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Tuesday, March 15, 2005
  The Presentation -- Theme 1: Student Accountability : The first of three themes from our presentation. Ethan's previous post on the Socratic method serves as a prefect lead in to this topic--student accountability. The notion that we students don't take enough responsibility for our education. Many students will echo this sentiment. And, E, you'll probably agree with me that this is the most common thread that runs through the feedback we have received.

Is this a curricular issue, rather than an admissions issue or a generational issue? Absolutely I think it is about the curriculum. Almost all of the changes that I would make to the law school curriculum would be designed, at least in part, to restructure the learning environment so that the learning becomes more active. So, in other words, I don't see myself as putting the "blame" on students in this post.

Part of the problem is a lack of taking into account different learning styles. (seems obvious but there you have it.) Ultimately a "mix of methods," as pointed out in yesterday's post, has got to be part of the solution.

But there are other less-complicated changes to be made. Simple example (imagine me taking the Faculty by the shoulders and shaking it): Give us midterms! Give us midterms now! That one minor reform would move mountains.

Feedback in any form is welcome and would, I think, go a long way toward improving student accountability. Although far too often students are handed nothing more than a number at the end of the semester: (congratulations: an 86--what am I supposed to do with this?), there are examples out there of professors giving constructive feedback to their students during the semester (some teachers have writing assignments or oral presentations and give feedback, others set up systems of peer review). It would be a challenging but good exercise to put together a list of best practices.

Smaller class size(*) is another way of building in accountability. When professors are more accessible to students and when learning is more individualized, I guarantee that we'll be more engaged.

And hey, coming at it from a different angle--how can we students be motivated to take a greater responsibility for our education? Put the fear of God in us.(**) I'd like to see a nice chunk of students flunk out each semester. Merciless, I know. But that's what I was expecting when I came to law school, and was surprised (and a little disappointed) when I came here and discovered that it wasn't the case.

I would also be in favor of requiring attendance. (I know that's a very controversial view--please be gentle on me. Hey, I'm not in favor of banning laptops.)

* Let us put off the "efficient allocation of resources" discussion for now.

** Full disclosure: I am big fan of the Socratic method, because it keeps me engaged. But Ethan, your point is well taken (--this from the comments yesterday--) that we should "consider how to best educate everyone when we are thinking about how to improve the curriculum." The Socratic method is not a good way of motivating large numbers of students, I think, because (1) it only works during the first year when students haven't yet realized that they can just say "pass" and (2) it takes an extremely skilled instructor (such as our own professors William Whitford or Neil Komesar) to tap into its potential.
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Here Hatch goes again...

Brian - this reminds me of something Prof. Greene said during our first year orientation: "be engaged." Student accountability is so important because it is ultimately you, not the professors, administration, career services, or student orgs, that are responsible for yourself.

I am very surprised to hear you advocating that a chunk of students flunk out every semester. In fact, I wonder if you are joking. In my opinion, the competitiveness in the job market puts enough of the fear of God in us. And in fact, because of the grading curve and the job market, a chunk of students flunk already, in a sense, its just that the law school keeps taking their money to stay in school. That's really what is merciless.

Requiring attendance wouldn't make much of a difference to you, because you never skip class. But there are legitimate reasons to skip class (job searches, taking the patent bar, having a baby, up all night cite checking, out of town for moot court, to name a few), and we are all adults. If you make attendance mandatory, then you have an administrative headache in governing all the exceptions that you will have to make. Besides, requiring attendance would hurt those who do show up, since they have a definite edge come exam time. Why shoot yourself in the foot?

On the other hand, if you require attendance, then you should require some participation too, which might not be such a bad idea. After all, it doesn't make sense to require people to sit there and listen to a lecture, especially those who are taking it pass/fail. And you don't want to touch that sacred institution.

Midterms? Hmmm. This is interesting because it takes some of the pressure off the end of the semester. But I always thought you loved that time of the year because you could bring in the Hot Tamales and sleep overnight in the library. Finals are a rite of passage that we shouldn't do away with, for the sake of tradition. Besides, I have stock in the Hot Tamale company and I'm banking on it. In any event, I think you will find tremendous resistance from professors on this because it takes them 3 months to grade finals as it is. If you add more work, they might revolt because they don't have time to update their blogs or surf the web, or whatever professors do all day. I'm just kidding, I know Althouse is a very prolific blogger, I mean scholar.

Feedback? What is that? I have never seen it, at school or at work. I think you might as well learn to live without it. Use the Force, Luke.

Smaller class size = tuition * 1.5. Is that ok? For upper division classes, only half show up. Do you really want a class with 5 people? Oh wait, you are mandating attendance... However I agree that smaller classes can be good because you get to know everyone (including the professor) and have lively discussions, if there is good chemistry. Can we guarantee chemistry? But the best way to get small class size is to form your own study group. You can also guarantee chemistry by handpicking the members. As the master of the study group, I'm surprised you haven't touched on that one yet Brian. Maybe you don't want to give away your best secrets...

In the end, you can try to motivate students, but the motivation really must come from within. So many people end up in law school by default that the issue of motivation will, like the poor, always be with us. It's best to use it to your advantage: so many students are unmotivated, that an ounce of motivation gets you very far. There are many well-kept secrets like fellowships, scholarships, grants, that are ignored by the majority of students. Brian, you and I know of this firsthand.

A little bit of creativity and incentive will take you very far in law school, and in life. These are the real lessons to be learned and challenges to be faced. The real opportunities in life will be ones you create for yourself. Book learning and classrooms are in this sense a mere distraction.
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