Challenges in Motivating Law Students to Learn

I write occasionally for the Best Practices in Legal Education blog and I recently posted the following:

This post riffs on this post, which describes benefits of formative assessments and suggests some ways to do them.  It cites research showing that rewards aren’t sufficient motivation for students to learn and argues that using good formative assessments can increase students’ motivations to learn.  It suggests using low- or no-stakes formative assessments.  For example, at the end of a class, faculty could have “students answer three questions on an index card and turn it in: 1) One thing I learned in class today; 2) One thing I still have questions about; 3) Where will I use what I learned?”

I agree that formative assessments are pedagogically appropriate and can help motivate students to learn.

Unfortunately, due to the pernicious influence of competitive law school grading culture, among other things, a substantial proportion of students are motivated primarily to get good grades and not so much to learn.  As a result, such students do not regularly prepare for class, figuring that they can “get away” without doing the reading assignments.  Often, they are right.  In any given class, there is a good chance that they will not be called on to discuss the readings, and if they are called on, they may bluff or simply “pass.”

Unannounced, Short, Ungraded Quizzes to Increase Motivation and Feedback

To help motivate students to learn, I used a variation of the above approach, which combined incentives to do the reading assignments with low-stakes formative assessments.  I informed students in my syllabus and on the first day of class that there would be unannounced and ungraded pop quizzes on some days.  I told them that the quizzes were intended to help identify what they learned from the readings, prepare them to discuss issues in class, and motivate them to do the readings.

The quizzes consisted of one question about a major issue in the reading that they would be able to answer easily if they had done the reading.  Indeed, reading their answers, it was generally clear if they had read the assignments.  Students had to put their names on their quizzes, and this system enabled me to efficiently determine if which students had not done the reading without embarrassing them in public.  Although failing to give a good answer did not affect their grades, students generally were privately embarrassed if they hadn’t done the reading.

Invariably, a substantial minority of students did not do the reading before the first quiz and I would announce this fact in the following class.  As a result, increasing proportions of students were prepared for later quizzes, especially since they never knew in which classes I would give a quiz.  Based on prior experience, I was convinced that, without the quizzes, the proportion of students reading the assignments before class would have declined throughout the semester.

I generally gave students 1-2 minutes to complete the quizzes and, right after I collected them, we would discuss the question, which addressed a key part of the material for the day.  After class, I read the quizzes, which didn’t take much time.   At the beginning of the following class, I would comment about students’ responses, noting where students had misunderstandings.  Usually, I didn’t need to give students individual comments, though some answers were so problematic that I would send students emails about them.

Although the quizzes were not graded, students seemed motivated to give as good answers as they could.  I think that they were motivated not to seem dumb – and they had to write something anyway, so they might as well do a decent job.  The syllabus stated that although the quizzes generally were not graded, grades could be adjusted to reflect repeated unusually good answers or inability to answer appropriately.  I never had to adjust the grades.

I had various reactions from students about this system of quizzes.  Naturally, there was some grumbling.  Mostly, it was good-natured and when giving a quiz, I joked about how they would have a chance to do one of their favorite activities.  I suspect that having to do the quizzes didn’t make much of a difference for most students because the questions seemed reasonable – not nit-picky – and it wasn’t much of an imposition.  Some students said that they liked the quizzes I think because it motivated them to do the reading, which they might otherwise have skipped.

Part of my motivation for using this system was to improve the quality of class discussion.  Many faculty probably have had that horrible sinking feeling when students’ minds were not present in class even though their bodies were there.  When many students haven’t done the reading, it’s hard to have a good class discussion – and it discourages students from preparing.  If a substantial proportion of students regularly don’t prepare for class and “get away” with it, others may feel like suckers, wondering why they should prepare.

Increasing Students’ Motivation to Learn

Undoubtedly, there are many teachers who inspire students much better than I can. There certainly are many diligent law students who are intrinsically motivated to get the full advantage of their legal educations.  It is sad, however, to teach in an environment where a non-trivial proportion of soon-to-be-lawyers don’t fulfill their obligations to complete their work and, instead, try to game the system.  It would be nice if it wasn’t necessary to use techniques like my quizzes to motivate such students.

Of course, we must work within our systems as they are (or as they are changed).  In my courses, I think that the quizzes contributed to better class discussion and, hopefully, improved learning.  Much more change in the educational culture would be required to reduce the need for techniques like these.

Have you had problems motivating students to learn?  What techniques have you tried and how well did they work?  Are there any articles or resources you would suggest about handling these issues?  Please share your response in a comment.

One thought on “Challenges in Motivating Law Students to Learn”

  1. As a law student bugged by the oft-rushed and test-geared law school learning experience, I can confidently say that you are on the right track with this quiz distribution. Slowing oneself down and putting pen to paper to really think about what one is reading are both key to appreciating the material that one must consistently absorb each day throughout the semester! Quizzes seem like the perfect opportunity through which to do so.

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