First Year Odyssey

Chalk Talk

Encouraging Student Interaction: An Investment in the Future Marisa Anne Pagnattaro

From Chalk Talk: Teaching Tips from the UGA Teaching Academy, edited by Loch K. Johnson.

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is getting to know students, interacting with them, and seeing them engage in class. I want my students to understand that I am invested in their progress and committed to inspiring them toward life-long learning. Achieving this goal is an investment and a commitment that will pay dividends for a renewed confidence in higher education and individual scholastic achievement. Here are some basic techniques that I have found useful to foster this large goal, particularly in class sizes of thirty-fifty students.

Introductions and Meetings

My experience with introductions on the first day of class, as well as with individualized attention through in-office meetings and informal gatherings, has convinced me that these techniques set the tone for future interaction. On the first day of class, after we review the syllabus and requirements, students take about five minutes to interview another student to introduce to the class. They are charged with “finding out something interesting—although not scandalous” about the person. This gets everyone talking on the first day, creates a sense of community and, as an added bonus, is quite fascinating. I also have students complete index cards for me with a photo and basic information, including future goals, interests, travel or work experience, and any concerns about the class. The cards enable me to make connections between the faces and names early in the semester, and also help me to “see” whom I’m talking to when responding to student e-mails. The photos are often candid, giving me a window into a fun outside-of-class moment, such as when the student was traveling or with a favorite pet. If students express concern about the class, I e-mail them a short message to follow-up. This generates positive feelings about the future of the class and breaks down initial fears that may inhibit in-class interaction.

Individual and informal group meetings are also important tools. I encourage students to come by during office hours. After essay exams, I encourage students to meet individually with me to review their exams in detail. Students taking multiple-choice exams can use this time to “challenge” questions. If they understood the concept, and wrote on the exam why they selected choice “A” over “B,” they may receive credit. This enables me to refine my test questions and gives students a sense of satisfaction and fairness with the process. Admittedly, this is labor intensive, but it is very effective. For all exams, I e-mail all students with a low score, personally inviting them to come by and talk. At first, students seem surprised to receive these messages, but most appreciate the opportunity to come in and talk about ways to improve for next time. When possible, particularly with Honors classes (which tend to be smaller), I try to have a class dinner at my home. For example, in my most recent semester, I decided on an informal dinner and final exam review session for my Honors legal environment class. All of the students were engaged with the material, asking a range of questions and considering all kinds of legal scenarios. Having such an informal gathering somewhat earlier in the semester has also resulted in increased interaction in class.

Relevance and Assignments

A critical component of student interaction is helping them see the relevance of their studies to life outside of the classroom and, more importantly, to their future. Inasmuch as I teach about business- related aspects of domestic and international law, there is no shortage of news to incorporate into the class. The incorporation of “real-life scenarios” into class discussions provides students with an immediate insight into the relevance of our class material. Using current event examples also helps them to think critically about the application of the law to facts. Similarly, I require many of my classes to keep a current events journal, writing and reflecting about the law in the news. As an expansion of this concept, I strive to incorporate presentations in each class, often in the form of “litigation teams” presenting oral arguments on controversial and actual legal topics. This gives students a chance to hone their advocacy skills and learn to disagree, with civility. As a practical and helpful by-product of this process, when I am called upon to write letters of recommendation for students, these varied assignments give me a detailed basis to comment about a student’s writing ability, oral communication skills and success in working with others in group situations.

Follow-up After the Class is Over

Follow-up after the class has ended is an important aspect of my teaching tools and offers personal rewards, as well as positive memories of a class, that get passed on to future students. Every semester, I encourage students to keep in touch, letting me know what they are reading that might be interesting for future classes. I love getting e-mails from former students, who will send articles that reflect on how an assignment was useful in a current job, or even attach photos of trademark infringement from another country. I use this information in class, hoping that other students will be inspired to keep following the news and thinking about the law long after the class has ended. Regularly, I have students reporting back through current students who have been encouraged to take my classes.

Developing an atmosphere conducive to student interaction has been a major part of the success of any one class. The tools offered here are just a few ways to accomplish this goal.