By Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies
I used to find myself questioning whether students would be motivated to engage in challenging assignments in the classroom if grades were not included as an artificial catalyst. Beginning the mock trial program made me realize that our students possess both the talent and the motivation to spend countless hours devoted to meaningful and rigorous academic work regardless of grades or official credit. It also connected me with students who were willing to spend the kind of time required to prepare for an intensive academic program of study. I have already observed noticeable differences in the articulation of concepts, and a willingness to speak up, by students who began the program quiet and reserved. These students now assert their opinions rather decidedly after winning awards and praise for mastery of their performance at tournaments. In fact, the students themselves have noticed a difference in their own engagement in other classes.
In other words, academically oriented co-curricular activities, such as mock trial, create a bridge to the classroom. These activities go well beyond the discussion-oriented format of extracurricular student clubs. They instead, require self-directed learners who are willing to engage in a process of deep learning. Participating members also hone several essential learning outcomes as a result of the involvement in the activity, including critical thinking, creative thinking and reasoning, social intelligence, oral advocacy, responsible citizenship, and diversity awareness and sensitivity.
The mock trial team considers itself more like a family than just another campus activity. Students have made lasting friendships and have had the opportunity to meet students from other universities who all share a common interest. The mock trial program provides motivated students from various disciplines with the chance to become part of a new learning community. The students who are committed to mock trial spend an extraordinary amount of time working on team assignments, regularly attend the lengthy meetings (several times a week), review hundreds of pages of case materials, express excitement to be part of the team, and show an eagerness to learn new methods and techniques.
Participation on the mock trial team has provided students with new opportunities to learn from each other and to be creative thinkers. Moreover, it has allowed me to learn from the students as I watch them take on leadership roles, construct creative thematic trial statements, and discuss innovative trial techniques. They are already utilizing information that they have obtained from other disciplines and applying that information to the mock trial case. For example, I have seen the students teach others about their own discipline, whether that involves a biology major discussing the chemical analysis of blood alcohol content, or a legal studies major discussing the burden of proof in a criminal case.
The students attending the competitive tournaments have also realized that they have a hidden talent. They can clearly articulate complex concepts, whether that involves chemical analysis, road reconstruction calculations, meteorology, or an assessment of corporate financial statements. They can also think on their feet in order to respond to objections and apply the rules of evidence that they have learned as a part of the program. They can create interesting witness personalities and construct trial statements based on themes they identify from the materials. Finally, they can express themselves in a community of friends who share their passion, interest, and commitment to the mock trial team.