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How to be Awesome at Class Participation

Alicia Silverstone from Clueless

A running motif amongst law students who I have met is that the class participation component of their courses seems arbitrarily marked, inconsistent, and more than a little degrading.

For some reason, students often don't feel compelled to share their insights about the law with an audience they don't even know. They also don't feel particularly encouraged by the idea of being loudly and publicly wrong.

Some are shy; others are tired. Most have not read a thing, and are hearing about these concepts for the first time.

However, class participation was not designed to make law students uncomfortable. I suppose I don't know that for sure, but most lecturers with whom I have the pleasure of frank conversation do not seem like the type to enjoy watching flustered young undergraduates collapse into a puddle of awkward. Quite the opposite, they are concerned about how to get students to engage with the pith and substance of the law, rather than rote-learning its operation. Plus, I imagine that lecturing to a hall of heads buried in laptops is not exactly encouraging either. I think lecturers have cottoned on to how enlivening discourse can be; even if under farcical circumstances and for entirely mercenary reasons.

So for us, the prodigal children of an education system gone back to its humanist roots, how shall we overcome our pride? Our shame? Our indescribable loathing towards revealing how much we didn't read? How can we survive class participation?

I'll level with you here - I'm a recklessly confident person. I don't need any help saying dumb things in front of anybody or everybody, for I have no shame. So, with that in mind, here are a few techniques that I have learned along the way which will help you score CP marks in a relatively painless manner.

1. They must know your name

You can earn a pass simply by turning up to lectures. You can do better than that if, by the end of the course, the lecturer doesn't have to fuss to find your name on the roll. There are several ways to do this which aren't intimidating or obnoxious. For example, if you have a long name, then you should offer a nickname so that they are forced to remember what to call you or risk being rude.

Also, at the beginning of every course, there is an introductory lesson where the lecturer explains the course outline and the assessment. With equal certainty, there is always a guy who asks questions about how much over the word limit can we write, whether or not the final exam will include material covered in the assignment, or whether or not class participation is voluntary. Normally you wouldn't want to be That Guy, but if you're not going to say anything else for the semester, at least ask some of these questions so they learn your name.

2. Actually read something

This may seem counterintuitive to your lifestyle as a law student, but occasionally flicking through your textbook couldn't hurt. I don't mean that you should do this for every lecture, naturally. If you look at the reading schedule for your course, you can likely find some readings which don't seem like a chore. If you pick out some of these lectures ahead of time, space them out evenly over the semester, and then write notes to refresh your memory about the reading, you probably will be able to tell them about a few ratios and/or a fact scenario each time.

There are two tricks to this. The first is how to spread out your contributions; the idea is that they're frequent enough to give the right impression, but not so frequent that the lecturer believes they can rely on you to answer random questions. I find that doing this four to five times would improve the mark. The second is a bit more Machiavellian. Contributing only on certain weeks becomes more effective if you are not physically present at some of the lectures you don't intend to speak in, as your ratio of days-talking to days-present improves whether you speak more or turn up less. This isn't perfect, but it's much better than saying nothing.

3. Participate in *every* policy discussion

Occasionally, lecturers like to talk about why the law exists, as opposed to the substantive content of its existence. This is a great opportunity to earn some marks. Pay attention; some consideration of the discussion will reveal at least one or two competing positions. Furthermore, your lecturer will already have insinuated what their personal perspective is, if you're lucky. It might come off as obsequious if you agree with them, so you will have to point out the rational counterargument. Luckily, the lecturer will have already hinted at that too. Just listen, and try to understand the root of the issue. Then, you will be able to convincingly fake an opinion and receive marks for trying. It's hard to be wrong when you're just offering somebody else's ideas.

4. Sleep in the lecture at least once

Ok, hear me out on this.

You should find a way to stand out a little. For me, because I spend far too much time reading, writing, working, working out, and discovering pithy life truths at the bottom of schooners, I tend to be very far behind on my sleep debt. As the interest accrues, I find that the only time I can possibly service this toxic asset is whilst listening to the soothing hubbub of lecturing. The point is that, through this way of standing out, I got into a conversation with the lecturer about my life, what I wanted out of my degree, and why I find myself so sleepy all the time. This builds rapport, whilst also being true and not an entirely disingenuous way to interact with people.

If you're not bold enough to snooze, you could ask a legal question unrelated to the course, or their opinion about how to locate certain resources which are eluding you. Do whatever it takes to transform you from a random name on the roll to that student with the cute back story about walking the dog and once needed help finding old ASC reports. Even if a lecturer asserts that questions asked outside of the lecture aren't counted towards CP marks, you are both building your reputation and also developing the confidence to ask other questions in front of more people.

5. In group work, consider being the presenter

These are a golden opportunity to breezily earn some points for participation. I won't deny that there is a significant intimidation factor here. However, if you think through it rationally, this is the easiest that class participation could possibly be. Firstly, the questions are often clear, and written down. Secondly, if your group is any good then you already know the answer. Thirdly, nobody will be interrupting your flow with questions or other such nonsense. It's just you, a silent lecture theatre, and a rough script with good material in it. Maybe someone will ask you a question after you're done, but you can often pass the buck to the lecturer if you stand there looking uncomfortable enough. Too easy.

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