Legal education has long been associated with an intimidating learning environment: rigid course structures, competitive classmates and highly qualified professors. This blog post explores active learning and student-driven learning as an educational pathway to increasing student participation, engagement and fulfillment within the law school experience.
Active learning should be conceptualized as a spectrum which comprises multiple educational strategies to achieve the common goal of maximizing student participation and engagement. Throughout my role as a Tutorial Leader (in the Integration Workshop for first-year law students at McGill), by observing the professor and his interactions with students, I have witnessed several examples of this process. In my experience, the implementation of an open and inclusive learning environment, as an active learning strategy, greatly facilitated the accomplishment of the above goal.
In particular, a strategy of creating a more relaxed learning environment had the effect of optimizing student participation. For example, the professor started each class by playing a song, with the objective of making the students feel more at ease within the first minutes of the session. Starting class with such an unconventional practice set the tone for the entire class: students were welcomed into a counter-traditional and less intimidating classroom. The professor frequently reminisced about the hardships that he had surmounted during the course of his legal education and academic career. He did not hesitate to share anecdotes about his life experiences and encouraged students to call him by his first name. Not only did student input increase as the semester unfolded, but students also seemed keen to express their own opinions and not simply attempt to give the professor the “correct” answer.
Witnessing the positive results of the professor’s decision to adopt an active learning approach to teaching has led me to reflect upon other strategies that could be implemented within the active learning spectrum. My reflection will focus on student-driven learning and the impacts that this approach could have on law school courses. The rationale in support of student-driven learning is the following: since students are the ones going through the curriculum, they should have a say in how it is designed and implemented. Accordingly, to further the educational benefits that can be derived from active learning, the student-driven learning strategy could be applied by law professors.
Student-driven learning could also be used as a tool to deconstruct some of the pervasive myths that are engrained in the law school culture which impede the fulfillment of the objectives of active learning. Law school is dominated by the idea that the structure and rules of the class should be pre-determined by the professor. Student-driven learning could be applied within the law school context by giving students more decision-making power as to how their curriculum should be applied. For example, at the beginning of a given semester, professors could engage in discussions and make decisions with their students as to various aspects of the course: the grading scheme, the role of participation and class discussions, peer review as a learning tool or tutorial sessions amongst many others. Instead of using the feedback from ex-post class evaluations, professors should engage in this type of discussion before the course is underway or while the course is progressing in order to consider the needs and expectations of students as they are learning. This approach will allow students to communicate to the professor the solutions that can be implemented to increase their active participation and interest in the class materials.
To conclude, the use of active learning strategies, ranging from the installation of a less stressful learning environment to giving students the possibility to make choices about their course structure, would represent a significant step forward in legal education. Indeed, students’ active engagement and fulfillment through their law courses will ultimately allow them to better their understanding and increase their retention of what they have been taught in their courses. However, this post does raise one fundamental question to consider: Even though law professors are progressively adopting active learning strategies, is the law school institution too sclerotic to welcome the students themselves into the pedagogical decision-making process?
Check out the other posts in the Law series:
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