Five Active Learning Techniques (Ms Marcia Glickman)

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Provide opportunities for all students to present information.
    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’ writing.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Additional Reading

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, 347.

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 Review, 351.

Block, Frank S. (1982, March). ‘The Andragogical Basis of Clinical Legal Education’. Vanderbilt Law Review, 321.

Kearney, Mary Kate. (2001, Fall). ‘Reflections on Good (Law) Teaching’. Law Review of Michigan State University Detroit College of Law, 835.