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This issue of CDTL Brief features the teaching practices of some 2006/2007 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

October 2008, Vol. 11 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
Associate Professor Burton Ong
Faculty of Law

Intense. Demanding. Exhausting. These are the adjectives frequently used by students in my first-year tutorial groups of 12–13 students to describe my teaching style and not exactly the sort of comments that one might consider ‘positive feedback’. In my view, being an effective teacher is not necessarily about being the most popular person. Rather, it involves applying the right amount and type of pressure on each class to facilitate their transformation from ‘rough and unstable sedimentary chunks of minerals’ into ‘solid metamorphic rocks and polished gemstones’.*

Small-group tutorials are one of the strengths of the NUS Law Faculty’s curriculum, providing first-year students with the opportunity to explore in considerable depth, various legal issues and topics introduced in the weekly lectures. The small class size means that there are plenty of opportunities for students to contribute to classroom discussions, clarify their doubts and engage in the issues with their peers. The pedagogical approach that I have developed and applied in my tutorial groups involves creating a classroom environment which stretches students’ intellectual abilities through robust questioning that compels them to dig deeper into various layers of the legal issues addressed in class each week.

For example, many of my tutorials incorporate an arc of questions similar to:
• What are the rules which the courts/cases have developed to deal with issue X?

• How were these rules applied on the facts of this case? What were the factors which played a part in determining the outcome reached?

• Why have the rules been developed in this way? Are there underlying principles which can be extracted to buttress these propositions? What is the law trying to do or achieve here?

• Are there fundamental policy objectives that are not articulated explicitly? Are there competing policies that may have, or which ought to have, an influence on the way the law has been developed?

• What are the alternatives to the propositions (canvassed by other judges or legal commentators) that have been articulated so far? What are the merits and/or demerits of these alternatives?

Students in my tutorial classes often feel as if they are being cross-examined, and this probably contributes to their stress levels, at least initially. But I like to remind them that a bit of ‘suffering’ in the classroom is a good thing and they ought to embrace it. Indeed, I believe it is an essential ingredient of legal training, and an essential part of our job as law teachers is to get students to think like would-be lawyers. Rigorous tutorials provide them with opportunities to formulate, explain and defend their arguments coherently, as well as critically challenge and evaluate other points of view. From my own experience, the most fruitful tutorials are those which students come well-prepared to be subject to the rigours of such a line of questioning. I also find it useful to adopt a severe demeanour at the beginning of each academic year when I first meet the students in a ‘pre-tutorial briefing’ where I explain how I intend to conduct the tutorials and what I expect of them. The first few tutorials are typically the most challenging because students are fuelled largely by fear and trepidation. But the situation improves rapidly as they become more familiar with the relentless pace of the classes. Students continue to feel the pressure to perform in class, but they are also motivated from within because they have a better appreciation of the nature of the subject and are in a better position to rise to the challenge of grappling with the multi-faceted complexities of the law and its far-reaching consequences. I find that students who make this transition early enough in their first year of law school, are often able to settle into and enjoy the rest of their course of study sooner than their peers.

While some of my colleagues have not-sojokingly referred to my pedagogical approach as one involving an ‘iron fist’, I believe it is something that many of my students ultimately appreciate. A ‘high-pressure’ classroom environment enables them to appreciate the lines of weakness in their tutorial preparatory efforts and the gaps in their understanding of the subject matter. This facilitates the intellectual transformative process that firstyear law students undergo when they make the transition from ‘A’-level learners (with 10-yearseries- model-answers to fall back on) to academically-mature university undergraduates from whom we expect coherently-articulated and independently-reasoned responses. Inaddition, first-year tutorials are a critical component of any would-be legal professional’s academic training because they deal with core skills and concepts that we expect our students to carry with them into advanced legal study and beyond. Even if most of the substantive content is forgotten over time, it is my view that consistently robust tutorials do leave a deep and lasting impression of the most fundamental legal thinking skills in the minds of my tutees.

I also use a few ‘pressure-relief’ mechanisms to complement the approaches described above. Firstly, I always try to make my expectations as clear as possible from the outset. To this end, students in my tutorial groups are e-mailed a list of specific questions to think about before each class so that they will come prepared to engage with these questions in some detail. Secondly, I try to reiterate as often as I can that I do not expect ‘correct’ answers to my questions in classroom discussions. However, I do expect students to be able to explain and defend their views convincingly. I therefore encourage my students to adopt any arguments that appeal to them so long as they are prepared to subject their views to scrutiny in class. More importantly, they are reminded that it is okay to make mistakes and change their views along the way as the classroom, not the workplace, is the best place to learn from their mistakes.

Challenging. Enriching. Rewarding. These are some of the most gratifying comments I have received from students who have taken my firstyear tutorials over the years and they reaffirm my conviction in the value of cultivating an academically demanding learning environment in the classroom.

* Apologies in advance to my colleagues in the geography department for any inappropriate geologic metaphors. It has been a long while since I have looked at a geomorphology textbook.
 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
A Teaching Re-evaluation
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
Teaching: A Learning Process for Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
Engaging the Phenomenon
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
Learning from Failures
Learning Through Teaching