Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Teaching in Person at a Catholic Law School During the Pandemic (Part Two: Educational Quality)

This is the second in a series of three posts about my experiences teaching at a Catholic law school in person during the pandemic. The first post was about safety for teaching in person. This second post is about educational quality. And the third and final post next week will be about fostering community in challenging times.

Premise of Superior Quality of In-Person Teaching:

I begin this post by forthrightly stating my premise that teaching in a classroom to students who are physically present to each other and to the professor is superior. I genuinely believe that this is the ideal setting for legal education. Of course, a pandemic can make a mockery of the ideal.

Even in normal times, I acknowledge exceptions to this premise, such as a special unit of one or two credits for subject that by its nature requires less of a synchronous dialogue. And there is value in an online course designed for students who are unavoidably remote, such as during a summer session for students working elsewhere. For a fully online course, assuring educational quality requires precise organization, development of asynchronous online elements to engage students, use of technology with video and interchange elements, etc. As the experts and those who teach online regularly know, a fully online class demands intense prior planning and rigorous attention to best practices.

But for the typical doctrinal law school course, in-person instruction is better. And for the course that primarily involves a back-and-forth dialogue between the professor and students, in-person instruction is essential to keep the entire class engaged.

And we have good evidence for these conclusions from this past spring. A survey conducted by Thomson Reuters, “Law Schools and the Global Pandemic,” found that a large majority of law students found it difficult to stay engaged with fully online courses, with 39 percent finding it very difficult and 23 percent agreeing it was difficult. Unfortunately, the same survey showed that only about as third as many professors, 14 percent, recognized this as a serious problem. From the professor’s perspective, he or she may have had a satisfying discussion online with the students who were called on for that day and then subjectively judge the day’s class to be a success. But the professor didn’t realize that a larger group of students were tuning out.

As one student told me, online classes during the pandemic have been “prime territory for distraction.” We have to remember that our students who are accessing a class at home, rather than being situated in a classroom designed for instruction, have multiple distractions that are calling constantly to them.

But our ideals cannot always be realized. We now are struggling with the Covid pandemic, which demands creative accommodations and empathy for the difficulties so many face. The hard reality is that not everyone can be in person, whether a professor or a student, even if that state, city, or university permits in-person instruction. We must remember that many of us simply do not have such a choice, either by reason of their own health risks or those of loved ones. And if anyone has to be online, there are reasonable arguments that being fully online avoids some of the complications of dividing between those students who are in-person and those who are remote. We all long for the return of normalcy, where these questions are not before us.

I focus here on those of us who are fortunate to have a choice and who thus are able to teach in person to students who can attend in person. I contend here that the complications can be overcome and that high quality education can still be achieved. In other words, I believe if you can do it safely, then it is worth the candle.

For those of us able and dedicated to continuing in person instruction, we had to make two key accommodations: (1) a hybrid setting in which some students were in person and others online, and (2) social distancing and mask-wearing for those in person. Let me speak to each.

Challenges of the Hybrid Combination of In-Person and Online:

I know of at least one law school that told incoming first-year students they must be in person for the fall or accept a deferral to the following year. But of the law schools that offered any in-person instruction, most allowed students to choose whether to attend in person or simultaneously attend remotely. What then of the quality of instruction for those who are in person, while the professor is juggling responses to online students as well? And what of the quality of instruction for the remote students who are listening in on the in-person class? For the first question, the impact on those in-person by the hybrid format proved to be minimal. For the students online, the situation was definitely more complicated, but in the end I think the question whether educational quality was maintained received a qualified “yes.”

For my each of my two Civil Procedure sections (that is, with the main section broken into two during the pandemic), we began the semester with approximately 38 students in person and 6 online. For those 38 attending in person, the simultaneous participation of a small number online did not appear to have any impact. So for in-person students, the quality question goes to the impact of social distancing and mask wearing (discussed below), rather than how they received instruction. Since instruction was directly from the professor, with participation by others students who were also physically present, things were much the same as usual. As I noted in the first post, students repeatedly commented how much they appreciated the opportunity to attend law school in person, despite the accommodations that had to be made to make it possible during the pandemic.

For the smaller number of students who were online (because they could not safely attend in person), a hybrid setting was more of a challenge. The university sought to address this by setting up a second monitor for the professor in the classroom on which would appear the online students. For me with my approach, that proved unworkable and so I quickly abandoned it (although I understand other colleagues found it helpful). I had all students — both those in the classroom and those who were remote — sign in to Zoom so that we could all participate in polling questions. As a consequence, the second monitor showed everyone, not just the online students. Moreover, the second monitor was set in front of me so that I could see it, which meant that its placement physically blocked my view of several students in the classroom. In addition, having two monitors awkwardly affected how the cursor moved, jerking between the two monitors. So I turned it the second monitor off and moved it away.

Another technological problem was that online students had difficulty hearing what the in-person students were saying. For the most part, online students had no difficulty hearing me, as long as I stayed behind the podium (which during the pandemic was expected anyway). But early on, it was nearly impossible for online students to hear the students in the classroom. The university adjusted the microphones in the classroom, which helped but remained imperfect. I tried to remember to restate the questions or frame my answer for the benefit of the online students, which online students indicated got better as the semester wore on.

Two technology features also enhanced educational quality for online students especially, but also for in-person students:

First, for many years in Civil Procedure, I’ve used PowerPoint slides with regularity. This year, as usual, the in-person students saw the PowerPoint slides projected on two screens at the front of the classroom. For the online students, they saw the PowerPoint slides through Zoom’s screen-share feature. Interestingly, the quality of the video for shared screen slides was much sharper than for video of me as a talking head in the classroom.  By itself, the use PowerPoint brought much of the classroom directly to online students and strongly replicated what was being seen in the classroom. And I made those slides available afterward through Canvas, so both in-person and online students had access to them for later review.

Second, also for many years in Civil Procedure, I have regularly used on a nearly daily basis multiple choice questions both as review of concepts and to illustrate and educate. In the past, I’ve done this through clickers distributed to the students that then connect with a receiver to the classroom computer for the TurningPoint software program. During the pandemic, we could not distribute physical objects, so the clickers stayed in the box. I adapted by using polling on Zoom, which worked so tremendously well that I plan to continue in that Zoom-based format even after the pandemic. In written comments on the student evaluations, the polling through Zoom for multiple choice was highlighted by many students as one of the strongest positive features of the class. And here again, the multiple choice questions through polling engaged the online students in the fullest comparable way to the classroom.

I call on students, sometimes without advance notice and sometimes with a quick head’s up just before class. I made sure to include the online students in that, so they were called on about as often as in-person students. That exchange worked rather smoothly, as they could hear me directly and their statements were well-amplified into the classroom speakers. While I couldn’t see them as we spoke, which was disconcerting at least to me, I still thought we made it work pretty well.

My ability to work with online students to give them a fuller experience was made possible because there were a smaller number of them. I gave priority to email and other requests from the online students. And at a few points during the semester, I would host a separate Zoom meeting with them on a Saturday, giving them a chance to interact more directly with me (and each other) and talk about the class, answer questions, prepare for the midterm, etc. Again, I could do this because the numbers were small.

Toward the end of the semester, more students moved online, changing the proportion to about 60 percent in person and 40 percent online. For the most part, students did this because they were trying to be responsible in quarantining themselves before returning to the homes and families for Thanksgiving. Some may have simply found it more convenient. And the slide away from in-person attendance was undoubtedly accelerated by the fact that one of their three doctrinal professors shifted entirely online for the last three weeks.

The increase in online access could have interrupted our ability to keep going in the same way, but it proved workable because I had gotten to know the students and we had developed a classroom culture through the prior weeks of being mostly in person. And, importantly, there always remained a core group of students who were committed to, and vocally appreciative of, the opportunity to attend class in person at the law school.

Social Distancing and Masks:

While I’ll speak again to this in the next post on fostering community, I think all of us must acknowledge that the classroom environment was affected, and not in a positive way, by the need for social distancing and mask-wearing. But, in the end, I think that downside was mostly overcome.

That students were sitting somewhat further apart had more of an effect on student well-being, by undermining the social interactions that typically precede class. As I’ll note next time, students found ways around this for community building. But once class was underway, mere physical separation in seating did not appear to make much difference.

Wearing masks, however, was a definite if unavoidable detriment. Seeing only a person’s lower face created a initial feeling of distance, and not just physically, from that person. So much of a person’s facial expressions are communicated through the lower part of the face. Indeed, I had seen psychological studies suggesting that we human beings take positive cues from the lower part of a person’s face and negative cues from the upper of the face. For that very reason, I was determined to use a face shield rather than a mask, which the health directives in our state allowed only for the teacher but not for students.

While I won’t say that we entirely overcame the downsides of mask wearing, we become more accustomed to it.  Since all the students were in the same boat, we learned to accept it. At the beginning of class, I related to the students that I had told a colleague that, with the students wearing masks, I won’t be able to see them laughing at my jokes. And my colleague responded in dead-pan manner, “So nothing will have changed.” In this and other ways, we all worked to ensure connection despite the off-putting wearing of masks. And I’ll note that I became much better at telling when someone was smiling as time went by, learning to note the changes in upper cheek muscles and around the eyes.

In addition to making it harder to see student reactions, the wearing of masks made it harder to identify students and learn names. It is amazing how much of the distinctive identifying features of a person’s face come below the nose.  But this too was largely overcome. Students in the classroom were asked to keep have a name tent right in front of them on the desk. And I created a seating chart on which I pasted in a small photo of each student on the assigned seat. I then spent some time every day outside of class studying that seating chart to connect the person’s full face photo with their name. In so doing, I felt that I had bridged the divide, at least in my mind, within the first month.

And we shouldn’t neglect the annoyance of mask-wearing for the students. As I said in the first post on safety, students didn’t resist the protocol, for which I was very thankful. But that’s not to say that they enjoyed it. As an example of the sort of thing we might not have anticipated, a student told me that even the pleasure of drinking coffee during class was lost, as the student then had to smell their own “coffee breath” all afternoon once restoring the mask in place.

Another loss during the pandemic was easy access office hours. Now I had set things up so that we could have office hours with social distancing and of course was available for office hours by Zoom through appointment (and I did that on several occasions). But students appreciate the ability to simply drop in on a professor, which they were reluctant to do, and to be able to just chat, which they were also much less likely to do during the pandemic.

Objective Evidence Part One: Student Evaluations:

At the University of St. Thomas, students are asked to anonymously rate the professor along several metrics that also includes an overall evaluation on a 5-point scale. I have debated and consulted with others on whether to be fully transparent in this post about my personal scores for the past fall and in prior years, as was my initial inclination. But I didn’t want this part of the discussion to appear as self-promotion, beyond what is necessary to offer a comparative evaluation with the past. So, as suggested as well by others, I’ve concluded that it is better not to be precisely specific about the ratings I received in this public posting. If someone believes that more information is necessary to understand, I might well be willing to share the information privately. In any event, what follows is an attempt to balance sharing enough personal information to be meaningfully informative, while remaining discretely vague. You will be the judge of whether I succeeded in that balance.

For one of the two Civil Procedure sections this fall during the pandemic, the student score for me as the professor fell right in the middle of the usual range for me (under which I have been fortunate to receive high scores in the past). For the other section, the rating was lower than I’d received for Civil Procedure in recent years, but still solidly in the mid-4’s on a 5-point scale. The section with the lower than usual rating also had a lower response rate and two outlier low ratings, which skewed the section score. Nonetheless, even assuming that the lower rating for one of the two sections suggests some impact by the pandemic adjustments in teaching quality or at least in my teaching quality, the combined results for both sections certainly raise no red flag about the student’s perception of educational quality during the pandemic.

Drilling down into the student evaluations by reading through the optional written comments reassured me that the semester was a success. Multiple students, sometimes at length, spoke about the educational quality of the semester, saying how much they had learned in a short time, how much they appreciated the opportunity of in-person classes, and that they saw me as an effective and warm and compassionate professor. I again am being deliberately vague here, but the complimentary comments by this fall’s students echo those I have received in the past. This again suggests that this fall semester was experienced by most of the students in much the same way as had students in pre-pandemic years. One of those comments summed up their appreciation of in-person teaching by saying, “[y]our class and presence felt like a refuge from the craziness.”

Objective Evidence Part Two: Exams:

An objective measurement of teaching effectiveness in the hybrid format comes in the crucial summative evaluation of the students’ performance through grades.

This fall’s Civil Procedure exams were strong and encouragingly so. The large middle of the class was just as robust as in any other year. And likewise the top of the class remained powerful, including one exam that stands among the best I’d seen in thirty years of teaching. Overall, the results on the multiple choice segment were right in line with what would be expected in any year. And, despite perhaps having a harder essay question than in some years, the responses also very strong and at least as good as in prior years.

So by the measure that the proof is in the tasting of the pudding, the pudding tasted pretty delicious at the end of the semester. The exams I received leaves me with every confidence that this year’s first-year students as a group ended their first semester strongly positioned to succeed in the next two years of law school, on the bar, and in the profession.

*          *          *

Overall, I’d have to give at least two (more likely two-and-a-half) cheers for the surprisingly strong quality of in-person instruction during the challenges of the pandemic.


[Note: I have revised the opening of this post to correct typographical errors and to clarify that this post is directed to those fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach in person, while recognizing that choice is not available collectively or individually to many.]


Sisk, Greg | Permalink