Easy Ways to Make a Difference With Your Students (Back to School – Part 2)

August 17, 2010

We are now one week closer to the start of the semester, and we should all be one week closer to being ready in our mission to teach the eager minds of our students.  Last week I mentioned four things you could do between now and the start of the semester to maximize your payoff in terms of student learning.

One of those was to ‘do all the easy things that will make a difference to your students. This idea is too important to leave to just a bullet point on my list so I decided to write a second blog going more in depth.  You are probably wondering: What are those easy things you can do to make a difference? Here are a few suggestions I have for you:

1.  Memorize your students’ names as quickly as possible; I make flashcards and have them memorized by the end of the first week. 

2.  Relentlessly communicate high expectations, both in terms of what you ask of them and in terms of your belief that your students can meet your expectations.  The research in this area is rock solid; students live up or down to our expectations of them.

3.  Manifest respect for, caring about, and interest in your students. 

        i.  Have students fill out index cards on which they tell you why they are in law school, what they hope to learn in your class, and one other interesting thing about them.

       ii.  When a student asks a question, any question, walk towards him or her, listen carefully, and think about the question before you respond.  Your students will learn that you  respect their courage in asking.      

      iii.  When a student asks a question or makes a comment that, at first glance, seems to reflect a lack of preparation or thought, take a deep breath and figure out the intelligence that underlies the error.  Try it once; you will be surprised how easy it is to find insight in student mistakes.  You can also critique any error, but your effort will allow you to mix in the positive feedback your student needs to hear, too.

      iv.  Solicit your students’ feedback about the class frequently and systematically.  Once each week, ask them to take out a half sheet of paper, give them three minutes and ask them to anonymously: tell you what is working and what is not working, summarize the key concepts they have learned this week, identify anything that is confusing them.  Your students will learn that you care about their learning and respect their opinions.

       v.  Know what else is going on with your students and wish them well.  Are on-campus interviews going full force?  Do they have a legal writing paper due in a week?  Is one of your students getting married? Having a baby? Becoming engaged?  Receiving an award?

Have a great year!

Professor Michael Hunter Schwartz
Co-Director, Institute for Law Teaching and Learning
Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Development
Washburn University School of Law