Yesterday I attended a very interesting talk by a visiting academic named Rick Snell that I would like to share. Mr Snell talked informally on a few aspects of both Freedom of Information as well as the teaching of law. I thought I would share some of his thoughts on the teaching component and do a second post on freedom of information.
Mr Snell is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania. He is a leading authority on Freedom of Information in Australia and the British Commonwealth, and was given an award as the best law Teacher in Australia last year (2009).
I have listed some of his key points in the order that I imagine people would like to read them.
Eight steps to improve your teaching:
- Get constant intelligence about your students. Work out what your students are thinking using things like surveys and informal/formal class discussions.
- Use reflective journals. Get all your students to keep their own records and reflections. Students must then hand in a selective reflection journal (3-4 pages of their thoughts) that they can present in whatever format they wish. Popular ways of organizing them included using themes and timelines. Students could also use other less traditional methods like video, poetry or audio blogs.Students are encouraged to reflect on any of these areas: the readings, the lectures, the teaching and/or their own learning style. Students often then find their own model.It is also advisable to keep reminding students to write their journals. Sometimes it helps to set them a reading that they can reflect on. To ensure that students actually do these it is advisable to assign a grade to them. Mr Snell initially assigned a 5% grade to these but has increased it to 20% over the years. This part of the talk was probably what we spent the most time on and Mr Snell couldn’t emphasize enough how useful the journals had been in improving teaching and learning in his classes.
The purpose of these journals is to:
a. Engage the students with the subject and the process.
b. It provides a great source of information your students’ needs and their, often insightful, views on the subject.
- Build an evidentiary portfolio of your teaching. Include things like student surveys, testimonials, personal reflections and the like. Alumni reflections on your course in light of their subsequent careers can be particularly useful. This portfolio is useful both in your professional reflections and when you applying for teaching awards.
- Get experts/ colleagues to sit in on your lectures. Often fellow lecturers can point out things that you're doing wrong that you would never pick up and your students are too shy to tell you.
- Join a teaching network. Get a group of fellow lecturers with whom you can meet up and chat about teaching.
- Attend workshops and seminars on teaching. These are often very useful.
- Write about your teaching. There are a number of non-reviewed journals that publish short pieces and anecdotes on teaching. These are useful sources of knowledge and over time if you wish you can move onto peer reviewed journals that have a greater emphasis on the studying teaching and learning.
- Personal reflections are key. Personal and professional reflection ensures that you make far more of an effort to keep updating your course, emphasizing what worked in the past and discarding what is not working at the moment.
Some key insights that changed Mr Snell's teaching
- The difference between deep and shallow learning. Shallow learning is cramming, cursory reading, engaging at the absolute minimum required to pass a subject. Shallow learning is encouraged by current examination techniques which focus on large exams that cover all the material. Deep learning is when the student engages with and thinks about the subject. Often this requires using fewer exams and focusing instead on alternative examination methods.
- There are different learning styles. Some people use conceptual learning, others use kinetic learning (theater, debating and the like) and still others are good at detail learning. A good lecturer will recognize which of these she is better at teaching with and, more importantly, what her students respond to the best. Further, its important to include different kinds of teaching that cater to different kinds of ways of learning since that will increase the ability of all students to engage with the material.
- The importance of looking at all aspects of a course and getting these aspects to align. So, if you want to teach law in depth your assessment methods should encourage that as should the readings you prescribe. Often elements of the course (exams, teaching, students, readers etc) don't work in harmony. Importantly, students are the variable that you as a lecturer cannot control. Every year you will be exposed to different students with different needs and you need to vary your teaching once you become aware of these differences.
- You need to reflect critically on your teaching and research.
If you want to see information on Rick Snell visit his website at
You can also check out these two papers written (or co-written) by Mr Snell on teaching:
See the following for further reading suggested by Mr Snell: