Providing a dynamic classroom experience.

AuthorBaron, Roger

I. INTRODUCTION II. KEY INGREDIENTS FOR A "DYNAMIC CLASSROOM EXPERIENCE" A. Recognize and Deal with Impediments to Learning 1. The Impediment of Prior Knowledge and Ego 2. Enlightenment on Non-Relevant Legal Matters B. Historical Context C. Timing D. Coping with Personalities and Efforts to Derail the Lesson Plan E. Striving to Create a New and Special Classroom Experience F. Maintaining the Goal of a Dynamic Classroom Experience as a Priority G. Maximizing Productive Time in the Classroom H. Quality, not Quantity I. Teaching is Always and Forever J. The Introductory Segue is a Tremendous Tool K. Brief Review of Material, Setting the Context for Day's Lesson Plan L. Highlight Language on Documents Displayed on Screen M. Maintain Focus on Students who "Are Present" III. PERIPHERAL ASPECTS FOR A DYNAMIC CLASSROOM PRESENTATION A. Pre-Class Videos B. Not So Quick with Announcements of Class Cancellations C. New Teachers Should Not Seek to Model Their Best Teachers D. Observe Other Professors E. Referencing the Court F. The Early Class G. A Quick Pick-Me-Up H. Diminish Stress Elsewhere by Focusing on the Dynamic Classroom Experience You Seek to Create I. Student Agendas J. Discriminatory Aspect K. Fountain of Youth L. Learning More About Students M. Stockholm Syndrome N. Filling the Class Time O. Student Disappointment with End of Class IV. OTHER RELEVANT OBSERVATIONS A. Beware the Summer Intern Bearing Questions B. Learning from Mistakes--Mistakes by You and by Others C. Real Goal May Not Be What is Perceived V. RETIREMENT SONG I. INTRODUCTION

Having completed thirty years of full-time teaching as a law professor, I realize that my view of teaching has significantly evolved. Ironically, I found that with each passing year 1 was investing more, not less, time into class preparations.

Teaching law--as opposed to other disciplines such as history, math, science, etc.--requires ongoing efforts to keep up with new developments. The law is always subject to change. A competent teacher is, of course, expected to incorporate new developments into lesson plans. Some areas of the law are more dynamic than others in terms of new developments. My assigned areas-- Civil Procedure, Insurance, and Family Law--tend to be areas where significant changes occur on a regular basis. Simply keeping up with and incorporating the new developments accounts for a portion of the increased time needed for my class preparation. But this factor was minimal compared to the overall additional time that I was devoting.

A senior faculty member shared with me, decades ago, the concept that "a teacher is only as good as his last class." (1) I found his observation annoying, but accurate. I knew when I had taught a "good class," and I also knew when I had taught a class that fell short. The goal of teaching a good class was a personal objective, not an institutional one. I wanted to provide a "dynamic classroom experience" in each and every class I taught.

Providing a "dynamic classroom experience" has its challenges, which can be overwhelming in nature. The law school classroom consists of students who are above-average intelligence and not hesitant to challenge a professor. The challenge is exacerbated by other factors as well. Not all students come to class fully prepared with a "ready to learn" frame of mind. Students have varied backgrounds in education and in life experiences. There are also certain "personalities" that come to the forefront in the classroom setting. Additionally, students typically have access to extensive notes and other written materials from prior classes taught by the professor. How does one provide a "dynamic" classroom experience to such a diverse set of students and interests?

My intention with this article is to put forward those ingredients that I believe enhanced my ability to provide a dynamic classroom experience. These ingredients worked for me, but I acknowledge that there are other professors who provide dynamic classroom experiences through different approaches.

As was I was preparing for my final year of teaching, I decided that I would keep a journal of principles or beliefs--i.e. ingredients--that I have come to understand to be important in creating a dynamic class. I created a document on my computer and jotted down my thoughts whenever an inspirational moment occurred. I accumulated these thoughts throughout the course of the school year. Eventually, I pulled these thoughts together and have now arranged them into a meaningful context.

As a preliminary matter, 1 should state I have always felt it better to err on the side of being "over-prepared" rather than "under-prepared" for the classroom. Typically, I began my class preparations for the fall semester in early July. This was the pattern that I followed for my final year in the classroom, academic year 2014-15. As I began the process of gearing up for my last year of teaching, I made notes in my new journal. I made my first six entries on July 6 and 7, 2014--approximately six weeks before the start of classes. The final entry was made on April 22, 2015, during the final week of classes for the spring semester.

The discussion in this article is divided into three parts. The first deals with "key aspects of effective teaching." The second section relates to "peripheral aspects of effective teaching." Finally, the third section deals with other relevant observations.


  1. Recognize and Deal with Impediments to Learning

    Having students present in class, with clear minds, goes a long way to establishing a solid learning environment. But, impediments to learning exist. I believe that a teacher should proactively seek to reduce or eliminate impediments.

    1. The Impediment of Prior Knowledge and Ego

      One of the greatest obstacles to the study of the law lies in the existence of previously acquired information. To best learn the law, as taught in law school, the student's mind needs to be a "clean slate," free of the impediment of accumulated information. The existence of this impediment is exacerbated by ego.

      The former police officer will likely struggle in courses involving criminal law and criminal procedure. The accounting major may struggle with the income tax course. A student with a degree in paralegal studies may have difficulty with many courses. These students have formulated beliefs and knowledge and may be hesitant to present a "clean slate." These students are more likely to receive new information with a view toward making it conform to the format and concepts already imbedded in their minds. They may be blind to important, unrealized concepts due to the fact that their prior life experience dealt with only one perspective. As compared to the type of learning necessary in law school, these students have a superficial or inadequate prior learning experience.

      The successful student must overcome the notion that he or she already knows the subject matter or aspects of the subject matter. An understanding of the "impediment of prior knowledge" helps explain why a non-law major is an excellent background for the study of law. A student with a music or theater degree is more likely to have a "clean slate" for learning the law--as opposed to a student with a criminal justice or political science degree.

      An understanding of this phenomenon also helps explain why some students persistently pursue "rabbit trails" with their questions; many times such students are attempting to synthesize the new material in the context of their prior knowledge and have difficulty doing so. Instead of providing a "clean slate" for learning, they seek to mold the new material into a frame of reference that exists as a result of a prior learning experience. I believe it is important for the law professor to discuss the fact that a student's "prior knowledge" may be an impediment to learning. The professor should proactively develop methods that present a new learning experience, unimpeded by existing frames of reference formed through the prior accumulation of knowledge and maintained by ego.

    2. Enlightenment on Non-Relevant Legal Matters

      The primary method for studying law is the utilization of case law or judicial opinions. Frequently, the cases selected may involve sophisticated legal principles from areas of the law that are not the subject of study. This is especially true in Civil Procedure, where new law students are asked to study and brief cases from a wide range of disciplines. The objective is for these students to learn principles of Civil Procedure. The judicial opinions under study, however, involve disputes from a wide range of legal disciplines: contracts, motor vehicle negligence suits, anti-trust matters, medical malpractice, commercial law disputes, workers' compensation, administrative actions, slander, libel, assault, and a wide variety of tort cases in general. In order to facilitate the discussion of the case as it relates to Civil Procedure, I frequently provided mini-lectures as to relevant substantive areas of the law that are present in the cases. This effectively brings all the students to a point of understanding of principles that would otherwise hinder their ability to conquer the procedural matters at hand.

  2. Historical Context

    The law builds upon itself. In order to truly understand the law today, one must understand the law as it existed in its prior form, and then explore how and why it changed. Excessive focus on the minutia of historical details should be avoided. But, I am convinced that historical background is critical to understanding the law today. For example, 1 have come to appreciate the venerable case of Pennoyer v. Neff. (2) Principles set forth in this opinion continue to carry forward as "the law" today. The need for a decision in this case was the first time the United States Supreme Court...

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