One day after class, a student casually approached Professor Ellen E. Deason and asked a question: “So, how do you prepare for class? Do you just kind of check back with what you did in practice?”
Deason, laughing at the memory, said it’s a somewhat common scenario. Students, she explained, don’t always understand that “when you practice law, you may have experience with small pieces of this or that, but you certainly don’t have experience with the whole thing.” By the whole thing, she means all that goes into the day-to-day work of educating future generations of lawyers.
Early on in her teaching career, Deason taught a civil procedure course at the University of Illinois. “I was a new teacher,” she said, “and I had a student come in at the beginning of the semester and say, ‘I had a great summer at a law firm and I did all kinds of civil procedure projects.’ Then she looked at me and she added, ‘and now I understand what you were trying to teach us in class.’”
Initially, Deason said she was “crushed because it felt as if she didn’t get that knowledge from me. Then, I thought, ‘no, this is absolutely right. Her summer work gave her a new perspective that helped her make sense of what we had covered. You can envision learning as a spiral that involves revisiting prior concepts, but at an increasing level of sophistication. That informs my teaching. I’m trying to give the 1Ls tools, as much as particular knowledge of civil procedure. And, I think that is a shared goal among the faculty.”
Moritz faculty members have long been revered for their dedication to the craft of teaching. In February, Deason was the third Moritz faculty member to win the university’s highest teaching honor—the Alumni Award for Teaching— in just the past five years. Only 10 of Ohio State’s more than 5,000 faculty receive the honor each year.
In January 2015, to further build on the College’s commitment to teaching, Dean Alan C. Michaels created Moritz’s Teaching Innovation Group (TIG)—led by professors Ric Simmons and Terri Enns ’96.
The group grew from the College’s strategic plan, which called for “a group to engage interested faculty, staff, students, and alumni in ongoing discussion of developments in law practice, teaching innovations at other law schools, and research on best practices in education. The Teaching Innovation Group will build on the efforts of our earlier pedagogy subcommittee; it will keep us at the forefront of law school pedagogy by providing a constant stream of ideas and practices that our community may draw upon.”
TIG currently engages about 20 members of the faculty and staff who teach at the College, including Professor Elizabeth Sherowski ’96, who edits a TIG e-news- letter, “On Course,” and Assistant Dean Sara Sampson ’97, who maintains the group’s IdeaBank—an online collection of teaching ideas from Moritz faculty. The IdeaBank is searchable by a variety of factors including class size, time, and class type.
In addition, TIG hosts regular brown bag lunches for the Moritz community, featuring faculty and guest speakers, which have been well attended. Lunch topics so far have included a discussion of race, class, and gender in the classroom, led by Professor Amna Akbar; a conversation about ways to use simulations and problems in large classrooms, led by Dr. Alan Kalish, director of the University Center for Advancement of Teaching; and a talk by Professor Katrina Lee about the substance of the Business of Law seminar that she teaches and how Moritz educates students on the business of law through other courses.
“The overall mission of TIG is to ensure the newest ideas about teaching can reach the faculty,” Simmons said. “If once every semester everyone who teaches tries to incorporate just one new exercise, or experiments with a different method of teaching, or even does something different outside of class with the students, our teaching here will become even more innovative and exciting.”
For his part, Simmons said he has incorporated feedback he received during TIG’s Open Classrooms Week (an opportunity for professors to attend other professors’ classes and offer and receive feedback) into his lesson plans. Colleagues who attended Simmons’ classes noted that he often stood still behind his lectern for most of the class, and that by moving around the room instead, he might better engage all of the students. So, now he does. In addition, he is experimenting with flipping his classroom— filming a lecture ahead of time and having students watch it prior to class, so that more classroom time is dedicated to rich discussion about the filmed lecture.
“If I start a seminar with a 25-minute lecture,” he explained, “then by the time the lecture is over, the students are all passively taking notes and not really engaged in the discussion.”
For Enns, the group comes at the perfect time. “Our ultimate goal is to create a culture of thinking about teaching innovation at Moritz,” she said. That’s because over the last three decades, thanks to advanced brain imaging studies, scientists have made great strides in understanding exactly how people acquire new information and skill sets.
“Now, with the ability to do brain imaging and brain scanning while people are performing learning tasks, we have so much more information about how people learn,” Enns said. “That’s exciting for me to tap into. The studies aren’t focused at all on how law learning works, but there is information about how adult learning works, and we are, after all, teaching adults.”
Lee, who teaches the Business of Law seminar, Legal Analysis and Writing I and II, Legal Negotiations and Settlements, and L.L.M. Legal Writing, said that from the moment she learned about TIG, she knew it was something she wanted to be a part of.
“It gives our faculty a wonderful forum to share ideas about teaching, to learn from each other, and possibly collaborate on our teaching in ways that we might not have before the existence of the TIG.”
Prior to the formation of TIG, Lee dedicated a lot of time to reflecting privately on her teaching and informally sharing ideas with colleagues about teaching, in the Drinko hallways or over coffee or lunch. Now, TIG provides a terrific supplement to what Lee was already doing. TIG “gives me this official space in which I can feel comfortable sharing and reflecting aloud on various topics with my colleagues at Moritz.”
For Lee and other faculty members, teaching innovation is almost always on their minds—even when they are not in Drinko Hall. “When I am out there in the world, I’m always thinking about how the contact I am making and the activity I am engaged in can help my students,” Lee said. “Constant revisiting and refining takes a lot of time, but it’s my responsibility.” For example, Lee is always thinking about how to refine delivery of feedback, a critical component of law school teaching: “I want to give my students feedback throughout the semester that will help them succeed in their law practice.”
As Deason put it, “there are many really good teachers on this faculty, and so it’s an incredible opportunity to learn from each other. We were already doing that to some extent, but TIG puts a label on it. This puts an emphasis on it. It announces great teaching as a value. That’s very important.” Deason added, “TIG is still very new, but it’s full of promise. And it’s gotten people talking.”