Selene Mize - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Selene Mize (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Otago) - Prime Minister’s Supreme Award winner 2009
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Otago
Passion for the law coupled with a deep commitment to teaching underpins Selene Mize’s exceptional practice. Selene is an excellent teacher who designs learning that engages and stretches students. For more than 20 years she has demonstrated sustained excellence and is regarded by students and colleagues as an inspirational teacher. Her teaching draws on her nationally and internationally recognized expertise in client interviewing, client counselling and legal negotiation. The outcomes of Selene’s skills are clearly evident through her coaching of New Zealand teams from the five law schools to achieve great success in international counselling and negotiation competitions.
Selene places a high priority on staying current with respect to her teaching practice and to her discipline. She has embraced innovations that can enhance her teaching and she shares her expertise through participation in a range of university and New Zealand-wide teaching initiatives. Described by one of her past students as “an inspiration, and an irreplaceable gift to the legal profession”, Selene is a shining example of an outstanding tertiary educator who is creative and innovative in her practice.
I had already decided by my early teens that I wanted to teach. Through helping friends at school, I had discovered that I was good at imagining myself in another’s position, figuring out where he or she was having the most trouble, and finding ways to explain clearly and surmount the hurdle. I discovered a love for teaching based on the joy of seeing students grow and develop.
Being passionate about teaching has led me into some very interesting experiences. While my main University teaching responsibilities are in the law – Legal Ethics, Media Law, Negotiation and Civil Liberties – I have also taught scuba diving, breastfeeding and religion. I have given guest lectures to film, journalism and medical students, supervised psychology research, and provided training in communication skills to community organisations, including the Dunedin Community Law Centre. I have worked with people one-on-one, in small groups, in medium-sized optional classes and in large compulsory lecture classes with more than 200 students, and at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. I have found that I can be successful in all these diverse areas by taking a problem-solving approach to my teaching.
Abstract theory is not my particular forte. Instead, I am a very practical person who is good with details. I strive to imagine the educational and real-world challenges that students are likely to face, and design innovative ways of addressing them. My focus is on providing students with a toolkit of information and techniques that will help them to succeed – as students, and in their personal and professional lives. I spend a lot of time reflecting, seeking feedback, critically evaluating my teaching and then refining it. I am constantly designing improvements, whether it is new content to be taught, a new way to teach existing content, or a way to make assessment fairer. Some of these innovations do not turn out as hoped, but even these experiences help lead me to later success.
Keeping Students Interested
One challenge to which I’ve applied this approach is the need to actively engage students. To encourage students to think about the relevance of course content to their future careers, I try to place them directly into hypothetical scenarios, e.g. “You are in court and without warning your co-counsel lies to the judge. What do you do?” Avoiding “legalese” is also important, as is breaking difficult concepts down into smaller parts and using examples, case studies and quirky analogies (e.g. “Should lawyers be like Big Macs?”). I use topical focuses for legal analysis (e.g. censorship of violent video games in Civil Liberties and All Black contract negotiations in Negotiation), and television and movie clips also help to maintain interest. During the first Ethics class I use a clip from Boston Legal showing the protagonist undermining the confidence of opposing counsel, a close friend, by mocking his disability in order to win a court case. Students are asked to write 1-3 sentences on why this is – or is not – good lawyering. This exercise produces wonderful results.
I use modern technology to encourage student participation: for example, “clickers” – feedback remotes that are given to students. I pose multiple choice questions in class and the students’ anonymous answers are instantly collated and projected on the screen. There are many uses for this technology, including checking how much students have retained from earlier classes, surveying their opinions, and testing their ability to apply difficult concepts to new situations. Clickers help students learn by giving them an easy and enjoyable way to participate actively in class, and 9 by warning students who give incorrect answers that more work is needed. To promote wide-ranging class discussion on sensitive topics, I encourage students to discuss ideas without owning them (so instead of divulging personal views e.g. “I don’t think pornography should be censored”, they can speak in the abstract, e.g. “an opponent of censoring pornography might argue that it has value as free speech”). Anonymous class discussion boards on the internet also facilitate discussion of sensitive issues.
Promoting Ethical Reflection
I want students in Legal Ethics to reflect and develop their own personal ethical standards, within the bounds of the law. To promote the development of moral reasoning abilities, I avoid advocating my own personal beliefs, eschew dogmatic statements and instead tell stories of actual lawyers who have faced ethically-challenging situations. I present a range of appropriate but different viewpoints in class, ask thought-provoking questions, and encourage discussion about the methodology of making ethical decisions. I challenge the assumption made by many students that they would never be tempted to behave unethically by referring to experiments showing the strong influences of authority and peer groups on decision-making. We discuss strategies for resisting these and other real world pressures such as the need to make a living. Students have told me that class debates have continued outside of class at social events, and I see this as evidence that the course is stimulating some deep thought.
Improving Exam Technique
Like many teachers, I am not very fond of marking. One reason has been my frustration at reading examination scripts that did not accurately reflect student abilities, often due in part to poor examwriting skills. My approach to this problem has included using past exam questions as application examples in class or tutorial; providing handouts on what is expected on exams, including a list of common mistakes; providing optional on-line quizzes; and giving detailed individual written feedback on optional midterm exams. Additionally, I have begun providing a post-exam handout with actual typed and anonymised student answers receiving different marks (e.g. A, B and C answers) for each exam question – often annotated with ways in which the answer could have been improved. These handouts are made available to students both in that class and in subsequent years. Model answers written by the lecturer can be seen as unattainable; actual good student answers are given more credence. Encouraging students to compare answers usually makes the differences between A and B answers clearer to them. This approach turns a final exam into formative as well as summative assessment. I attribute a significant improvement in exam answers to lessons learned by students from seeing others’ good and bad practice in the context of a real exam.
Enhancing Cultural Awareness
I work with students preparing for competitions in client counselling and negotiation skills by conducting training programmes prior to the local competitions, and then intensively training the winners in preparation for national and international competitions. The teams I have coached or assisted have done extremely well at the international competitions. I am always looking for ways in which these competitions could be improved. For example, at the International Client Counselling Competition in 2001, I observed a judge criticise the Hong Kong team for offering the client business cards at the start of the interview. As students are told to pretend that the interviews are taking place in their home country, steps needed to be taken to raise the cultural awareness of judges. As a member of the international executive committee, I presented a paper on cultural differences and successfully advocated for changes to competition procedures and assessment.
Caring for Students
A problem-solving approach is only part of being a good teacher; it is also of course necessary to care deeply about students and their progress. Whether I am teaching one-on-one or in a very large compulsory lecture class, I try to view and respond to students as individuals. Amongst other things, this means allowing them to develop their own personal approaches wherever possible, and interacting with them in a respectful and accepting way. It is also important to be available to students for both educational support and pastoral care, and I have taken steps to be very accessible.
Plans for the future
I am extremely grateful for the financial support associated with this award. I have always planned, if I won, to secure videotapes demonstrating key dispute resolution techniques. I teach on my own, and demonstrations usually require at least two people, so either commissioning my own videos or purchasing some from overseas will give me a great classroom resource. I place a high priority on searching for technological developments that could facilitate teaching and staying current with respect to teaching practice. Meeting with likeminded individuals and sharing ideas is invaluable in this regard. I will be using the grant to fund attendance at a conference in America in mid-September focusing on a recent major report urging changes to the way lawyers are trained. I may also attend an international symposium in November concentrating on the best ways to teach Legal Ethics. These are just some of the wonderful possibilities now available to me. Winning this award has been the highlight of my career and a tremendous honour. It would not have been possible without the generous support of wonderful students, colleagues and role models. I am extremely grateful to you all.
Peer and Student Comments
“Selene has a very positive and interactive approach to her teaching that is hugely valuable and in my experience sets her apart from many other lecturers. Throughout my time at university I have witnessed how hard it can be to get students to play an active role in their own learning and it is great to see how Selene is able to foster the confidence in her students that facilitates this. It takes a special and dynamic teacher to achieve this and Selene is exceptional at what she does. Selene makes herself incredibly available to her students with her ‘open door’ office policy and is always willing to give up her time for her students. …Selene stands out as someone willing to adapt and mould her teaching style to fit the students, the issues and the technologies at her disposal.”
Tom Clark, current student
“Selene is truly an exceptional educator with a real commitment to her students. She is a warm and embracing person, with a unique ability to inspire young minds. Her negotiation class was an excellent blend of theory and practice with real-life exercises, and I believe is the best of its kind in New Zealand. She was continually able to distil complex concepts into ideas that were understandable to her students. Her obvious enthusiasm for her subjects was infectious, and she was able to motivate students with a real desire to learn. Selene was always willing to provide advice and mentoring, and engage students on their wider interests and future plans. …I have no doubt the skills which I learned from Selene are a key reason why I now successfully represent New Zealand in United Nations negotiations on a daily basis.”
Scott Sheeran, former student, currently Legal Adviser, New Zealand Mission to the United Nations