Tips for Law Teachers

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by Prof. Sophie Sparrow

Moving away from the theme of advising students on how they can make the most of their legal education, Prof. Sophie Sparrow writes for law teachers this time. This column suggests steps law teachers can take to help students learn, based on the current research on teaching and learning

What should students learn?
 
Teaching any law course presents significant challenges. Each subject has more material than we can possibly teach, even when students are in classes six days a week, every week. And even when we have a particular focus, such as concentrating on legal theories, comparative approaches, or practical applications, we don’t have enough time for students to learn all we seek to teach. Many of us fear that the lack of time or credits given to our course significantly hampers our ability to do justice to the subject.
 
This challenge – not having enough time for us to teach students all we seek them to learn –will remain. New legal complexities arise on a regular basis, in every subject. In addition, as we learn more about our area, we see more important nuances we want to impart to our students. At the same time, students seem to face increasing demands on their time, participating in any number of moot court and other competitions, working on a journal, and completing projects to help themselves stand out as candidates for future legal employers. Paradoxically, the more we learn about our area and the more it expands, the less time it appears we have to teach the material.
 
As a result, each semester we have to make difficult choices about what material – knowledge, skills, and values – we will include in the course. How do we make intelligent judgments about what material to include, and, more painfully, what to omit? How do we justify these choices to ourselves, our students, our colleagues, and our superiors?
 
Focus on what’s important to lawyers in the field
 
One way to make those difficult choices about what to include and exclude each semester is to ask colleagues practicing law what knowledge, skills, and values they find most essential for legal success. For example, a law professor teaching environmental, patent, tax, etc. law might learn from practicing lawyers that most clients’ legal matters involve state and national statutes which are resolved at the administrative level.