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Glean pointers on teaching and learning as winners of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award share their teaching experiences and
views in this issue of CDTL Brief.

February 2003, Vol. 6 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Teaching Insights
Associate Professor Robert Beckman
Vice-Dean (Academic Affairs), Faculty of Law

My teaching philosophy is the result of more than 20 years of teaching experience in the Faculty of Law at NUS. I have taught both substantive law and ‘skills’ courses, and I have constantly experimented with various teaching techniques and methods.

My experience in preparing students for international mooting competitions has had a considerable influence on my teaching philosophy. I observed over the years that students participating in international mooting competitions not only learned more than students doing regular courses, but they also enjoyed the learning process much more. This forced me to consider how some of the techniques I used in coaching moot teams might be employed in the teaching of regular subjects. As a result, I have placed an increasing emphasis on problem-oriented methods of teaching and exercises that require students to work in teams.

My teaching philosophy can be summarised as follows:

  1. Most subjects in law school should be designed to produce students who are creative problem-solvers, not students who have learned large amounts of legal doctrine. In order to develop problem-solving skills, there should be less emphasis placed on substantive content and more emphasis placed on the application of general principles. Greater emphasis should be placed on making certain that students have a thorough understanding of the basic principles and a framework for analysing that area of law.

  2. From my experience the best method of teaching law students to be problem solvers is to use the ‘problem-oriented’ method of teaching in which the students analyse complex hypothetical problems. The problem method of teaching forces students to analyse facts, identify the legal issues, research the law, and prepare arguments or propose solutions. This process requires students to think critically about the law they have studied and to go into greater depth than is required in regular classes. It develops their analytical and research skills, and forces them to come up with practical legal arguments for one side or the other in the problem. In addition, students usually find complex hypothetical problems challenging and interesting. Finally, complex hypothetical problems are the best vehicle for encouraging students to come up with innovative and creative arguments.

  3. Teaching should reflect the fact that law is best understood in its broader context and as part of a dynamic process. Law should not be taught as a static body of principles and rules. Legal rules and principles are constantly being adapted and changed to respond to technological advances, economics, social, political and ethical values and other forces. As teachers we must provide our students with an analytical framework for understanding this dynamic process, as this will enable them to be key players in the process.

  4. Teachers should understand that there are serious limitations to the traditional lecture method of teaching. Lectures provide a useful forum for teachers to generate interest in a subject. Lectures can also be used to explain the basic principles governing a subject area and the context in which those principles developed. Lectures can also be used to provide the student with a framework for analysing a problem or issue in that subject area. However, when it comes to the higher skills of analysing complex problems and issues, I have found that lectures are of very limited value.

  5. Higher levels of learning occur when students are forced to articulate their ideas and solutions in writing. Learning is enhanced further if the written analysis is critiqued by their peers or by the teacher, and the students are required to re-write their analysis in light of the comments and criticisms. A still higher level of learning is achieved if the students must verbally articulate their analysis and respond to questions that test their level of understanding. The highest levels of learning are reached if the students must repeat this process until they can demonstrate that they have reached the desired level of understanding and excellence.

  6. Students can learn as much from each other as from their teachers, especially if they are given greater responsibility for defining the learning process. When possible, the teaching methods employed in a course should provide students with the opportunity of working together in groups to analyse problems, conduct research and propose solutions. This is also important in preparing students for legal practice, where they will usually be working as a member of a team on a case. This requires that teachers must be more than good lecturers or communicators. They must also be good facilitators and coaches.

  7. It is critically important that the methods of evaluation and assessment in a subject reflect the objectives of the course and the teaching methods that have been employed. If creative problem-solving is one of the major goals of a subject, there should be more use of methods of continuous assessment such as writing exercises and moots, and less emphasis on final examinations.

  8. Finally, and perhaps most important, always treat your students with respect, and make an effort to get them involved in the learning process. If you seek their views on the teaching methods you plan to employ, they are more likely to cooperate and support your efforts.

I have limited my comments to the teaching of law, as that is the only discipline I am qualified to teach or comment on. However, I would expect that many of my points may also be valid for education in other disciplines.

Associate Professor Robert Beckman is a winner of the 2000/2001 Outstanding Educator Award.

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