My primary objective as a teacher is to teach my students how
to educate themselves. My specific pedagogical task as a legal
writing instructor is to teach my students how to read, analyse
and effectively communicate law. Active learning principles allow
me to accomplish both objectives.
Active learning techniques transform the teacher from imparter
of knowledge to facilitator/ co-learner and the students into
collaborators. Students understand and retain material much more
effectively when they participate in the learning process. They
learn to question and challenge information presented, develop
creative solutions, work collaboratively, communicate their ideas,
and effectively critique themselves and others.
Discussed below are five ways to incorporate active learning
techniques into your teaching, as well as how I have applied these
techniques in my classroom. As part of the legal writing programme,
students must transform their legal opinion memorandum, written
for their fictitious partner in their fictitious firm, into a
letter to the client. The purpose is to demonstrate the necessary
change in focus, tone and detail required when writing the same
information for a different audience. Before the tutorial that
I lead on writing client letters, teams of students draft client
letters based on a hypothetical case previously discussed in class.
At the tutorial’s start, the groups exchange papers. Each group
peer edits another group’s letter and presents the edited versions
to their classmates. After the students complete this exercise,
each student writes her own client letter based on her legal opinion
memorandum. I assess this assignment.
Allow students to learn by doing.
To draft their client letters effectively, the students synthesise
assigned readings with writing and analysis skills learned
in different contexts. They utilise this data to determine
the necessary structure and style of the letter. Each group
also decides what factual and legal information is pertinent
to their client and the most effective way to communicate
it. I find that the questions asked in class about structure
and substance are very detailed, much more so than had I just
assigned readings and led a conventional discussion.
Encourage student collaboration.
The students in each group debate the information to include,
the amount of detail necessary and the proper tone to set.
If everyone wrote their own letters, they would lose the opportunity
to clarify their thoughts and questions through debate and
discussion with colleagues.
Provide opportunities for all students to present
During the group presentation of the edited work, the teams
divide their presentations into three segments. This structure
allows students to speak about a familiar topic, thereby alleviating
some of their nervousness. All of my students, even the quiet
ones, provide good constructive feedback about the other groups’
Use multiple methods of evaluation.
Each group presents three successful parts of the paper they
have edited and three items that need improvement. The critiqued
group explains, discusses and even argues about some of their
editors’ comments. I facilitate these discussions, often adding
a few comments or asking some additional questions. I interject
my own critique of the content to reinforce/clarify the critic
group’s message and help the class hone their assessment skills.
I also assess and critique the client letters each student
writes after this assignment. The students’ own letters reflect
the comments made in class. Many avoid the errors in tone
and legalese evident in their group’s in-class draft. The
letters improve in style and structure too.
- Allow students the freedom to experiment with ideas.
All the ideas above presuppose that the tutorial is a place
for exploring ideas and not a place where knowledge only flows
from teacher to students. The students must feel comfortable
expressing radical, interesting and even wrong ideas. This exercise
forces the students to share their ideas with each other and
with me, before hearing my opinions. During their editing session
and presentations, I raise questions and make comments to guide
them through the process.
Active learning techniques create an environment conducive for
learning. These techniques allow the teacher to ensure that the
students learn both the requisite substantive information and
the skills for how to continue to acquire knowledge.
Jacobson, M.H. Sam. (2001, Summer). ‘A Primer on Learning
Styles: Reaching Every Student’. Seattle University
Law Review, 139.
Schwartz, Michael Hunter. (2001, Spring). ‘Teaching
Law By Design: How Learning Theory and Instructional Design can
Inform and Reform Law Teaching’. San Diego Law Review,
Kerper, Janeen. (1998, Spring). ‘Creative Problem Solving
vs. the Case Method: A Marvelous Adventure in which Winnie the
Pooh Meets Mrs. Palsgraf’. California Western Law
Block, Frank S. (1982, March). ‘The Andragogical Basis
of Clinical Legal Education’. Vanderbilt Law Review,
Kearney, Mary Kate. (2001, Fall). ‘Reflections on Good
(Law) Teaching’. Law Review of Michigan State University
Detroit College of Law, 835.