Anonymous Electronic Reactions by Students:

Some of us at UCLA Law School have been experimenting with a new student participation system: Students in our classes have been issued what we call "clickers" -- electronic devices a little larger than a pocket calculator -- on which they can anonymously respond to professors' questions. When I start the corresponding program on the in-class computer, I can pose students' questions, and then get their reactions. The system, I'm told, can be used for many purposes, but right now I'm mainly using it to (1) quiz students to make sure they understand the legal rules, using questions that do have a right answer, and (2) ask students' views about policy questions.

Just today, I had a particularly interesting experience that I doubt I would have had without the clickers. My criminal law class is covering the law of rape, and we were talking about State v. Alston, a controversial 1984 North Carolina case involving the question of how much evidence of force is needed to prove rape. We discussed the facts (as reported in the appellate decision) in considerable detail, and discussed the court's legal ruling.

But I then asked the students to imagine themselves as jurors, and to answer whether -- given the facts -- they would have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of forcible rape (as the jury in Alston did, though the appellate court reversed). I also asked women and men to give separate answers (women A and B for proven beyond a reasonable doubt / not proven, men C and D for proven / not proven); and note that the answers are all anonymous.

Sixty students answered, out of a class of 81 (of whom I imagine 70 to 75 were present). This included 25 of 41 women and 35 of 40 men, a higher rate of abstention -- or absence -- on women's part, but a high participation rate for both sexes. The answers were:

  • Among women: 10 voted for rape proven beyond a reasonable doubt, 15 not proven.

  • Among men: 17 voted for rape proven, 18 not proven.

I stressed to students, of course, that this was not a large sample, and most certainly not one representative of the country as a whole. But I think it ended up being a useful perspective for the students, in highlighting to everyone both (1) how close the division was, and (2) how little gender gap there was (with men actually being a little more likely than women to find rape proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but I'm not sure not to any statistically significant degree). My sense is that this was an important pedagogical tool, chiefly because it helped show people how people of their own age, sex, and social class can disagree on such matters (whether or not they conclude that such disagreement is indeed warranted).

As importantly, I doubt that I'd have gotten nearly as much response, or as candid a reaction, if I'd just asked for a show of hands instead of an anonymous clicker vote. And even if I had gotten candid responses, I doubt that students would have had confidence in that candor. So I was very pleased with how the clickers worked here.