View From the Classroom: Learning in large classes, learning in small classes

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.

Law classes come in all sizes.  Traditional first-year courses and so-called bar classes can be quite large, while some specialty seminars, skills classes, and clinics can be quite small.  Law schools offer all of these and everything in between, in their diverse and varied curriculums.

We all know that class size matters.  As teachers, we know that size matters in the way we teach.  We teach large classes much differently than we teach seminars; and we teach both of those much differently than we teach skills courses or clinics.  Our own preparation and delivery is different; our relationships with, and expectations of, our students are much different; and our methods of evaluating students are different.  As teachers, we know that class size matters, and we adjust our teaching accordingly.

But class size matters to learning, too.  Students learn differently in large classes, small seminars, skills classes and clinics.  For example, large classes offer fewer chances for in-class participation; seminars require it.  Large classes focus principally on ideas and theory; small classes, including skills courses and clinics, focus on practice.  Larger classes necessarily mean that students engage their teachers less and rely on themselves and their colleagues more; small classes rely on direct, personal, and frequent engagement with both teachers and fellow students.  Students have to adapt their learning to these realities in order to get the most out of any class.

This isn’t easy to do.  With all the pressures on students, it’s tough for them to adjust their learning to their classes.  It’s hard enough to keep up with classes, activities, and jobs, much less to be thoughtful, reflective, and adaptive in their learning styles.

But it’s also essential.  It’s essentially principally to succeed in class.  For example, students who approach a seminar the way they approach a large class will almost surely lose out of the singular benefits of the seminar.  Students miss the full benefits of their classes if they fail to adapt.

And more: Adaptive learning is an essential skill for practice.  Students will need to have deliberate and varying learning styles to succeed in the diverse environments where they will practice.  Law school is a wonderful place to learn how to do this.  For many of our students, it may be the last time they have the luxury of experimenting with different learning, stretching their learning styles beyond their natural comfort zone, and adapting to new learning environments.

We teachers can help.  We can be more deliberate and varying ourselves, in our teaching styles.  We can tell our students more what we’re doing, and why.  And we can encourage or require projects that demand different learning styles of our students in our different classes—individual meetings with us, participation in and outside of class, different methods of evaluation, and more.

We’re all fortunate to have a diverse law school curriculum, including classes of different sizes.  But in order to get the maximum benefits, we need to adapt our teaching and learning.

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