by Caroline Young
The Rutgers Law faculty has done an incredible job of quickly pivoting to teaching completely online courses at Rutgers Law School. The switch was swift and responsive back in March to make sure that our students could finish their courses and be able to complete their degrees in a timely manner. However, knowing that the fall semester would also be completely online, faculty spent the summer getting up to speed on the best techniques available to them to be effective teachers in the online environment, including using the Socratic method and other best practices in student engagement methods for the online environment. One of my tasks as the Associate Dean for Distance Learning is to provide faculty with ongoing training opportunities on how to use online teaching tools, such as Zoom and Canvas (our Learning Management System) and also how to incorporate best online teaching practices for law classes so that teaching quality is not compromised and students have the best possible learning experience.
One of the upsides to this quick move to online learning is that the faculty has used the opportunity to share techniques that they have learned by teaching in the online environment. This bolsters the faculty’s efforts in the area of pedagogy generally but also brings faculty together both intra campus and between Newark and Camden to share all that they have learned as they brave this new territory. This benefits our students, as well, as they receive the very best collaborative efforts from our faculty in their efforts to make online teaching just as effective as in-person teaching.
In the early fall semester, faculty were struggling with how to recreate the Socratic method and keep students engaged in the online environment. However, having had the summer to learn about student engagement techniques, they have had great success with a focus on student engagement. Professor Katie Eyer mentioned that she has adopted a new technique to keep track of which volunteers have had the opportunity to participate verbally in responding to questions and then not repeating with new volunteers. This helps address the perennial problem of certain students dominating class discussion during the Socratic method and otherwise. She has had great success in her large Civil Procedure class. So far, every day, an entirely new group of students has participated in answering. She said this “is even wider and more equitable participation than I am generally able to achieve in an 85+ person class in person!” She also has been using online quizzes for some of the questions that she would have traditionally asked of only a single student. This gets everyone participating. Zoom has a polling function which can be used as a great way to check in with students to make sure that they are engaging with and understand the materials being presented and analyzed.
Professor Sahar Aziz also uses a number of techniques to make sure that the Socratic method is inclusive. In the online environment, she has also added online Discussions for students to engage with each other about a particular legal or policy issue each week. Students are required to make one comment and one response to another student’s comment each week in an online discussion board (in Canvas, the learning management system). She finds this invaluable as “it allows students to think through the issues in advance, engage with each other, and articulate their analysis in writing.”
Professor Sarah Ricks uses Zoom breakout rooms to ensure widespread participation in her class. This allows students to “practice” responding to questions before speaking with the whole group. She pops into each break-out room and asks each smaller group of students to focus on a particular question. When they reconvene as a whole, she asks the small groups to share their responses.
In addition to the great practices above, quizzes/polling, discussion boards, and break-out rooms, faculty have been using more visual materials and power points, videos, shared documents, and whiteboards. Many have ventured into using more advanced tools (many of which you may not have heard of!) such as Voice Threads (interactive videos, slides and text messages that students can post) and Play posits (interactive presentations with questions and quizzes embedded). Regardless of which tools faculty are using, the most important aspect of this process has been the dedication and hard work of the law faculty in making sure that students are getting the best education we can provide.