What This Professor Learned by Becoming a Student Again

For the past year, I have been a student again.  Once I finish a final paper (hopefully tomorrow), I will be receiving a Graduate Certificate in Assessment and Institutional Research from Sam Houston State University.

I enrolled in the program at “Sam” (as students call it) because I wanted to receive formal instruction in assessment, institutional research, data management, statistics, and, more generally, higher education.  These were areas where I was mainly self-taught, and I thought the online program at Sam Houston would give me beneficial skills and knowledge.  The program has certainly not disappointed.  The courses were excellent, the professors knowledgeable, and the technology flawless.  I paid for the program out-of-pocket, and it was worth every penny.  It has made me better at programmatic assessment and institutional research.  (I also turned one of my research papers into an article, which just came out this week.)

But the program had another benefit: It has made me a better teacher.

I became a professor in 2003, first teaching a clinic and doctrinal classes at my former school.  Later, I joined the faculty of St. John’s, where I have taught Legal Writing, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Appellate Advocacy, and other courses.  Since 2008, I have taught precisely 1,376 students in my courses.  My teaching evaluations have nearly always been excellent, and I have received several teaching awards.

But becoming a student again has opened my eyes to things I could do better as a professor.  Although the program at Sam was entirely online (mostly asynchronous), the experience has infused new ideas into my brick-and-mortar teaching in a number of ways.  Here are the lessons I learned by becoming a student again:

  • Students learn best by doing.  I have never worked so hard for 15 credits before.  Every week in my courses at Sam, I was doing something.  I had a misconception going into the program that I would be watching a lot of videos.  Not so.  I had traditional readings and short videos to watch, but the real learning took place in the work I created: papers, research projects, manipulated data sets, statistical exercises (yes, math homework!), discussion posts, and even narrated video presentations.  It was through these exercises that I really absorbed the material.  The key was the frequency of the work. It kept the subjects foremost on my mind. I was never cramming for final exams, in contrast to law school.  While law schools will likely cling to high-stakes, end-of-semester testing for the foreseeable future, there are ways that we can still embed formative assessments throughout our courses.   In Evidence, I now require students to take bi-weekly quizzes.  They do not count for a grade, but students who do not complete them risk a grade deduction at the end of the semester.
  • Out-of-class work should involve frequent doing, not just reading.  My experience as a student led me to rethink the basic Legal Writing and Appellate Advocacy courses that I teach.  I started assigning fewer readings out-of-class and had students, instead, create things, such as rule statements and reflections on readings.  Instead of assigning lengthy readings on oral arguments, I had students attend actual oral arguments and then create narrated PowerPoint presentations summarizing what they saw.
  • Even the best students can be challenged.  I recall one of my professors (who almost uniformly went by their first names, by the way) telling me that I had done an excellent job on my paper, but he said, “I challenge you to do even better.”  This resonated with me, and it’s a phrase I’ve used with my own students who have done well.  Often, as professors, we pat high-achieving students on the back and tell them to keep up the great work.  But even these students can be pushed to further levels of greatness.
  • Videos are a helpful supplement to classroom teaching.  Our University has a subscription to Panopto, a wonderful tool for lecture-capture (in-class videos) and also for creating narrated PowerPoint presentations.  I have created videos for all sorts of purposes.  Sometimes, they are one-shot deals, where I explain a topic from a class session that I thought warranted elaboration or correction.  Others are fuller presentations on ancillary topics that I did not want to spend class time on.  Finally, I have also created videos to go over particular quiz problems that the class had difficulty with.
  • Other disciplines are much more disciplined about research methods and communication.  For every document I submitted, even if it was a brief journal entry, I had to use APA format.  And faculty were sticklers for formatting.  It made me a more disciplined researcher and writer.  By the way, APA is far superior to the Bluebook, but that’s a whole separate subject.  In any event, the coursework I took emphasized research methods a great deal.  We discussed at length, for example, the nature of peer review and how to evaluate research.
  • Online is the future.  Online learning is convenient.  I was able to work on assignments while also holding down a (more than) full-time job.  I was also able to participate in a program based in Texas, even though I live in New York.   Professors were reasonably accessible; I don’t think I ever waited more than 24 hours to get a response to e-mails.  Aside from the convenience factor, I also felt that I got a better education in this format, because I was engaged more actively in my own learning.  If I had sat passively in a classroom for 3-6 hours a week, I would not have learned as much.  (The next step in my iteration as a professor is to “flip” more of my classes.)
  • Blackboard is superior to TWEN.  TWEN is fine for posting syllabi and PowerPoint presentations, but Blackboard is really where online learning shines.  Quizzes, document submissions, discussion boards, videos, and even the overall appearance of pages are all superior, although there is a steeper learning curve in creation of the course “shell.”  If all faculty at a school convert to Blackboard, there is an additional benefit: it also enables easier collection of artifacts for programmatic assessment.
  • Out-of-class communication with students is changing.  I frequently met with my professors by Zoom (rather than by a phone conversation); being able to see each other really improves the communication.  Zoom is a terrific platform, by the way, particularly for group work.  Some of my colleagues call me crazy, but I now give out my cell phone number to students.  I have never had a student actually call me, but I have had them text me.  I set ground rules, which I borrowed from my Sam professors: you have to identify yourself in the first text or else I’ll block the number, and only use texting for professional communications (e.g., don’t text me and ask me if I’m at the Mets game).
  • I am more humble and realistic in my expectations of students, particularly 1Ls.  The experience of becoming a graduate student again in a brand new field reminded me that our students, particularly 1Ls, are novices.  They deserve our patience and support in adjusting to their new landscape.  I felt that my professors treated all of us (not just me) in a guiding, helping manner.  Hierarchies were thrown out; the focus was on learning and improvement.

Finally, a word on the substance of the SHSU assessment/IR certificate.  For those of us new to assessment in legal education, this program is excellent and a worthwhile investment.  It consists of five classes: Data Management (basically a super-advanced course on Excel), Research in Higher Education (an overview of basic themes in higher education literature), Statistics, Assessment (focused entirely on programmatic assessment), and Leadership in Higher Education.  The program is reasonably priced, and the faculty are excellent.  They are leaders in major assessment and higher education organizations.

Overall, I am very happy with the education I received at Sam Houston, and I look forward to carrying the lessons I learned into the future, particularly in the classes I teach.