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There is an interesting discussion raised over at PrawfsBlawg about how law professors should enforce student preparedness in the classroom. Mike Dimino (law, Widener) (guesting at PrawfsBlawg and a former guest blogger here at Concurring Opinions) described a chronically unprepared student and noted the strong punishment he intends to deliver: “[I] 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).” In a follow-up post, Mike noted that enforcing preparedness “is a lesson in professionalism, encouraging students who would otherwise slack off to expend the effort necessary to learn.” He argued that “student unpreparedness fosters an attitude of apathy that lowers the expectations of everyone and makes it impossible to teach to the high end of the class.”

I must disagree with Mike. I wonder how strong the correlation is between being prepared for each class and performance on the exam or being a good lawyer. We often assume this, but do we have good data to back it up?

My attitude toward teaching has changed throughout the years. I began in a much more paternalistic way. I had a vision of what the ideal students should be doing and I tried to force it upon them. I wanted all students to be highly engaged in class, to be on the edge of their seats, to be paying 100% attention, to be pouring their hearts and souls into the class. But part of me wanted students to be prepared not just for their own benefit but for my own ego. After all, I was trying very hard to make class interesting and worthwhile, and the unprepared student hurt my image of myself as a teacher.

Now, my view has changed. I try to encourage students to be prepared and engaged, but I don’t try to force them. There will always be students who are diligent and ones who are not diligent. I don’t think it is my job to try to force upon students a sense of diligence or work ethic. That needs to come from within. If students are preparing for class out of fear, the “diligence” is forced and illusory. I doubt that those students will be diligent in real life situations without the fear. Instead, diligence must be generated internally. The student must find motivation from within to do the work. As a teacher, I can try to encourage the development of this motivation, but I can’t force it.

I use an on deck system, so only a few students are on call each class. I care about student preparation for the days they are on call, and I will enforce it. But I do so for a different reason — not because I want to force them to be diligent but because I asked them to do a small task and they haven’t done it. With the on deck system, I’ve asked the students to assist me and the class with the day’s material. So if they are unprepared, they have let me and the class down.

So although I don’t go so far as adopt a “live and let live” attitude, I don’t believe in being too paternalistic either. I don’t always know what’s best for students. I don’t think it is effective or wise to force my vision of the ideal student upon students. What I try to do is encourage students to be engaged and interested in the material.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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