Participation and pedagogy

I’ve been following some of the discussion over at Prawfs about student participation, and I’ve noticed one recurring criticism from student commenters. It goes along this line:

As a student, I haven’t really benefitted from hearing other students speak in class. Therefore, student participation is [worthless, overated, just intended to boost a professor’s ego].

This criticism resonates, because it contains a certain amount of truth. However, it is ultimately misguided.

First, the way that this criticism reflects truth: It’s indeed likely that many students will not learn a great deal of the material from hearing other students talk in class.

This is due to a number of factors. First, there is a simple informational asymmetry. The students don’t know the most about the material; the professor does. Second, there are the limitations of the classroom environment. Perhaps given some time and some open space to work with, one’s classmates could articulate things that would help in learning. That’s one of the ideas behind study groups, and they can be very effective. But in a classroom, the student’s role is often to answer questions like “what’s the holding in Hadley v. Baxendale?” And let’s face it, there’s only so much that any student can do with that kind of framing. And finally (as will be discussed later in this post), students learn in different ways, and some students won’t learn from hearing others discuss the material.

So if many students don’t learn from hearing other students talk about the material in class, why elicit student comments? There are at least two reasons.

The first is simply that eliciting student comments serves as a crude accountability mechanism. I can call on Ms. Jones in class and thus ensure that she has actually done the reading. Everyone knows this. Of course, this is a limited benefit, and raises the broader question of why I care whether Ms. Jones has in fact done the reading. And it also raises questions about whether other accountability mechanisms would be more effective.

Both of these points lead us to the more important second reason to elicit student comments: Facilitating student participation allows many students to learn more effectively.

Individual law students, like members of any other population, learn in different ways, different learning “modes” as they are called. Some students are exclusively read-write learners, and will learn best by simply reading the material. Some students are aural learners who will do best if they hear the material. And some students — kinesthetic learners — will learn best through participatory exercises. A significant number of law students will learn best through multiple modes — so that the ideal learning environment will be one which combines reading, writing, aural learning, participation . . .

And that’s exactly what the classic law-school mix does, doesn’t it?

The mix of reading (the casebook), listening (lectures), and participation (class interaction) is intended to help students learn the material, whatever their particular preferred mode of learning.

And this, by the way, is the reason that I discount the “students don’t learn anything from class talk” comments. Some students learn best through reading and writing, yes, and for some students simply reading the book will be fine. But other students will absolutely benefit from participation; all the surveys of law students that I’ve seen show a mixture of different learning modes. Participation will absolutely help some students; and as a professor, my job is to make the material as broadly accessible as possible, not simply limit it to a focus on read-write learners or on aural learners. Participation broadens the scope of the class, and allows some students to learn more effectively.

More broadly, the current mix in place in most classrooms — reading plus lecturing plus participation — is one that helps make the material accessible to the most students, and so is a beneficial framework.

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2 Responses

  1. Deven Desai says:

    It seems Dan’s points about Live and Let Live relate to this post. While one may want students to be prepared because of internal motivations, many may not be prepared for a range of reasons (e.g., failed to read, illness, death in family, etc.). The idea that the classroom and the discussion may not reach some sort of peak experience for the listening students because the other student is not prepared or may not have understood the material well enough to generate insight seems to miss part of the opportunity for the listener. The listner should follow along with the professor and see where the discussion heads. Even if the professor takes time to push the other student in his or her thoughts, the listener should hopefully be able to glean some insights on how to think about the basics of the case and learn how to identify the important items in the future. In addition, when a student claims that he or she does not benefit from other’s participation, I wonder whether they think that if called on the contribution would be superior and benefit all or whether they believe class should be pure lecture. It could be that some students just prefer lecture (or dread public speaking).

    The ego boost concept makes little sense to me though I have heard the idea from students. I don’t think most professors are sadists who take glee in showing how a student who has just learned material is inferior to the person who has years of training and experience. That personality may exist in the profession but to Dan’s point forcing students to engage for one’s ego will not work. Thus the blend of ways to present the material accomplishes a few things. As Kaimi notes, students receive the material in a variety of ways which may lead to a larger group understanding the material. Furthermore, by opening the discussion and requiring some level of participation, students learn how to engage with the material orally. Last by balancing the ways students intereact and taking Dan’s approach, one may create an environment that engourages students to take risks such as articulating creative questions about the material and creative arguments about the issue at hand where they should feel most free to do so: in the classroom so they and their classmates can learn from the experience.

  2. Cranky says:

    In my experience most students who say that they don’t benefit from hearing other students speak are talking about comments that other students volunteer during discussion. Most opinions that students volunteer in free-form discussions are ignorant, inarticulate, wrong, confused, or malicious, and often several of the above. When students complain about other students’ contributions, they are usually asking professors to keep a tighter leash on the class. Paradoxically, asking more questions tends to reduce these problems, becaue it keeps the gunners and the clueless from raising their hands to volunteer. A good Socratic conversation beats listening to one’s classmates yammer, because the professor can keep a tight enough leash on student answers to keep them from wandering into deep blather.