Professor Rehan Abeyratne: Innovative Legal Education, Clinical Approach & the Interactive Classroom
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Professor Rehan Abeyratne joined the Faculty of Law at CUHK in the summer of 2017. Before joining CUHK, Professor Abeyratne was a Scholar in Residence at New York University and an Associate Professor of Law at Jindal Global Law School in Delhi.
Professor Abeyratne has taken legal education beyond the boundaries of the classroom and into local communities. In his teaching practice, he has sought ways to add intrinsic value to students’ work by encouraging collaboration and publication through his clinical seminar course.
Teaching and research
There is a tendency to think of teaching as a distraction from research activities and that investing time and effort in teaching may be at the expense of research work. Professor Abeyratne sees it differently; he believes that the intellectual aspects of teaching are indispensable to his research: ‘The preparation of course materials and interaction with students stimulate my own imagination and thinking for my research.’ Professor Abeyratne has previously received a Teaching Excellence Award (2014) and three Research Excellence Awards (2012-2014) at Jindal Global Law School. Despite the demands of tight research deadlines, Professor Abeyratne has been dedicated to helping students to engage more deeply with the subjects that he teaches.
I think of teaching and research as being highly inter-related. If I prepare well for class and bring the best out of my students, then teaching a subject is one way of thinking more deeply about research. Discussions with students in class stimulate my own imagination and thinking and feed into my research. To put it simply, I would like to have teaching inform my research and research inform my teaching.
How do you structure the lecture and tutorial sections?
My teaching approach depends on the subject matter and the size of the class. If it is a big class, my aim is to make the lecture as engaging as possible by visualizing the content with graphics and breaking down the lecture into several sections with Q&A at the end of each section. This gives students time to ask questions. For small group seminars or tutorials, I incorporate more group activities. Sometimes students understand the student thought process better than I do. I believe these activities give students more courage to speak because after discussing a question with two or more other students, they are more likely to think that their answers are correct and therefore to be more willing to speak up.
Could you share with us your teaching model to win the Jindal Teaching Excellence Award?
I adopted a clinical teaching approach in one of the undergraduate seminar courses I taught. It was an innovative teaching design and the first clinical legal education course at Jindal. Students were given research assignments throughout the term. I would give them feedback on their assignment and at the end of the semester they would turn the research assignments into a paper. A clinical component was added to the course, where I arranged regular student visits to a nearby community to provide locals with legal advice on how to apply for help under a government food program. A new law was passed about food distribution for poor people. Students went to nearby villages to explain what the law meant for the people there.
How was the clinical legal education experience?
It was a fruitful experience. There were eight students in this seminar course. They really enjoyed the visits and worked collaboratively with each other throughout the course. Through this clinical education approach, students came to realize the practical value of their knowledge and to see that they could have an impact on the community. At the end of this course, we published a report together at university level, where I and all eight students were co-authors; so the students’ work was given intrinsic research values beyond grades and scores.
To learn more about Professor Abeyratne’s co-author publication with students, please click here.
Students do not all learn at the same pace. How do you adapt your teaching to the needs of individual students?
I usually give students regular assignments earlier in the term and have the students submit those assignments to me. I can then tell by looking at how they respond to the questions whether they need more help or not. Where help is needed, I invite students to meet me so that I can help them understand better. I also encourage students to form study groups within the class, as it is an effective way of learning. Where the problem was due to the students’ English ability, especially with the readings, I would give them extra writing assignments and then correct their English mistakes to help them improve.