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Thursday, October 05, 2006 

Getting Called on in Class

I rarely post about law school socio-cultural stuff. I've noticed that a lot of other law student-run blogs focus heavily on the minutiae of law school life: working on your outlines, cramming for exams, gunners, interning, all that jazz. If you're interested in that stuff, you can get it elsewhere. I just don't care enough about it to write on it with any passion or flair.

This post caught my eye today. Over on PrawfsBlawg, Prof. Michael Dimino talks about an unprepared student in one of his classes...
I called on the student to analyze whether certain arguments for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples was "irrational," as held by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The student declined to answer, claiming that he did not hear the question because he was typing on his computer; that he had no opinion on the matter; and that he could not develop any opinion because he had not been listening closely enough to the discussion and did not bring his book to class. This was not the first time he was unprepared.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the law school classroom environment, this is basically what happens. Students are assigned reading, they do it (hopefully), the professor lectures a little about the day's topic, then the professor calls on students to talk about the cases.

Usually, the student starts by reciting the facts of the case, followed by the previous history in the lower courts. Then you get into the meat of the legal analysis done by the court. That's usually where the professor begins asking questions. These questions are designed to get the student thinking about the legal issues from various angles. We can thank Socrates for this style of teaching. The always useful Wikipedia has a nice description of the use of the Socratic Method in law schools...
In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question and calls on a student who may or may not have volunteered an answer. The professor either then continues to ask the student questions or moves on to another student.

These subsequent questions can take a few forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it breaks. Further questions can also be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a particular case. Finally professors use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully worded questions that spur a particular train of thought.
It's such a blast. It's also very obvious when a student tries to answer the questions when they are unprepared (not always though, some people are just bad at talking in class).

Prof. Dimino then gets to disciplinary matters and makes an appeal for advice...
I called on someone else and plan to call on the lazy student every day for the rest of the semester (or at least a suitably lengthy period short of the whole semester) plus decrease his grade one step for poor class participation, but I suspect such treatment is not nearly severe enough (plus it wastes the time of other members of the class). Have some of you ejected students from the class for such inexcusable behavior? If so, do you let them return for the next class? What happens if they don't leave? What other means are appropriate and effective?
I was a little taken aback by this. Maybe that's because I have never seen anything this bad happen in one of my classes. Sure, I've seen people unprepared. It happens. Usually, being embarrassed in front of the class is enough to get that person back in line and reading the material.

The comments section of the post are incredibly interesting. One commenter, Angry Law Student, thinks that Prof. Dimino is way off base. "The student, having paid a substantial amount of money for his responsibility, may shirk that responsibility [learning] to whatever extent he chooses. If he suffers for it, it should only be with regards to his understanding of the material and resulting poor grade on the exam." Prof. Ethan Leib retorts, "it is simply impossible for us to do our job well if students don't do the reading and refuse to let the classroom be a forum for engagement. Students are not paying to be lectured at; that's what they pay for when they pay for their bar courses. You are paying for a lot more -- and some of that added value can only be accomplished if you do your part."

The discussion in the comments is great and there are a lot of excellent points being made. One sticks out, though. A commenter named 3L had this to say...
In my 1L year, I always did all of the reading prior to class, and attended every session. And I quickly came to realize one thing - listening to other law students talk is about the worst thing one can do. When the profs were talking, I would be attentive, taking notes where necessary. But when students were talking, I would instantly alt-tab to my web browser, and tune their words out. If I am capable of learning the material on my own, what can I possibly gain from listening to someone recite their (almost certainly incorrect) interpretation of the court's opinion?
This is very true. There are some people who just like to talk in class. They like to talk whether they are right or wrong. They like to talk whether they are adding anything substantive to the discussion or not. They poison the classroom environment with erroneous information and waste valuable class time.

My advice for Prof. Dimino is as follows. Dock the student on his class participation grade. He deserves it. However, calling on him every day for the rest of the semester is foolish. It's only going to ruin the classroom environment for everyone else. Don't call on him again. If you really want to make a point, make it obvious that you aren't calling on him. Call on the students in his row, go straight down the row, and skip him when it would be his turn. If he is not willing to prepare and participate, why waste time on him?

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