Voting creativity and engagement into law

04 June 2018 | Story Penny Haw. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
“What underpins my approach is that if, as a teacher, you are not engaging with students, you are wasting their time and yours.”
“What underpins my approach is that if, as a teacher, you are not engaging with students, you are wasting their time and yours.”

Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats’s teaching career is, she says, the result of “a happy turn of fortunes”. She was practising as an attorney in the corporate commercial department of a large law firm when UCT contacted the company looking for a guest lecturer. Yeats volunteered, albeit with the sense that she was “taking one for the team”.

Almost 13 years later, she’s still at the university where she is an associate professor teaching corporation law, advanced company law and corporate governance.

Not only is Yeats a recipient of a 2017 Distinguished Teacher Award, she is also a member of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa’s (HELTASA) Teaching Advancement at University (TAU) fellowship programme and concedes that she is “completely sold on academia”.

What is it about teaching and academia that won you over from practising law?

Several things, including timing. My husband is also an attorney. Before I joined UCT, we both worked in the commercial law environment. Our careers were demanding and stressful, which was heightened by having a young family.

Once I joined the Department of Commercial Law in 2005 and was immersed in teaching, had daily contact with students and became involved in researching the work that I taught and teaching the areas in which I researched, I realised how much I enjoyed it. Now that our four children are a little older, I could go back and practise, but I choose not to.

Law is sometimes referred to as ‘a thinking profession’ and few cases are the same. Were you not concerned about the notion of teaching being repetitive by comparison?

No. While some of the core teaching material obviously remains the same, the groups of students are so different every year that it’s essential to adapt and change teaching methods and content accordingly. I like to keep things interesting, not only for my students, but also for myself. In addition, there are always new developments in law, which make it an exciting and organic area of study.

Can you give us some examples of how you keep things fresh and different in the classroom?

One of my objectives is to encourage students to think more creatively. It’s not only that I believe law students need a creative outlet. Having practised as an attorney, I understand that if you know the law and can apply it, you can be a good lawyer. But you are never going to be a great lawyer unless you can work creatively. If you want law that creates groundbreaking arguments and changes the status quo, you have to be creative.

Law students are, I believe, naturally creative thinkers. However, the teaching system is achievement-centred and competitive, thus militating against real creativity in the classroom. This means that students may feel they cannot afford to take the risk of being academically creative.

To counter this, I introduced a voluntary extra-credit video project, which challenges groups of five students to turn a legal principle into an entertaining, original two-minute movie. It must be filmed by phone with the aim of providing peer-to-peer training. The results have been mind-blowing. We’ve had plays, hilarious skits and cases that were decided more than 50 years ago set to rap music, and students tell me years later how memorable and effective the exercise was.

 

“If you want law that creates groundbreaking arguments and changes the status quo, you have to be creative.”

I have also experimented with changing tutorials by using game show and quiz formats. In some cases, students provide the questions and answers for quizzes and test their peers. This is useful for several reasons; it not only covers the work we do without requiring extra studying, but, because the students who come out tops in the quiz are also those who achieve the best results in other assessments, it confirms that the standard teaching assessment system works.

How do you come up with these ideas?

What underpins my approach is that if, as a teacher, you are not engaging with students, you are wasting their time and yours. If I have to change my teaching methods to pull students in and keep them interested, I will. People might argue that teachers are not entertainers and lectures are not shows, and I accept that there’s a lot of complex content to cover, but I think that it is essential to engage our students if they are to learn effectively.

When the university nominated me for the TAU fellowship programme – which is a collaboration between all South African universities, HELTASA, the Council of Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education that aims to enhance teaching and learning in higher education – I was exposed to a greater understanding of the science and psychology of teaching and learning. It’s helped me further develop the techniques I had introduced and experimented with, and has given me new insights to do more.

You mentioned that law is ‘an achievement-centred and competitive’ field of study. Aside from encouraging creativity, what do you do to alleviate unnecessary stress among students?

I am very concerned about students’ anxiety levels. Last year members of the UCT psychology department came into my classroom to do some mindfulness training with students to try to moderate this. It made a difference. Students relax, which improves their ability to learn. Hopefully they have also learnt techniques that they can apply throughout their studies and careers.

Another technique I use in the classroom to advance engagement is to decrease the physical distance between teacher and students by moving around the large lecture hall. This is particularly useful given that there are up to 200 students in my classes. I like to close the teaching distance literally and figuratively, and I find it improves engagement no end when a student suddenly finds I’m standing right next to them even though they are sitting in the back row.

 

“I find it improves engagement no end when a student suddenly finds I’m standing right next to them even though they are sitting in the back row.”

What are the most rewarding things about teaching?

It’s the ultimate reward when I can see that there is impact, and that they are excited or infuriated by some aspect of law and have connected with what they have learnt on an emotional or visceral as well as a cognitive level. I feel huge satisfaction when students connect with law beyond what is in their textbooks; that’s when I sense that the contribution I may have made to their legal education really matters.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.


Distinguished Teacher Award

 

The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.

 

2018


‘Teaching swept me off my feet’ Despite the challenges, Anneliese Schauerte – a recipient of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2018 – says she’s right where she’s meant to be. 19 Jun 2019
‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes Curiosity, responding to change, technology and empathy are what 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient Jeff Murugan says make an excellent teacher. 19 Jun 2019
 

2017


Discovering purpose and potential Trauma surgeon Professor Pradeep Navsaria, one of four 2017 Distinguished Teacher awardees, describes himself as ʻan accidental or incidental teacherʼ. 08 Jun 2018
Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon Lead from the front, support from behind, says acclaimed teacher and spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn, who was recently honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award. 08 Jun 2018
Distinguished physics teacher leaves his mark Relaxed, irreverent, interactive, engaging. That’s how physics lecturer Gregor Leigh describes his teaching style. Leigh is one of four new Distinguished Teacher awardees. 05 Jun 2018
Voting creativity and engagement into law Distinguished Teacher awardee Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats didn’t plan to become a teacher, but almost 13 years later she wouldn’t have it any other way. 04 Jun 2018
 

2016


Put students at the heart of pedagogy Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens. 30 Mar 2017
Number's up for scary statistics Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity. 27 Mar 2017
Tax time made easier Associate Professor Ryan Kruger has taught on every finance course offered at an undergraduate level, which he says has allowed him an understanding of the development that students undergo over the course of their academic careers. 24 Mar 2017
Winfield teaches ethical accounting Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students’ minds a little 24 Mar 2017
The formula to make maths fun Dr David Erwin’s philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. 22 Mar 2017
Taking the shock out of teaching maths Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six DTA awardees for 2016. 15 Mar 2017
   

2015


'A good teacher? Someone who teaches to learn' Dr Joanne Hardman of the School of Education gives us a peek into her classroom and talks about her teaching style, what makes a good teacher and her five top tips for teachers 30 Nov 2015
'If learning is not engaging it is not happening' Associate Professor Jacqui Kew from the College of Accounting engages her students by asking questions in the classroom. 30 Nov 2015
Find the 'amazing' in all you study and teach Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages and Literature, says that her classes are like communities and she's always on the lookout for that amazing bit of information to impart when she's teaching. 30 Nov 2015
Knowledge is not fixed in textbooks Dr Adam West of the Department of Biological Sciences says that a teacher’s job is to help students realise that the creation of scientific knowledge is on-going and dynamic, and that they have a role to play in that. 30 Nov 2015
 

2014


Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics Dr Spencer Wheaton creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students by making connections with the real world and linking physics to their major subjects. 01 Dec 2014
Assoc Prof James Gain – Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science Assoc Prof James Gain believes that it is important to create the type of environment where students are not afraid to ask questions. 01 Dec 2014
Prof Delawir Kahn – Head of the Department of Surgery For Prof Delawir Kahn, being a surgeon and being a teacher are intricately intertwined. 01 Dec 2014
Dr Linda Ronnie – Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business Dr Linda Ronnie believes that an eagerness to learn is vital to being a great teacher. 01 Dec 2014
 

2013


Dr Helen Macdonald – Anthropology Dr Helen Macdonald's teaching portfolio and her students' and colleagues' comments all indicate clearly that she is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her discipline, anthropology. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Hedley Twidle – English language & literature Dr Hedley Twidle believes that teaching literature in English should be a fluid and evolving thing. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk – Film and Media Studies Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk is described as an inspirational teacher of film studies, film production and screen-writing whose energy, enthusiasm, deep generosity and passion for cinema have captivated a generation of students. 09 Dec 2013
Paul Maughan – Accounting Paul Maughan’s teaching philosophy is underpinned by a fundamental insight: Ken Bain’s view that effective teaching results in deep learning that is best achieved through the disruption of existing mental models. 09 Dec 2013
 

2012


Professor John Higgins – English Literature Professor John Higgins believes that what counts is the question of identity, in a view of teaching as process and not transmission. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Jeremy Wanderer – Department of Philosophy Dr Jeremy Wanderer believes that it is possible for academic life to be set up in a way that does not lead academics to experience a tension between teaching and research. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Zenda Woodman – Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Students working under the tutelage of Dr Zenda Woodman have remarked on her use of humour to create a safe environment for learning. 12 Dec 2012
 

2011


Quartet of outstanding teachers féted On the 30th anniversary of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), four recipients joined the ranks. 12 Dec 2011
 

2010


Medical teachers grab 2010 awards Professor Roland Eastman and Professor Zephne van der Spuy, both of the Faculty of Health Sciences, have been named the recipients of UCT’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher Awards. 15 Dec 2010
TOP