Legal Education Digest
Using Interactive Teaching Strategies in Large Lectures: Some Personal Reflections
 LegEdDig 62; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 20
14 Legal Educ Rev 2, 2004, pp 181-201
The purpose of this article is to describe, evaluate and reflect upon certain interactive teaching strategies used in the large lecture theatre environment. The article describes the teaching context in which interactive strategies have been introduced and outlines and discusses the teaching strategies and aids used. Finally, the effectiveness of the strategies in improving student learning is evaluated and some personal reflections on the teaching experience recorded.
The major premise underpinning the article is that the object of good teaching is to promote high quality learning on the part of the student. Promoting student learning obviously requires an understanding of student learning. Students who employ a deep approach to learning focus on the significance of new information. Deep learning involves relating new information to existing knowledge and personal experience. The deep approach to learning may be contrasted with a ‘surface’ approach, which demonstrates a desire to simply complete task requirements. Students who adopt a surface approach seek to reproduce, rather than to understand, new information, and focus unreflectively on signs rather than significance. Good teaching will encourage a deep approach to learning and discourage surface learning approaches.
The motivation for introducing interactive teaching strategies into the large lecture environment arose from a desire to promote ‘deep’ approaches to learning and dissatisfaction with the traditional lecture format as an effective teaching strategy. This article is not about making lectures more interesting — it is about shifting the focus of the lecture from a performance by the lecturer to an active learning experience on the part of the students.
The commitment to fostering a deep approach to learning in Law in Context resulted in certain design features. These included, first, the subject matter being split into three concrete modules, each building upon the cognitive, affective and skills achievements of the previous module. Secondly, it saw a shift to using assessment as a teaching strategy and a shift away from the all-encompassing end-of-semester examination.
The first module, legal structures and institutions, introduced the study of the courts, the judiciary, the legal profession and other legal structures and institutions within the framework of the rule of law. The second module, access to justice, built on the first in terms of skills and subject matter. The subject matter of the third module was legal theory.
In the year 2000, students had performed very poorly in their assessment in the legal theory module of Law in Context. Upon reflection, a number of factors may have contributed to the poor exam performance. The poor performance in the legal theory module, especially compared with much better performance in the other two modules of the subject, may also be attributable to the desirability and difficulties of including legal theory in first year.
Before any rapid conclusions could be drawn about whether first year students have the capacity to comprehend the content, it was first necessary to evaluate whether the teaching methods employed to teach that content were adequate. The task of evaluating the effectiveness of the existing teaching strategies revealed that, although the students were happy with the lectures and found them interesting and engaging, this was not reflected in student understanding of the subject matter. Part of the problem seemed to lie in the distinction between the theory and the application.
In order to promote learning within the lecture, students were presented with information in short spurts, and then asked to apply that information immediately. There were time implications in implementing this strategy. In order to incorporate the interactive components into the lectures, the time actually spent lecturing would need to be reduced. As a result, some depth of analysis would be sacrificed. The major teaching strategy was to break up the two-hour lecture into a number of smaller presentations, interspersed with interactive learning components. The students formed buzz groups to discuss the application, and finally the groups were then asked to contribute some of the main points from their discussion to the entire lecture group. This strategy was employed to involve students actively in the learning process in order to promote understanding and retention, and to achieve the cognitive objectives of the lesson. The group discussion should also promote critical analysis of the material.
The primary teaching aids are a handout containing a legal scenario and the use of Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. At the beginning of the lecture, students are given a short introduction, which gives an outline of the lecture and clearly sets out the objectives of the lecture. A handout is then distributed. Students are asked to read the handout and write down their intuitive responses to the scenario. This strategy is employed to engage the students’ interest and attention by actively engaging the students in a non-threatening way. It is also designed to facilitate learning by building upon the students’ existing knowledge.
In applying the lecture material to the handout, students are asked to form groups of three to five. In the buzz groups, the students discuss the application of the information to the problem contained in the handout. At the end of the buzz group session, feedback is relayed from the buzz groups to the large lecture group.
At the conclusion of the lecture, students are asked to reflect upon their initial intuitive responses to the scenario and the application of the material covered in the lecture. This exercise is designed to promote the affective objectives of the lesson, and to consolidate the learning from the lesson.
Student feedback has been obtained in a variety of ways: first, from questionnaires designed specifically for the purpose; secondly, from the university student feedback process; and, thirdly, from informal discussions with students throughout the teaching and learning process. Most comments on the questionnaire responses suggested that the PowerPoint presentation was an effective visual aid to enhance understanding and that it helped students follow the structure of the lecture.
Responses to the buzz groups varied from cohort to cohort, with responses generally becoming more positive with each semester. The majority of comments were positive. The greatest numbers of comments were to the effect that students found it beneficial to hear other people’s views or perspectives. Informal feedback, in the form of conversations and other verbal and written communications, generally indicates that the learning experience in these subjects is very valuable. One significant indication of the success of the teaching strategies is that student performance in assessment improved dramatically over the two years that the teaching strategies have been implemented. It is clear from the above evaluation that, since the introduction of interactive teaching strategies into the lectures in Law in Context and Jurisprudence, student learning in those subjects has improved. Students are engaging confidently and skilfully with the theories that comprise the subject matter of the course. This experience has reinforced for the author the need to channel our enthusiasm for the subject by being open to changes in our teaching.