Learning Partnerships with Students
Jonnette Watson Hamilton is a professor in the Faculty of Law who teaches the senior-level course Legal Theory: Property. This course is not mandatory for law students, but it can fulfill their legal theory requirement. It is a seminar-style class, capped at 16 students, as are all Legal Theory courses, with a focus on group discussion.
The assessments in the course are divided into two components: writing and participation. The written element is worth 75% of the total grade. Students have a choice of one large or several smaller papers. Participation is worth the other 25%, which is high for the Faculty of Law. Jonnette emphasizes the importance of good discussions when studying legal theory, so she has made small changes to encourage closer reading and deeper discussions.
In previous iterations of the course, students were given a set of questions to consider for each assigned reading.. These questions were the focus of the in-class discussions. Jonnette felt that students were not getting the depth of knowledge that they needed. They would skim the readings to find answers, but would not look deeper into the arguments in the readings. She made three small changes to remedy this.
First, instead of asking for answers, Jonnette asks her students for questions. Each student has to prepare one question for class based on the assigned reading for that class. This changes how they approach the material. They have to look for flaws in reasoning, gaps in arguments, background knowledge the author assumes they have, etc.. Most students prepare a few extra questions in case a classmate asks their original one.
Each class starts with each student asking their question. The order in which students present their questions is varies each class, so everyone has a chance to go first.. Jonnette then immediately organizes the questions into a logical order in front of the students. This gives a good agenda for each class and shows how different questions link together and lead into one another. Students in the course come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have different experiences. This means that discussions are informed by many different perspectives and can be very interesting. One concern Jonnette originally had with student-generated questions was that the discussion might not cover all the important material or discussion points. However, Jonnette has found that if something is missing from the discussion, there are many opportunities for her to inject it in. Student questions tend to be good and cover all or almost all of the important information.
Second, Jonnette reduced the amount of reading for each class. Readings are limited to 25-30 pages per class, which is usually only one article. That is a small amount for reading for an 80-minute upper year class.
Third, even in small classes, facilitating participation can be difficult. Some students tend to dominate conversations, while others are more apprehensive about speaking up. Jonnette developed a simple system for ensuring that all students get many opportunities to participate but that discussions still naturally evolve and do not feel forced. If her class has more than 10 students, she gives half the students speaking priority on Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays. Students place a small card on the table in front of them so everyone can see that it is their priority day. This allows Jonnette to easily call on these students when they put their hands up, and allows non-priority students to wait for gaps in the conversation to contribute. In earlier iterations of the course, students were only allowed to speak on their priority day, but that was too restrictive. Students without priority complained about not being able to participate. This method allows lots of opportunities in an 80 minute class for the 6 to 8 students with priority to speak up, and also allows lots of opportunities for students without priority to contribute (without being marked) if they want to.
Jonnette also has an extensive set of criteria and guidelines for what constitutes good participation, so students are clear on their expectations from the beginning of the course. Even if they ask a weaker question, students who contribute to the discussion in meaningful ways can still do well on participation.
Jonnette says that the implementation of the student-generated questions and the priority participation method made the course a great experience for both her and the students. As one student wrote, “Having us prepare questions [and] keeping the reading load reasonable made me love coming to class.” The classroom environment is very positive — “lively but cordial” in one student’s words. Students feel connected to one another and to the material. Asking questions makes students feel free admitting that they do not have all of the answers. In legal theory, the questions are often more important than the answers, and students leave the course with this appreciation. They also are more at ease during discussions since they know they have many opportunities to speak up and share their ideas on their priority days. They know they will be heard.
Among the other positive comments in the student feedback surveys, students mention how prepared Jonnette was for each class. She did not know what type of questions students would bring and would have to organize them on the spot. However, since she is so familiar with the topic and knows the readings well, that is easy enough for her to do. Overall, Jonnette was surprised and impressed by how much the course improved with such small changes. She will continue using these strategies and encourages others to experiment with them in other seminar courses.