It is finals season again, with college students nationwide poring over notes and boning up for exams. But in a few classes, the secret of better grades has as much to do with negotiating skills as with study.
Law students Andrew Held and Suzanne Bowen were among the guinea pigs in some small but energetic experiments that are rattling, ever so slightly, the normally staid confines of law school.
Most class time in law school involves digesting vast quantities of abstract knowledge via the Socratic method - lecture followed by questions posed to students. Yes, there are sometimes opportunities for role playing in moot court situations, too.
But experiential learning became the main thrust in an unusually elaborate semester-long simulation last spring, when Mr. Held, Ms. Bowen, and fellow students in their respective labor-law classes hundreds of miles apart became "employees" in classrooms run like factories.
At Indiana University's School of Law in Bloomington, in a class dubbed "Labor Law I, Inc.," Prof. Ken Dau-Schmidt reveled in his "evil employer" role. His definition of "production" was covering the textbook material. On this point the boss was unyielding. When Held missed his class once, Professor Dau-Schmidt dispensed a "pink slip"; Held had been unceremoniously "fired" by his professor.
Picking up his books, Held moved across the room to where other "unemployed" students, also guilty of minor infractions, slouched in a corner, only occasionally being called upon.
"If he called on you and you hadn't done the work and slowed down production, he would fire you," Held recalls. "I don't think anybody knew what they were getting into when they signed up for the class."
Finally, after days and hours of extra preparation, Held managed to get Dau-Schmidt's attention and give a good answer. He was "rehired" and allowed to move out of the corner.
But by then, Held and the rest of the class had had quite enough. The group voted to form a union. Unknown to Held at the time, this was all part of the plan to get them to learn. They had to do the legal research outside of class. They had to immerse themselves.
Before long, students were filing documents and negotiating a bargaining agreement with their professor. Terms included the type of final exam (take-home or in-class) and even raising the grading curve itself.
When talks hit a snag over a higher grading curve, students picketed the classroom - to Dau-Schmidt's delight.
"They were chanting 'Dau-Schmidt you're no good, teach your workers like you should," recalls the professor with a chuckle. "I think they also called me 'Dau-Schmidt the great oppressor.' "
It's all really just a means to an end, he says: learning the law.
"For me, it's terrific," he says. "It makes class fun and teaches students about the forms they need to file and forces them to come up with documents on their own. It teaches them both about collective action and the law."
Held agrees now that the class was fun, even though it involved much more research and work than a normal law class. That extra effort had practical and gratifying results, he points out: The grading curve was negotiated up to a more lenient level.
"My friends and I studied harder for that class because of fear of getting fired each day," Held says. "You didn't want to let your friends down in class.... It was so different from any other law school class ... not just learning the law from books."
Not everyone is persuaded that this method works, though.
Alan Hyde, a law professor at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, N.J., has used some role-playing techniques. But only for individual classes. He's not about to start a semester-long effort.
"Look, I'm sure the [teaching] system [in law school] is broken," he says. "I just wonder if a simulation like that is teaching them all they need to know."
That is exactly what Roberto Corrada is trying to find out.
With a Carnegie Foundation grant, the professor at the University of Denver's College of Law is conducting a study to see just how much this sort of interactive teaching and simulation helps students learn the law.
His approach was more subtle than Dau-Schmidt's, but his dictatorial ways were still enough to get his labor-law students fed up last spring. They, too, formed a union.
Professor Corrada's students were so worked up, they spent hours after class compiling statistics and arguments so compelling that he could not ignore their demand for a more lenient grading curve.
"One of my goals is to get students to improve their critical-thinking skills," Corrada says. "That isn't necessarily accomplished in a pure lecture format, when they write it down and regurgitate it on a test. For me, they have to create the thing they're learning, work with the subject matter itself to achieve goals - which is what they would do as an attorney."
It seems to be working. Bowen, in her final year of law school, says Corrada's class was a high point. "Law school tends to be a real arbitrary process," Bowen says. "Professors dictate everything. This gave us an unusual opportunity to actually have some say over the way the class was conducted."
And the method has gotten some students hooked on labor law. At Indiana, for instance, Held had no interest in the career field before taking Dau-Schmidt's class. Now, he has sent his resume to the National Labor Relations Board.