Teaching a one-year contracts course for the first time, I solicited feedback early on from my first year law students about the different learning approaches that I used in class. The students overwhelmingly loved the hypothetical fact pattern scenarios that I prepared for them from time to time, and which we discussed in class. Many students asked for more. The students were less enthusiastic about the short case comment that a student had to present every week.
Inspired by this feedback, I changed the format of the student presentations for the winter term (which was destined to change anyway). Under the new format, students would have to create hypothetical fact pattern scenarios and moderate a class discussion about possible approaches to resolve the legal issues involved. The goal of that change was to ensure a regular flow of hypothetical fact pattern scenarios for my enthusiastic first year students, and raise the bar of the presentation assignment of the second term. The new assignment would support some of the key learning objectives of the course and mimic what students would soon have to do own their own: apply their legal reasoning to solve real-life factual situations.
- A team of pre-selected students had to prepare a hypothetical fact pattern scenario with questions dealing with the contract doctrines that we were going to cover in the subsequent week.
- The students had to submit the fact pattern scenario and questions with their analysis of possible approach(es), at least two days in advance of the next class, to which I would provide feedback and suggest changes as necessary.
- I sent the finalized fact-pattern scenario and questions (without the attached analysis) to the class at least 24 hours before the next class.
- The students had to present their fact pattern scenario and moderate the discussion in class. When time allowed it, the students were given 10-15 minutes to discuss the fact-pattern scenario in sub-groups, before proceeding to a general discussion.
- In the Classroom
The quality of the fact pattern scenarios and questions was surprisingly higher than I had initially envisaged. Clearly, the students invested significant time and effort in their preparation. I saw originality, humor, and genuine attempts to explore the various ramifications of the legal doctrines we were studying. One team incorporated the blue & black or white & gold dress social media controversy of the week to discuss aggravated damages for the potential breach of an employment contract at a fashion show.
Some student moderators clearly enjoyed being center-stage and seemed empowered by the opportunity to walk their peers through possible legal analyses. Others were more reserved. I adjusted my level of intervention accordingly, bearing in mind the overall learning objective of the assignment.
The level of participation and quality of the discussions was of higher caliber than during the first term. At times, students in the audience pushed the thinking of the student presenters, forcing them to revisit their initial assumptions. The student presenters often resorted to polls, some even rewarded the participative students with sweets. Candy or not, there was an obvious benefit to participate: it allowed students to test their level of comprehension week after week in preparation for the final exam.
What the Students had to Say about their Learning Experience
I asked my students to provide feedback about their learning experience as student-creators and moderators, and as student participants. In one group, the response was overwhelmingly positive both for student presenters and for student participants. In the other group, the vast majority was more favorable, but the responses were more mixed. Here are some of the illustrative comments that were made:
“I enjoyed writing the fact pattern. It was a rare chance to get creative in law school”
“Preparing the fact pattern scenarios in team forced us to learn the material at a very in-depth level”
“It felt like I was an expert on the topic”
“After we presented, students viewed us as subject matter experts, and came to us for advice.”
What is revealing here is that the student presenters’ contribution was being valued by their peers beyond the classroom. This would surely boost the student presenters’ confidence about their level of comprehension of the law and ability to counsel others.
There is always a minority of students who dislike any form of student presentation. Some simply reject the notion that they can ever learn from other students. Others may feel uneasy not to hear it from the professor’s mouth. Certain things will need to be adjusted here and there. For instance, providing more formal individualized feedback to the student moderators will improve their learning experience.
In our willingness to best equip our students to succeed, some of us may at times take too much on our shoulders without achieving the desired outcome. Teaching is after all about maximizing the students’ own learning experience. The views and opinions they develop about the colour of the dress matters much more than our own.
The more we create opportunities for our students to actively invest themselves in the course materials and in what happens in the classroom, the more we are likely to improve their learning experience. This new assignment has broadened my thinking about the different roles we allow ourselves to play in the classroom, and the different outcomes that they produce. I am grateful to my first-year Contracts students at Windsor Law for having taken on their new role so enthusiastically.
Pascale Chapdelaine is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor.