Wednesday, March 17, 2010
One of the most valuable teaching tools to come along in recent years is something called “clickers.” These are handheld devices about the size of a cell phone, which are distributed to the students. The instructor then devises a program to be shown on a large projector in the room, all of which is tied to the internet. At the Ohio State Law School all large teaching rooms are now such “smart classrooms.” My program is a simple display: 1=YES; 2=NO; 3=ABSTAIN. Thus I ask a question in class, and the students all respond, and then I hit the space bar on the computer keyboard and a large graph appears showing the percentages of each choice and illustrating them by tall (or short) columns.
Why would this be an advantage over the old methods? First of all, students will not always (or even often) raise their hands when a question is asked, but they can all vote with their clickers. The clickers are randomly distributed and are anonymous. When I first have the students come up to the front of the room and pick a clicker out of a boxfull, I mention that if anybody doubts whether this is anonymous he/she should simply change clickers with someone else. Once the clickers are trusted, everyone will express an answer, and those answers frequently surprise not only me, but everyone in the room. At that point real discussion can start because each anonymous student now has a vested interest in an answer, and are assured to learn they are not alone. The instructor can then say something like “40% of you voted ‘NO.’ Let me hear from some of you. Why?” It gets the discussion underway immediately.
When in early February a law professor (my replacement on retirement, as it happens) broke his leg and required surgery and rehabilitation, I took over teaching the basic course in Contracts (a first year course which at Ohio State lasts from August, four days a week, until mid-March when spring break ends it). I thought I would only be teaching them for one week, possibly two, but his doctor barred him from the classroom until April 1, so it became my class for a whole month. Their usual professor had not been using clickers, and I missed them from my last years of regular teaching, where I found them most valuable. Here is where it first came up this past month while I was substituting. There is a case we study in Contracts where a house, supposedly haunted, is being sold. When the new buyers learn that the seller had first told the world the house was haunted but concealed this from the buyers, the buyers wanted to rescind the sale, move out, and get their money back (helpful neighbors having told all). I asked the students to raise their hands. “How many of you believe in ghosts?” was the question. Nobody raised a hand. “Come on,” I pressed. “Own up to your opinions. Some of you should have the courage to claim your belief in ghosts.” One student raised a hand, another immediately did so, and finally there was a third one. “Do I hear four?” I asked, auctioneering. The answer was no. “Just three,” I thought to myself, “That can’t be right.” The true percentage was hidden.
When I learned I would be teaching the course for a month, I had the law school staff distribute clickers to my students. Once everyone had them in hand I suggested a test run. I decided to re-ask the ghost question. You have to be careful how you phrase these things, so I settled for this: “Of course there might be ghosts, but there might also be unicorns or leprechauns as well. Here’s the question for you to respond to: is there a substantial possibility that ghosts exist? The result was eye-opening. 49% said “YES,” 37% said “NO,” and the rest abstained. Thus in spite of the three hands that were raised when I had first asked this question, it turned out that a majority of the class was in fact open to the possibility of unearthly spirits existing.
In past Contracts classes there is one case that always causes the class to get into a discussion so intense that, unless I cut it off, can last for two or more classes (and is not worth that amount of time). It involves a palimony suit (two people who split up after living together for a long time) in which the plaintiff was asking the court to avoid unjust enrichment by making the defendant cough up her share of the assets the couple had bought mostly with his money while she cared for their children and worked part time. Courts in different parts of the country haven’t reached agreement on the issue, but the case in our book is an opinion by the Court of Appeals of Michigan denying the woman any relief, saying that dividing the assets would be the equivalent of resurrecting common-law marriage (a doctrine from the frontier days when ministers were scarce, holding that a man and woman who lived together for a set number of years were legally married even without a ceremony). Michigan, the court noted, had abolished common law marriage by statute.
This case gets the blood boiling, particularly female blood. “It’s just male chauvinist bullshit,” one woman said in class. “Put women on that court of appeals and you’d get a different result.” Men frequently disagree (though not, of course, many). One male student who’d sat in the back of the room next to a female student for the first half of the course raised his hand. “The woman is at fault,” he opined. “She knew this jerk wasn’t going to marry her, but she still stayed on when she should have left. What do you think of that, Professor?” I replied, “Mr. Smith, I’ll try and hold them back while you make for the door.” The very next class he was sitting alone, his female friend sitting across the room. When I ran into him in the hall the next day I asked him if he’d come to regret his response. “You have no idea,” he said with a whipped dog expression on his face.
Once we had clickers we could find out what the students really thought. So the first class in which it was possible I had the students reply to the question: the court is right, yes or no? The bar graph showed that the class was split 50-50. “Now,” I continued, “women only.” The result was that 68% thought the court was wrong. When the men-only vote was taken the result was the opposite. That subsequent class discussion had to be stopped by me using a louder voice than usual.
But that’s why I love clickers. And my new temporary students do too. Last week when a Gilbert and Sullivan snatch of song spontaneously came to mind to illustrate a point (“The Law is the true embodiment of everything that’s excellent,” sings the Lord Chancellor of England in G&S’s “Iolanthe”), I jokingly asked the students if I should sing it to them. “Sure,” said a wag in the first row, “we have our clickers.” I decided to move on to something else.
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
“The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“The Summer Bar Review Tours,” June 15, 2010
“The Sexy Promissory Note,”August 17, 2010
"Mortgage Foreclosures: The Disaster of Unintended Consequences," October 27, 2010
"Update: Mortgage Foreclosure and Missing Notes," November 16, 2010
"Women in My Law School Classroom," January 8, 2011
"The Exploding Alarm Clock," February 19, 2011
"One More Story From Law School," February 27, 2011
"I Threaten To Sure Apple Over an iPad Cover," April 8, 2011
"Bob Whaley Goes to Law School," June 3, 2011
"The Payment-In-Full Check: A Powerful Legal Maneuver," April 11, 2011
"Adventures in the Law School Classroom," September 10, 2011
"What Non-Lawyers Should Know About Warranties," October 11, 2011
"How To Write and Effective Legal Threat Letter," October 19,2011
"Funny Law Professors," January 15, 2012
“How To Take a Law School Exam,” November 30, 2012”