presentations for 1Ls on exam-writing; generally, they have never seen or used an outline, and have no idea what an exam answer should look like.
Anonymous grading should be optional—conditional on the student waiving their right to complain of bias or discrimination. I was shocked when, running into my first-year Criminal Law professor, he had no idea I had won the course prize in his course. Course work should be an opportunity for students to impress their professors, laying the groundwork for research assistantships, letters of reference, and referrals to professional connections. It’s really hard to build a relationship through anonymous assignments.
Currently, most Queen’s Law courses are evaluated by exams and essays. Exams are an unrealistic and arbitrary way of distinguishing between students. The main challenge in exams is time-pressure; they are about being able to organize your thoughts and find the relevant tests in your outline to be able to get through the exam in time. I found there was no consistency in exam performance, or relationship between how well I though I knew the content and the grade I received.
Classes and readings should focus on the application of the law. Most students do not do the required readings. This is painfully obvious to most professors, and stunts classroom conversation.
I actually did all the readings assigned for my three years of law school. It was brutal, and often a poor use of study time.
I don’t blame students’ choice to not do all the readings on the quantity of readings, but rather on the fact that students don’t understand what is relevant about the cases. Cases just feel like mush when you read them without a particular issue or application in mind.
I propose professors finish each class by:
- outlining the black-letter law—perhaps draw from the bar exam materials;
- identifying the propositions for which each of the readings would be cited; and
- setting a few realistic (or real) client problems that will be discussed at the start of the next class.
Where possible, courses should follow a textbook or coursepack. Most students find it easier to focus on a written text, particularly when you can just sit down and read, without jumping between readings selected by the professor.
The only time I was really excited about my readings was when they related to my paid employment. Students should receive academic credit for paid work done part-time and over the summer. There is no defensible basis for providing credit for unpaid legal services—through clinics and placements—but refusing to provide credit for providing identical legal services in paid employment. Employers are willing to pay for student work, and we need the money, connections, and practical experience. Even as a student entering public interest advocacy, money is really motivating. We’re tired of having our time wasted on academic busywork, endless evaluations, and disorganized volunteer work. When you’re being paid, it’s because somebody values the work you are doing and respects you. Plus, it lets you mitigate that ominous cloud of debt hanging over our heads.
Professors should be encouraged to attend each other’s classes. There are dramatic differences in how professors teach and evaluate students. Many professors are finding success with blended teaching models where students are expected to review a presentation before class. Other professors are findings success with weekly quizzes to motivate students to do the readings. Some professors have intensive class participation (e.g. Macleod’s Trial Advocacy).
Students bear some (okay, most) of the reasonability for improving the classroom experience. Yes, we get bored. But browsing the internet seriously interferes with engaging and learning. Students should strive to do the readings or, at a bare minimum, read an outline summarizing the significance of the readings.
Ben Segel-Brown will be convocating from Queen’s Law in June 2016. He is a Contributor to Juris Diction.