View from the Classroom: Supporting our Students

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Around this time each year, just before final exams, I wrestle with this question: Just how much last-minute help should I give my students?

On the one hand, I know that I owe them some basics.  For example, I have to give them my exam rules.  And I almost certainly should clear up any widespread confusion about the material— especially if I created that confusion.  This kind of baseline help seems both necessary and fair to my students.  But it serves me, too: I increase the chance of getting good exams—and thus enhance my own exam grading experience.

On the other hand, I know that I can’t help too much.  I can’t answer every question, review every practice exam, look at every outline, or anticipate precise exam questions.  There are practical constraints: too little time, too many students.  But there’s also a critical pedagogical constraint: law students shouldn’t rely just on their teachers to learn.  They should also use their books, their notes, their friends and study groups, and most of all themselves.  After all, a good part of what we’re trying to do is to educate resourceful, independent thinkers (and not intellectual clones of ourselves).

But there’s a lot of room between these extremes.  Example: The review or exam preparation session.  In my judgment, I should offer one.  But what type?  Should it review material that we covered in class, answer specific student questions, or practice hypos (of the type that will appear on the exam)?  A rote review of the material covered in the course—a kind of end-of-semester “spoon feeding”— seems to undercut our goal of educating resourceful and independent thinkers.  It also rewards those students who neglected to stay on top of the course throughout the semester.  But some review of particularly difficult or confusing material seems appropriate, especially if that review augments the course material in some new and different way, and doesn’t just repeat it.  Some practice running hypos also seems appropriate.  This can be a good way to help reinforce (and not just repeat) material, to prepare for the exam, and to model work that students can then do themselves in their study groups.

Another example: Reviewing student study materials, like outlines and practice exam answers.  Again, in my judgment, I should do some of this.  But how much?  Too much review may breed dependence that is harmful for students on the exam, and harmful to their development as independent thinkers.  But not enough review could leave some students at sea with the material.  It can also leave them feeling a lack of support and a lack of confidence, potentially turning them off from the class (and subject) entirely—at just the wrong point in the semester.

These questions come into particularly sharp focus around exam time.  But in truth, they are with us throughout the year: they go to the heart of the balances that we try to strike every day with our students.  They go to decisions about course coverage, our approach in the classroom, the right casebooks and course materials, the evaluative tools that we use, even the time and length of our office hours.  Outside of our individual classes, they go to the kind of support we offer our students — from academic support to student-life support to curricular decisions like which courses to require and whether to use a grading curve.

In navigating between the help that’s necessary and the help that’s harmful, there are few categorically correct approaches.  What’s important is that perennially strive — and struggle — to find the right path.

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