Putting students at the helm of their learning experience

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Jon Hanson

Jon Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor of Law, saw an opportunity to improve learning by putting students in the driver's seat. Along with Jacob Lipton, JD ’14, he developed The Systemic Justice Project (SJP) – a policy innovation collaboration, organized and catalyzed by students – as a problem-oriented, team-driven, and experiential approach to courses in legal education.

The benefits: Systemic Justice” and “The Justice Lab” require that students work in teams to select and fully immerse themselves in a current social policy problem, an applied and interdisciplinary experience that many point to as the most memorable and rewarding coursework of their academic career. The approach connects students to issues they care about and the communities and people who stand to benefit from policy change.

The challenges: The course model relies on a continual stream of instructor-to-student and student-to-student feedback, demanding more time of faculty and teaching fellows, and surfacing a need for more effective peer feedback mechanisms.

Takeaways and best practices

  • The semester-long policy paper and presentation assignment challenges students to synthesize their legal training and seek solutions through multi-disciplinary lenses more effectively than a traditional end-of-course exam.
  • The process of researching and designing solutions forces students to look beyond doctrinal categories and, in some cases, compels them to rethink their career trajectory.
  • Student insights – shared with lawyers, legislators, and activists via their posted policy papers and presented at the Systemic Justice Conference (April 8-10, 2016) – have the potential to contribute to dialogue and meaningful change beyond the academic realm.

Bottom line: “We’re attempting to redesign legal pedagogy in a way that engages students on problems they select because they care about them,” Hanson says. He and Lipton hope that the structure of their courses allows students to see themselves in broader terms—not just as lawyers, but also as citizens, policy designers, policy advocates, and social activists.