Reading Law: Teaching Law to Non-Law Students

Ask almost any professor at a law school: the best way to learn law is to “read the law”.  What that means is that to learn law, students should read the primary sources of law – statutes, regulations and court cases – instead of secondary sources such as textbooks, articles and blogs.   That’s why most law school courses are taught using casebooks, instead of textbooks.

When law is taught to non-law students, that law-school approach in its purest form, does not work.    Business students do not know how to read and interpret cases and legislation from scratch.  Even lawyers and law students have difficulty interpreting the average Supreme Court decision with 50-plus pages.

As a professor teaching law to undergraduate business students, I try to remember that teaching from primary sources is still very important.  In particular, it’s the facts of cases that give life to and animate legal principles.  Cases help ground legal principles to the real world.

I have been taking a MOOC (massive open online course) by Professor Randal Picker of the University of Chicago Law School called “Internet Giants: The Law and Economics of Media Platforms”. The content of that course is fascinating especially how Professor Picker demonstrates how the economics of internet media platforms (such as Google, PC operating systems, smartphones) relates to the applicable law and government policy.  What I have also found fascinating is how Professor Picker teaches his material.  There are no fancy graphics and videos.  He does use powerpoint, but not in a common way.  A common way that we all see everyday is to put a list of bullet points on each slide.  Instead most of Professor Picker’s slides have a big picture of the front page of a primary source document such as court decision.  Then, he “zooms in” on specific passages in the document as he is lecturing.  Instead of summarizing or paraphrasing a case, he is highlighting specific key passages to explain his points. The central focus remains the law, not any secondary summary.

Professor Picker’s approach stays true to the spirit of “read the law”.  Since the course is a MOOC, Professor Picker probably knows that he cannot reasonably expect his students to pick up and read from beginning to end the cases, legislation and government policies that he refers to.  He explains the law in his own words and insight while highlighting key passages from the primary sources.

I have started to apply Professor Picker’s approach in my own teaching. These are a couple of examples of slides I have developed for lecture videos to explain various clauses in a contract.

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I am German

Note: This post has nothing to do with education. I felt compelled to write it in light of recent events in Europe.

Today, I am German.  I don’t live in Germany and I am not a German citizen. My family has no trace of any German heritage.  Although I do like the occasional bratwurst and beer and I admire German engineering, I am not overly enamoured with the German stereotype of being the dour and efficient taskmasters of Europe.   In fact, I live in Canada, and my passport proudly bears the Canadian coat of arms.

As the world is finally comprehending the vast human tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis, Germany has been more Canadian than Canada – at least based on what I believe my country should represent.  Germany led by its leader Angela Merkel has been the only major western country consistently asking “How can we help these people?”.  In contrast, other leaders have been asking, “How can we keep them out?” or “How can we send them back?”.  Chancellor Merkel has courageously stood up to be counted.   In the face of Germans waving placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor, Angela Merkel said,  “There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people. There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”  Germany walks that talk: it has taken in over 800,000 asylum seekers.  Will Hutton of The Guardian commented, “Angela Merkel’s humane stance on immigration is a lesson to us all.”   Unlike most political leaders, Chancellor Merkel truly views the situation as a humanitarian crisis, instead of a political one, with the key question being “How can we help our fellow human beings?”.

Other major countries, including Canada and the UK, should be ashamed of our relative inaction. My Prime Minister asserts that we have the most generous refugee policy in the world.  Mr. Harper, let’s place political will and action behind that statement.  Steven Harper can look to the actions of his Progressive Conservative predecessors in the Vietnamese boat people crisis for precedent and inspiration.  As for now, I consider myself a proud German.

Wayland Chau

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Being a Student & MOOCs

Every once in a while it is good to switch roles by becoming a student.  It makes me a better professor by, not just upgrading my knowledge, but also giving me a better sense of the learning experience of my own students.  Currently, I am taking two online courses on Coursera.

In case you have not heard of Coursera, it is an online provider of Massive Open Online Courses or, better known as, MOOCs.  These courses are created by professors at some of the leading universities throughout the world.  Participating universities include big American names such as Yale, Stanford and Princeton, a few Canadian institutions (McMaster and University of Toronto) and many others in Europe and Asia.  Best of all, it is free and open to anyone!  (By the way, completing a Coursera course will not earn you credit towards any degree or diploma.)

Right now, I am enrolled in:

Courses I have done in the past are:

I have recommended that last course to many of my students to give them an insight into how their brains work so they can develop their own learning strategies.

“We are all lifelong learners” is an overused but true phrase.  With MOOCs and other online resources, that learning is almost limitless.


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What do students need and want? As educators, professors grapple with this question for much of our professional lives. 

One way of answering the question is to focus on a list of core competencies such as Tony Wagner’s seven survival skills  which include critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration.

I have been thinking of more direct ways of answering the question. In other words, what do students need to achieve those core competencies? My answers seem to always lead back to one word – “interaction“. Specifically, three categories of interaction:  interaction with the course subject matter, interaction with the professor and interaction with other students.

Interaction with the course subject matter. Instead of learning just pure theory, most students want to interact with the subject matter of a course by applying it, experiencing it, and/or critiquing  it.  Applying it could be done by working on case problems or analyzing a current issue or event. Experiencing it could be working in a relevant industry for a co-op work term or a clinic such as the Law and Business Clinic at the Ted Rogers School of Management. Critiquing it could be challenging students to question underlying assumptions or widely accepted beliefs in class or online discussions.

Interaction with the professor. Traditional lecturing to students – or better known as the “sage on the stage” (SOTS) – is not interaction in the literal sense. It usually involves one-sided communication by a professor to a group of students in a lecture hall. SOTS worked great for Shakespeare’s Henry V rousing his troops at Agincourt or Steve Jobs introducing the original iPhone.  However, SOTS often does not work well in our reality of multi-hour classes over a full semester covering subject that is not obviously interesting. 

In and outside of the classroom, students want to have mutual interaction with their professors. That interaction could be speaking with students in small groups as they are working on an in-class activity. It could also be providing direct feedback to students either in class or online in a discussion forum.

Interaction with other students. Working collaboratively is widely recognised as a key skill that students need for success. One common way of developing this skill is to have student work in groups for assignments and presentations. Another way is to have students discuss case problems in informal small groups before having a full class discussions. Another thought is to provide students with some guidance on how to work well in a group. I tell my students that work for a group project does not necessarily need to be allocated such that each person’s contribution is the same and equal. The allocation should recognise each person’s strengths and weaknesses.

Interaction. A simple, yet important and complicated word.

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Parents Talking to Professors

Given the growing prevalence of so-called helicopter parents, the meeting of parents and professors has become more common.  Although I have never had the pleasure yet of speaking to a parent of one of my students, I have witnessed such an encounter and have heard anecdotes from colleagues. Such meetings are rarely productive and usually do not end well.

Students are adults, albeit most of them are young adults. They should be left to manage their lives including school. Parents should support them with guidance and encouragement. Unless there is a physical or mental health concern, I do not see any need for a parent to contact their adult child’s professor. 

If you are a concerned parent, please read this New York Times article before contacting a professor.

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The Less I Talk, The More Effective I Am

I have come to the realization: The less I talk, the more effective I am.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the sound of my voice just as much as any other professor.  I also have a vast store of pearls of wisdom to pass on to my student – at least I think I do.  I love the rapture and attention of being a “sage on the stage”.  The sage is great for inspirational occasions such as the first class of a semester or a TED talk.  However, for every other class of the semester where the nitty gritty of a course is taught, just being a sage does not cut it.

To teach someone to find their way out of a forest, you can either personally guide them out or give them the tools (like a map and a compass) to figure out how to find their own way out.  By giving them just the tools, the person will likely struggle, at least at first, to learn how to read the map and use the compass. They will likely take a few a wrong turns or even go around in circles.  They will learn from their failures and hopefully and eventually find their way out. Just guiding the person out of the forest would be quicker and less frustrating for everyone. However, the person who finds their own way out will be much better equipped next time they are lost in that forest or any other forest.  That person’s mind has “grown” from the experience.

This “growth mindset” is based on the research of Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University.  According to Dr. Dweck, our intellectual abilities are capable of growth when are minds are challenged with difficult tasks which involve struggle and failure. We learn more from failure than success.

Instead of being an all-knowing sage, my role is to encourage a “growth mindset” in my students. How do I do that?

  • Lecture less, teach more: I minimize the amount of time I “lecture” to my class as a whole. I explain key concepts to the whole class so that students have just enough knowledge to attempt case problem exercises in small groups.  That lecturing time is even less if I am using a “flipped classroom” format (see my blog posts of 16 Sept. 2013 and 25 October 2013).  My “teaching” is my direct interactions with students in their small groups as they are working on the case problems.
  • Give opportunities for struggle and failure: Give opportunities to students to take intellectual risks in the classroom.  I ask my students to prepare full written answers to case problems in small groups.  I walk around and listen to their discussions. Sometimes, I see blank looks on their faces. I watch them struggle to figure out an answer.  I strategically intervene with guidance and clues.  Students share their answers with the whole class by posting on (see my blog post of 10 Sept. 2013).  Sometimes, I ask my students to evaluate each other’s posted answers by way of a vote using Socrative.  I then critique the top 2 to 4 answers.
  • Create a safe environment for failure: Students are obsessed with marks and, consequently, they fear failure. It should be made clear to them that discussions and activities in the classroom do not negatively impact their grades, but instead help them build the skills necessary to succeed in the course, especially the exams.
  • Praise process, instead of results: This is something that I need to work on. Like most people, my reflex reaction is to praise results by saying, for example, “Great work!” or “Excellent answer!” To encourage a growth mindset, I should be saying phrases such as “Excellent analysis of this problem” or “I like how you worked through the issues in this problem”.

So, less is more.  Who knew??


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Follow up: Research Wiki

In a previous post, I talked about trying “research wikis” for an assignment in one of my classes last semester.  I wanted to test the thinking that, since information is now a commodity, what matters is what you are able to do with information. So what happened?

A very good amount of research materials was accumulated in all three wikis – one for each of the three assignment topics.   The materials were contributed by a good number of different students from different groups.  (It was a group assignment, by the way.) That shows that many  of the students put in a good amount of effort researching their topics.  I did not see any indication of “free riders” relying on the research of others, without contributing any research of their own.

Since every group had access to the same research materials, did that even out the quality of the submitted assignments?  Absolutely not.  As with any other assignment, there was a full range of quality.  I marked assignments that were well written, insightful, and demonstrated a clear understanding of the subject matter.  On the other end of the spectrum, there were assignments that required a good stiff drink for me to get through.  Those assignments merely cobbled together a mish mash of various bits of information without any shred of understanding of the subject matter.

What this demonstrates to me is that, in the information age that we are living in, what really matters most is what we are able to do with the wealth of information available at our fingertips.  We need to able to not just access information, but understand it, evaluate it, critique it, extrapolate from it, build on it, etc. These are the skills that we should be developing in our students.




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