This spring I staged a mock trial in “Everyday Lives,” my general education social history class. I have tried these exercises in past years with mixed results, but this time around it really worked. The twenty-five students in the class were prepared and engaged, and they learned something about 1830s New York City. I attribute the success to the set up. Here are some steps you can take to make an experiential learning activity go smoothly in your classroom.
1. Provide students with background information
In this class students read The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen. This examination of the 1836 murder of a young prostitute includes lost of information about social history, legal history, and the sexual mores of the day. Students used the information in the book as their reference as they prepared for trial. They did not have to do additional research; they simply had to analyze the materials in the book. Everyone was on the same page.
2. Give students options
Two weeks before the date of the trial, we were about half-way through the book. We had met most of the characters but had not seen the report of the trial proceedings. I handed out two identical character lists and asked students to lay claim to one of the actual historical figures. Students chose to take on the characters of prostitutes, young male clerks, the coroner, policemen, or members of the legal teams. This array of choices worked well in this general education class filled with freshmen who planned to major in criminal justice, forensics, jurisprudence, business and history. (I’m not sure if the game design majors found compatible characters.) After the lists went around I compared them and negotiated with the students who had both picked the same character. This method allowed students who wanted to take on more responsibility to sign on as attorneys on the legal team; the students who chose these roles really rose to the occasion.
3. Hold students accountable
One week before the trial I asked every student who was a witness to post a character profile on the discussion board of our course management system. This exercise showed students how to use an index in a scholarly book and also helped the legal teams craft their argument. The firm deadline of this requirement also allowed me to acquire some hard data I could use when grading the entire exercise.
4. Keep everyone busy
Two days before the trial, I sent the entire class to the library. Students who would serve as witnesses were required to find a secondary source that would give them historical context for their character. They had to summarize that source and provide a citation. While they were working on that information literacy task, the legal teams circulated among them asking them questions about the testimony they would give later that week. Although they were doing different things, everyone was occupied in a worthwhile venture.
On the day of the trial, I asked the witnesses to write a summary of the trial proceedings from the point of view of their character. These in-class writings demonstrated that they had learned about the person they were portraying and understood the concept of loin of view.
5. Make expectations for grading clear
Process is important for professors, and in these experiential activities grading may seem secondary. But students need grades, and to be graded fairly they to know the basis for their evaluation. In this exercise I graded witnesses on their witness profile, their source for historical context, their in-class point of view written submission, and their testimony on the stand. The legal teams were evaluated on their line of questioning and mastery of the facts of the case. The legal teams did not have to submit anything in writing. Two days before the trial one student told me he had a conflict due to a doctor’s visit, but on the day of the trial every other student came to class. As Darien Ripple, my colleague who came in to act as the judge, can attest, every student testified accurately and all were able to answer questions without hesitation. I gave high marks to everyone for their testimony.
6. Keep a strict timetable
I have tried the Anne Hutchinson trial from Reacting to the Past and although I liked it in concept, the actual execution over five weeks seemed too long. In this class we started reading the book on the second week of class and we held the trial in the fifth week. Students were only working with their character for two weeks. The time crunch made them more efficient and they did not have time to lose interest in their characters.
This exercise reinforced most of UB’s general education goals:
- communicate effectively in many different modes
- gather, synthesize and critically evaluate information
- make ethical and evidence-based decisions
- understand systems and think systemically
- negotiate divergent and competing perspectives
I would definitely stage it again.