Providing Psychology-Law Students with a Voice in Course Design

The following article by Dr. Eve Brank appeared in the Fall 2009 edition (PDF, 406) of the AP-LS newsletter.

I like to think of myself as an efficient person rather than a procrastinator. One of my life quotes is, “If you wait until the last minute, then it will only take a minute!” The current teaching technique resulted from me “waiting until the last minute” when I was preparing my fifth new course in less than two years when I first started teaching. I was silently (or not so silently if you ask my friends and family) lamenting the fact that I needed to develop another syllabus, another set of readings, and another set of activities for my new Psychology and Law course. In addition to my exasperation at developing a new course, I was overwhelmed by my options. Opening up my Wrightsman’s (Greene, Heilbrun, Fortune, & Nietzel, 2007) text, I was certainly excited by the variety of topics, but it was intimidating too. As has been noted in a previous Teaching Techniques column, it is impossible to cover all of the topics we would like to cover in just one semester of Psychology and Law (O’Connor & Groscup, 2008). How would I incorporate recent research and court cases on all of those different topic areas without spending more time on this class than I did my research (and sleep)? And, how could I be sure that I was covering topics that would be interesting to my current class?

Perched on my three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service, it occurred to me that I might be able to take some liberties with the procedural justice literature and provide students with a voice in my course design decisionmaking. We know from this literature that people care about the way they are treated. In fact, sometimes people care more about being treated fairly than they do about the outcomes (Tyler, 1994). What has been termed the “voice effect” in procedural justice research is particularly robust (Brockner et al, 1998). People believe that they have been treated more fairly when they have been afforded an opportunity to voice their opinion as compared to situations when they do not get to voice their opinion. Chory-Assad and Paulsel (2004) applied procedural justice concepts to the classroom setting. Specifically, students’ perceptions of the grades they receive relate to distributive justice, but the perception of the processes – how the class is developed and run – is the procedural justice component. Therefore, Chory-Assad and Paulsel ‘s procedural justice components in a classroom setting would involve the course’s schedule of topics, scheduling of exams, and the like.

I decided to apply the research on voice into the design of my Psychology and Law class. Based on the basic premise that students would view me and the course as more fair if they get to offer input on the course design, I provide the students with this opportunity regarding the class topics, assignments, and exams. Essentially, I give the students a “voice” in the process of designing the course components that would eventually determine their grades. My preliminary syllabus the first time I taught Psychology and Law (and every semester after) had three foundational components: student rankings of class topics, individualized assignments based on those rankings, and student evaluation (assignments and exams) choices. I will describe each of these components below and then discuss student reactions to the course.

Syllabus and Rankings

On the first day of class I provide my students with a preliminary syllabus. This syllabus includes all of the standard syllabus information such as my contact information, office hours, teaching assistant information, general course description, textbook description, honesty policy, accommodations for students with disabilities, and grading scale. The part that students always flip to first, however, is empty. I include a Course Schedule table that says, “A more detailed course schedule and list of assignments will be available online at the end of this week once the class has made their selections from the topic choices available and the student survey results are tabulated.” At this point in the syllabus discussion I tell the students that they will rank the topics they want included in the course and provide input about the way the course will be designed. I then give a short lecture on procedural justice by describing the main theoretical notions, some of the research findings, and how it relates to their experiences as a college student. I talk to them about the voice effect and describe the determination of the course schedule and the assessments as an opportunity to provide their voice in the processes that I will use in deciding how to design the course.

The student rankings come from what I call the “Personal Information Sheet.” This two-sided sheet has the same questions I ask students in all of my courses — what they plan to do in the future, why they are taking the course, and something interesting that will help me remember their names. The reverse side of the sheet has the “Topic Preference List.” Here I list and briefly describe approximately fifteen possible law-psychology topics. The students rank order their favorite eight topics and return it to me by the next class period. Although the students individually only rank-order eight topics, we generally cover approximately ten to twelve different topic areas because of the variety of student rankings. The rankings also provide the topic ordering; I change the topic order to highlight the more popular topics throughout the semester rather than all at the beginning or end. I also use the rankings to determine individualized projects (described below). In addition to these ranked topics, I lecture at the beginning of the semester about general legal system and psychological introductory information. Compiling the rankings can be tedious, but the result is a new and different class each semester that is geared toward the current group of students. I have taught this course at least five times and each time it has included different topics and a different ordering of topics.

Individualized Projects

Once the course topics are determined, I make individualized assignments based again on the students’ rankings. These assignments are an article summary, a group presentation, and a case summary. I’ll describe each assignment and then provide an example of how this all works.

The article summary paper is an opportunity for the students to read about research being conducted on a topic that interests them. Each student finds and reads a recent empirical article on the assigned topic area. In approximately four pages, they summarize and describe the research conducted, the research findings, and the students provide ideas for future research in the area. In a class of 30 students, approximately 2 to 4 students are assigned to each topic area for their research summaries, which also becomes the groups for the group presentation. The group presentations are limited to fifteen minutes and are meant to be a time for the students to describe the research articles they read and summarized. Because each student has to read and summarize a different research article than the other members of their group, the rest of the class gets to hear about several recent empirical articles for each topic area. We generally do these presentations on the second day that we are discussing the topic area. That means that I have already introduced the topic, but there is still time for me to discuss the research findings presented by the students in relation to the rest of the lectures for the topic. Some groups are very creative and develop games and interactive class activities as part of their presentation. The groups also submit potential exam questions based on their research articles. These exam questions are posted on an online class discussion board and I always choose a few of the questions for the exams. The group projects are limited in scope and require minimal group planning, yet they provide the students with the opportunity to teach the rest of the class about current research on a topic in which they are interested.

In order to provide the students with some exposure to court cases, each student also does a case summary paper. The case summary assignment involves the students finding a recent court case about their second assigned topic. In approximately three pages, the students summarize the facts, issues, holding, and court’s rationale. The students also provide why they think the case is important and the potential influence the case might have. Because they are “experts” on the general topic area, they also critique the group presentation that corresponds to their case summary topic. This critique is a written assessment of the group presentation that I use as part of the calculation of the group presentation grades. The students do not formally present information about the cases they summarized, but on occasion a student will describe their case as an example or to ask a specific question of the research being described during the group presentations.

As an example of how all this would work, assume that student Jimmy ranks the topics of Victims, Juveniles, and Punishment as one, two, and three, respectively. Jimmy would write his article summary on victims, be a part of the victims group presentation, write his case summary on juveniles, and critique the juveniles group. His victim article summary is due when we are discussing victims in class, and his group presentation also takes place at the same time. He could find and summarize an article on sexual harassment and his fellow group member could find and summarize an article on battered spouses. Their presentation would be about both the sexual harassment and battered spouses research. His case summary on a juvenile case is due when we discuss juvenile issues in class and he will critique the juveniles group at the same time. He could find a case about a status offense, a child witness, or anything else within the broad topic of juveniles. Almost every week a few students are turning in article and case summaries and the presentations are also spread out throughout the semester. I provide the students with a detailed calendar of all their individual due dates because it can be somewhat confusing at the beginning of the semester when I am trying to explain all of this to them. After the first few weeks of the semester, the students get accustomed to the routine.

Sometimes more students rank a topic as their first choice than I can accommodate in a group. If that were to happen to our example student, Jimmy, then I might assign him to write his article summary on his third choice, punishment, and be in the punishment group. His case summary would be on his first choice, victims. Because of the diversity of student interests, I am usually able to assign individualized assignments that represent a student’s top choices. In all the semesters I have taught the course I have not had to assign a student to a topic for either assignment that was something they ranked below their fourth choice.

Student Evaluation Choices

In addition to the topic rankings, the students also answer a separate questionnaire at the beginning of the semester that allows them to voice their opinions on the way their grades will be determined. As I always tell my students, it would be wonderful if we could ask our students how much they learned and they would honestly and accurately provide professors with a grade that assessed their level of learning. Unfortunately, I have not figured out a way to get students to do that. Instead, I ask for their thoughts about issues related to my decisionmaking in designing the assessments for the course. I ask the students about the number of exams, types of exams, and other class components. For example, I ask them if they would prefer three exams, two exams, or one exam — they almost always pick three. I also ask students about their favorite courses in college and why the course was their favorite. Lastly, I let the students tell me if they know a date that they will have to miss class during the semester for a trip, job commitment, or any other reason. Although I am inflexible on certain course design elements, I incorporate the students’ answers to these questions into the course design for that semester. I have taught the course with only two exams one time and three another. I have also had more class discussions than lecture and vice versa. The changes are not drastic, but I do listen to the students’ suggestions.

The rankings and the evaluation choices are all turned in for a small percentage of the students’ grades. My teaching assistant and I work diligently to have the final syllabus compiled within less than a week of the first day of classes so that students know when each of their assignments is due and when the exams are scheduled. I try very hard not to schedule an exam when students have said that they know they will be absent and I do not schedule group presentations when I know a person in the group will be absent.

Student responses to the course

I first taught this course in a Criminology, Law and Society Department and now I am teaching it in a Psychology Department. In both instances, it has been a junior or senior level class. Many of the students in my first department were interested in attending law school or going in to law enforcement and the class was generally about 100 students. The class in my current department is limited to 30 students with most wanting to attend law school or graduate school.

In both departments, the course has been well-received each time I have taught it. Clearly the general subject matter is interesting, but I often receive student comments on the course evaluations that specifically reflect how much they enjoyed the ability to give their “voice” to the course. For instance, a student said that the best part about the class was that the students “were allowed to tell Dr. Brank how the class should be done and what topics to discuss.” Another student wrote, “I loved that Dr. Brank waited to hear about our interests before deciding what we were going to cover in class and that she used our interests to determine our paper assignments.”

I have not done a formal assessment of the course and the way I conduct it to compare student responses with and without the student involvement in designing the course. Like I said at the beginning, I did the course this way the first time I taught Psychology and Law and I have done it this way ever since. This method would certainly not work for many other courses, but for Psychology and Law it seems to work well because of the topical nature of the class and the varied interests of the students taking the class. I would think it could be used similarly in graduate level Psychology and Law classes or on a smaller scale in other courses (e.g., allowing the students to choose how and what would be covered in the last three weeks of the course). In addition to the benefits expressed by the students, I am not scurrying around to finalize my syllabus the day before classes start. This method also provides me with new ideas of how to assess student learning and keeps the course fresh and new for me each semester.


Brockner, J. Heuer, L., Siegel, P.A., Wiesenfeld, B., Martin. C., Grover, S., et al. (1998). The moderating effect of self-esteem in reaction to voice: Converging evidence from five studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology75, 394-407.

Chory-Assad, R.M. & Paulsel, M.L. (2004). Classroom justice: Student aggression and resistance as reactions to perceived unfairness. Communication Education53, 253-273.

Greene, E., Heilbrun, K., Fortune, W.H., & Nietzel, M.T. (2007). Wrightsman’s Psychology and the Legal System, 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth

O’Connor, M. & Groscup, J. (2008, Summer) “Who’s your daddy (or mommy)?”: Teaching psychology and law through biography. American Psychology-Laws News, (PDF xx)

Tyler, T.R. (1994). Psychological models of the justice motive. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology67, 850-863.