In a post today, Kaimi responds to a fequent student criticism of law school pedagogy. That criticism is that many students don’t learn much from hearing other students speak in class. In large classes (not seminars), many students think that time is wasted when so much class time is devoted to other students talking. They feel that they are taking the class to learn from the professor, not from other students.
Kaimi’s response is that student participation functions as an “accountability mechanism” to ensure that students have “actually done the reading.” But more importantly, Kaimi, writes, “[f]acilitating student participation allows many students to learn more effectively.” He notes that students learn in different ways, and some learn best through active participation.
I agree with the mix of learning approaches. My classes all now involve a mixture between lecture, Socratic-style participation, and problem-method participation.
But I’m not sure Kaimi has really answered the student’s skepticism. Students often view the Socratic participation process as inefficient. Why not have the professor just lecture the answers? This way, some students think, they will get the correct answers faster and not have to wait while classmates struggle with the material until the right answer emerges. In a large class, Socratic participation seems like a very inefficient way to help the students who learn best by participating. After all, with many students, the average student participates about 2-3 times per semester — not frequently enough to get much benefit.
However, there is a benefit to having some Socratic participation as opposed to all lecture. And this benefit requires me to reveal a deeply-guarded secret of law school pedagogy: Law professors sometimes want the wrong answers.
Of course, professors don’t want wrong answers stemming from lack of preparation (these are not wrong in the right way), but they want certain wrong answers because the right one might be counterintuitive or very tricky and they want to explore why the wrong answers are wrong first.
Even when a student is not participating, it can be helpful to hear another student answer the questions. This gets other non-participating students thinking about how they will answer the questions. In a lecture, it is easy to just sit back and soak in all the information. But when students listen to other students participate — especially when other students are struggling to answer the questions — they are thinking about how they would answer them. And it is this thinking that is helpful. So there is a benefit to not having the answers come too quickly.
There are times when I’m exploring hard issues that I want to take a bit of time and explore a few false starts before getting to the right answer. I think that this can reinforce the lessons learned — and it can demonstrate to students why particular alternative answers are not the best ones.
Thus, ironically, the benefit of Socratic participation is its inefficiency in getting to the right answers quickly. What many students discount as wasted time — exploring wrong answers, waiting while another student struggles to articulate a concept or argument correctly — is actually very valuable time. It often doesn’t get memorialized in the notes students take in class. The time is often forgotten. But it is important time to allow the concepts to ferment in the students’ minds. Sometimes the seemingly inefficient teaching method can be the most effective one.
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.