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The elephant in the room: Teaching students who don’t know what’s going on


It’s no secret: not every student will be prepared for every single class. As a law student, you constantly have to make compromises: read a summary instead of the full case, read for crim and not contracts because you have a quiz, read for your 8:30am class on the crowded bus ride there, or ask your friend to fill you in two minutes before the class starts. An important point to stress is that this is not a feature of particular students: we all go through this every now and then, because there is simply not enough time to read everything, all the time.  

Contrary to Ewell & Rodgers, who argue that this phenomenon occurs due to “lack of motivation,” I would venture to say that this is not the case in law school. We all work hard, we all want to learn and most importantly, we are all studious. We are not balancing watching TV with studying, but rather, we are balancing studying a with re-reading b and finishing the assignment for c. At the end of the day, we still study the whole alphabet, just not necessarily before class.

The question remains, can we learn in class without having prepared for it? I posit that learning in the classroom depends on whether the professor understands that sometimes there are students that have no idea what is going on.

Students working togetherThe Room

In the context of small group classes as in the Integration Workshop (a course that is part of the first-year law curriculum at McGill), the impact of not preparing for class is greater than in a lecture-based class. Through small group exercises, the professor expects students to teach each other the important components of the course. Indeed, educational research shows that we retain much more information when we teach than when we passively sit in a lecture. However, students who have not prepared for class will not benefit and might even hinder their peers’ learning by not being able to contribute fully to the discussions. A professor who understands this will create a learning environment that is reflective of this inevitable reality.

In my group, it was clear that the professor was quite aware of the elephant. She spent a few minutes at the beginning of each session making sure students were familiar with the topic for the class: she asked leading questions and asked students to summarize key points of the readings; she went through short reminders of the important considerations and asked if anyone had questions. This 10-minute refresher was primordial, as it enabled unprepared students to catch up.

Although not necessarily causal, the results were positive: the students were engaged in their discussions, they taught each other what wasn’t understood by all, and they took time to help students that simply hadn’t read. More than helping each other learn the material, this type of learning also created an environment of cooperation and exchange that contributed to their confidence in making bold or new assertions about the material studied. The issue with this method however is the lack of time. Because the refreshers took time out of the exercise, we often had to rush through the session to make sure we covered all the subject.

The Fine Line

Although professors should be aware of the elephant, I am not suggesting that they should assume that students come unprepared for class. This is a fine line to draw as the best law professors are those who push their students to do better, to be engaged in the classroom and of course, to come to class prepared. Balancing high expectations with reality, without assuming students cannot contribute meaningfully, is what makes a difference in teaching. Through simple refreshers, professors can truly aid students to catch up in the classroom and enable them to contribute in peer-to-peer learning.

By addressing the elephant in the room, we can have an honest discussion about what it means to learn in a law school environment. In my opinion, students who come unprepared to class can be an asset: although they will not be aware of the exact vocabulary stemming from the readings, thanks to the refreshers from the professor, they will be aware of key points. In a small group setting, this will force them to rely on their own experiences to contribute, thereby possibly providing the group with insight not found in the readings. This promotes agency and respect of their intelligence and capability to contribute: it is empowering.

In light of this consideration, should we rethink the law school syllabus to provide for a classroom where preparing for class would be limited to key points or large concepts? What if we strived for a classroom where students could bring their individual life experiences into classroom discussions?


Warren Binford, “How to Be the World’s Best Law Professor

William Henry Ewell & Robert R. Rodgers, “Enhancing Student Preparedness for Class through Course Preparation Assignments: Preliminary Evidence from the Classroom

Michael Hunter Schwartz et al., “What the Best Law Teachers Do

Check out the other posts in the Law series:

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