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Teaching environmental law

UKCLE law subject survey

This subject survey, prepared by Stuart Bell (Nottingham Trent University), Don McGillivray (University of Kent), Andrea Ross-Robertson (University of Dundee) and Sharon Turner (Queen’s University Belfast) takes a snapshot of the teaching of environmental law in UK universities based on a questionnaire issued in October 2001.

You may also download the full survey report (Adobe Acrobat format, 109 pages, 706 KB) and the original survey questionnaire (RTF file, 20 pages, 241 KB) at the bottom of the page.

Environmental law is a relatively new teaching subject in the UK, albeit with origins in planning law and cognate environmentally related disciplines. While there have been occasional publications reflecting on individual teaching initiatives, we believe this to be the first systematic survey of environmental law teaching in the UK. As well as giving useful data on environmental law teachers and courses, the survey also covered the challenges of teaching environmental law, course content, teaching and learning issues including the use of electronic resources, assessment and course evaluation, and concludes by making four proposals for how to take the findings of the survey further.

Sue: What about your final year options?
Rita: Company, Commercial and IP – as if you need ask.
Bob: I quite like the sound of Environmental Law – you know, like the John Travolta character in A civil action, fighting pollution injustice – but I don’t really know much about it. I mean, it’s not exactly been around forever has it? I can hardly borrow my dad’s notes, like you did for most of Juris, Bob.
Sue: I loved Erin Brockovich but it does seem a bit technical with endless boring regulations.
Bob: Well, at least we know Dr Goodtree from Land Law. Oh, and EC Law.
Rita: Isn’t it a bit, like, ‘1990s’?

Survey aims and methodology

The survey sought to establish:

  • what is being taught under the banner of ‘Environmental Law’ (and related course titles), and to whom
  • how these courses are being taught and the factors influencing learning and teaching strategies
  • any distinctive approaches across the UK’s jurisdictions (answer: there don’t appear to be any)

Further objectives were to inform law and non-law teachers of learning and teaching methodology and, by giving an overview of current methods, to identify and promote innovation. Hopefully we have provided the first in-depth benchmark analysis of environmental law teaching, and in the process stimulated thinking both about pedagogy and the ongoing development of the subject.

The survey involved a quantitative questionnaire followed by selective semi-structured interviews. The first step was to draft the questionnaire and identify possible respondents. Our own knowledge of environmental law teachers was, of course, helpful, but there was still a fair amount of effort involved (Web searches, telephone calls) in identifying, across all universities, whether environmental law was actively being taught. Our questionnaire was adopted from the UKCLE template, but we modified and extended it to probe issues especially relevant to environmental law, including course content (important given the unsettled boundaries of environmental law, and the numerous possible perspectives and sectors that could be explored to illustrate the law at work) and the teaching of non-law students. Where appropriate we also went beyond the template in gauging attitudes, such as whether the polycentricity of environmental decision making is seen as a particular challenge in the classroom.

Although conscious even at that stage of the amount of environmental law teaching beyond law schools, we limited our enquiry to undergraduate law teachers, from whom – albeit after some chasing and cajoling and rather longer than we anticipated – we had a tremendous (83%) response rate with 44 responses in total and only nine institutions that might have participated not responding to the survey.About two thirds of responses were received by e-mail, which greatly helped the circulation of responses amongst the team, and on the whole we felt that e-mailing the questionnaire (hard copies were sent if requested) was successful. Our one reservation was that it might have been better if the survey had been sent from UKCLE rather than the survey team; this might have helped to explain the purposes of the survey from a UKCLE perspective and to remove any suspicions that the survey was a market testing exercise on behalf of those members of the survey team with textbook interests!

We followed the questionnaire with a 12 semi-structured interviews, selecting respondents partly on the basis of interesting looking courses and partly on evidence of innovative teaching techniques. The interviews gathered qualitative information about environmental law courses and teaching experience. In particular, the interviews aimed to identify successful and innovative course content and teaching practice, and the factors that facilitated or constrained such teaching.

Finally, through the Society of Legal Scholars’ Environmental Law Subject Section, we held a workshop at Birkbeck College, not merely to disseminate our findings, but also to allow for further qualitative input into the survey. A second session was held at the Society’s annual conference in September 2002.

Summary of findings

Our survey also went beyond the UKCLE template in looking at the subject’s popularity. We found slightly more courses with declining than increasing numbers, at least compared to a peak of interest in the mid-1990s. The difficulties of measuring trends other than in very general terms are considerable, however environmental law seems to be increasing in popularity amongst non-law students while possibly becoming less attractive within law schools.

Quite why there is this divergence, and the significance of its extent, remain speculative, although the ability of environmental science or management students to deal with diverse disciplines, or simply competition from law courses seen as more commercially relevant, are possible explanations. Whatever the reasons, over a third of courses are taught (with general enthusiasm) to combined groups of law and non-law students, and there is every indication that the subject is also taught to a wide variety of non-lawyers away from the law school, for example through service teaching. All of this suggests that environmental law may be an ideal subject to explore different dimensions of teaching law to non-lawyers more generally.

Turning to the other side of the classroom, it was notable that even where class sizes were large, the typical teacher was a sole teacher. This had perceived advantages in areas such as autonomy of course content and administration, but also drawbacks, including less scope for ideas-bouncing and less drive to innovate. For example, in teaching and assessment methods, formal and practical autonomy was, paradoxically, not generally accompanied by innovative freedom, and there was greater use of traditional methods (lectures, seminars and tutorials) than might have been expected. (Advice to future surveyors: distinguish ‘seminars’ and ‘tutorials’ by student numbers and don’t expect a common understanding, especially between new and old universities!) But another factor may be that the sole teacher is, like our Dr Goodtree, also likely to be teaching a further two (mostly core) subjects, with the obvious demands on time and cross-subject plate-spinning.

Where less conventional learning and teaching techniques were used, many teachers commented favourably about their use, for example using group and project work to enliven some of the drier, more regulatory aspects to the subject. However, judging solely by trends in student numbers, the more ‘popular’ courses probably tended to cluster towards the lecture-based end of the spectrum. Although we didn’t find hostility per se to innovation, the qualitative interviews supported the view that students preferred lectures to innovation and that teachers often didn’t think the game was worth the candle. That said, non-law students seemed more responsive to a diverse range of teaching methods than law students.

It appears to be even more difficult to break with tradition when choosing methods of assessment. Exams using a combination of essays and problems, usually combined with one or two coursework essays, were easily the most dominant forms of assessment. (Subsequent surveys might consider looking at innovation or variety within assessment methods; with environmental law, often seen as a heavily regulatory subject, questions about the extent and value of open book or take-home exams would, with hindsight, have been revealing.) The cumulative challenges of the subject, however, suggest the need for assessment methods that some students might consider to be relatively onerous. Yet courses using innovative teaching methods often retained traditional assessments, and it was not uncommon to wonder, for example, why students who had completed a challenging group exercise assessing the workings of a complex regulatory regime, or a role play simulating a multi-party environmental dispute, also had to be examined. Is this an area where less is more? Or at least would a more fruitful approach not be to structure such exercises so that a greater range of skills was assessed in situ?

As to the use of electronic resources, we found extensive use of datasets and the Web, but relatively slim and sporadic use beyond this of sources such as video. Only four courses currently use virtual learning environments, although others were in gestation and are likely to be introduced in the forthcoming academic year. Here, the key variable was institutional support and personal enthusiasm rather than the triumph of youth over experience!

Environmental law teachers

The ‘typical’ environmental law teacher:

  • is relatively new to teaching (ie began within the last eight years)
  • teaches a relatively new course (a course started within the last eight years) (see figure 1)
  • is responsible for starting the course, and therefore has most likely had considerable autonomy in selecting the course content and structure
  • is responsible for teaching the subject on their own (55% of courses are taught by single teachers; courses taught by two teachers (21%) make up the next largest group)
  • teaches two other subjects and is most likely to teach one out of Property, Public, Tort/Delict, EC or Legal Systems

No other ‘typical’ characteristics of teachers arose out of the responses to the questionnaire. There was an essentially equal gender division and seemingly no significant distinction to be drawn between teachers at ‘old’ or ‘new’ universities (though the response rate was higher from old universities).

Environmental law courses

We asked respondents to tell us about their ‘main environmental law course’, and the responses covered a fairly diverse range of courses. While courses on International/Transnational or European Environmental Law appeared significantly different in content from the ‘typical’ courses, ‘environmental law’ courses may in practice pay as much attention to policy as those courses in ‘environmental law and policy’.

Despite the evolution of environmental law from, in particular, planning law, this lineage no longer dictates course content. While some courses called environmental law featured major elements of planning law, other courses featured planning as a relatively small illustrative component while others did not feature planning law at all.

The bulk of environmental law courses began between 1992 and 1995, with ‘twin peaks’ in 1993 and 1995. The start dates of the courses corresponded largely to the teacher’s start date at the institution and the teacher’s start date of teaching the subject generally (see figure 1). This might suggest that the person was recruited to teach the subject, but there is more evidence suggesting that personal interest in the subject triggered the offering of an option on the law degree. We also found examples where courses were taken over by existing colleagues, suggesting departmental support for the subject as a teaching area.

Figure 1: start dates for environmental law teachers and courses

There are common characteristics to courses. These are that courses are:

  • titled ‘environmental law’
  • optional (at least on undergraduate LLB, BA or Bachelor of Civil Law programmes)
  • approximately seven/eight years old
  • taught to a large group (more than 25 students) (see figure 2)
  • taught predominantly to final year law students (see figure 3)
  • taught without insistence (67% of courses) on pre-requisite courses. In the 33% of courses that do require pre-requisites, these are: introduction to law (5), tort/delict/obligations (5), EC law (3), public law/constitutional & administrative law (3), students to pass Level 1 and 2 courses (2), property law (1).

As the need for prior knowledge of a wide range of law subjects was identified as a significant challenge when teaching environmental law, this last mentioned figure appears surprising.

Figure 2: class size

There are also other characteristics that, whilst not ‘typical’, are nevertheless notable:

  • a significant number of law courses (37%) include non-lawyers within their students
  • environmental law is offered on a significant number of non-law degree programmes

In interview there was general enthusiasm for teaching mixed groups, and in only one instance were separate courses taught to law and non-law students. Arguably, the extent of these ‘notable’ characteristics may not be sufficiently well recognised, either within the subject or within law schools. Our findings suggest that there should be greater recognition of the extent of the co-teaching of law and non-law students and the intermingling of courses and students.

Other notable features were:

  • 50% of courses, for various reasons, not being offered every year (reasons include insufficient numbers, study or maternity leave, other demands on teaching time, or simply offered only every second year)
  • little identifiably ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Northern Irish’ or even ‘English’ environmental law, though English law was more likely to be referred to in non-English courses than vice versa
  • a fairly even split between courses run either over an academic year or over two semesters (51%) and those run over one semester (46%)

Figure 3: stage at which courses are offered

Trends in student numbers (see figure 4) suggest that total numbers are broadly stable. However, interviews suggested that some respondents used a generous time horizon and hence significant increases followed by significant decreases may have been recorded as ‘about the same’, when the more recent trend is downward. Overall, the picture is more pessimistic than optimistic, explained by various factors including:

  • the greater availability of other (optional) courses
  • the perception of environmental law as a difficult subject (linked in part to the choice of assessment methods used to address some of the challenges of the subject)
  • the topicality of the subject (and of environmentalism generally)

Figure 4: trends in student numbers

The challenges of teaching environmental law

Dealing with student idealism and cynicism was not a major concern to our respondents. In contrast, all the other challenges posited clearly were. The biggest challenges for environmental law teachers were, in descending order of significance, the rapid pace of change in law and policy, the selection of the appropriate course content, the interdisciplinary dimension to the subject and its polycentric nature.

None of the challenges presented were considered particularly unique to environmental law. Teaching environmental law may, however, be exceptional in the number of challenges it presents and it may be the cumulative nature of the challenges which poses the biggest challenge for teachers.

Course content

The most predominant topics in environmental law, found in at least half of all courses, are:

  • EC environmental law (32)
  • integrated pollution prevention and control (30)
  • principles of environmental law (for example precautionary principle, sustainable development) (30)
  • pollution of controlled waters (29)
  • environmental impact assessment (28)
  • waste management (27)
  • enforcement of environmental law (27)
  • private law (nuisance etc) (25)
  • town and country planning (25)
  • the regulation of environmental protection (for example use of standards, differing legal and other instruments) (24)
  • international environmental law (23)
  • nature conservation (22)
  • contaminated land (21)
  • access to justice (20)

A range of further subjects are not uncommon in environmental law courses, but not found in the majority of courses:

  • air pollution (19)
  • human rights and the environment (16)
  • access to environmental information (14)
  • countryside protection (11)
  • environmental ethics (11)
  • governmental and non-governmental institutions and organisations (10)
  • noise (10)
  • statutory nuisance (10)

Further topics can be considered unusual in terms of coverage in environmental law. These are:

  • environmental politics (6)
  • animal welfare law (5)
  • comparative environmental law (5)
  • environmental economics (5)
  • environmental justice (4)
  • disposal of trade effluent to sewers (3)
  • protection of the cultural heritage (3)

Many respondents teach certain topics as integral parts of their courses. The most common of these are EC environmental law (11), principles of environmental law (10) and the regulation of environmental protection (9). These subjects, therefore, may be particularly suitable for teaching thematically across the course. Of 28 different themes that were specifically identified, the most popular were:

  • climate change (combined with air pollution) (5)
  • sustainable development (3)
  • trade and the environment (3)

Over time, many respondents have reduced the number of topics they cover to encourage more in-depth, interdisciplinary or contextual study. While many interviewees would, in an ideal world, wish to teach a broader range of sectoral topics, the pedagogic demerits of doing so tend to be quite widely appreciated.

Factors influencing course content

Most of the factors included in this part of the survey seem to influence course content. The most influential factors, in descending order of significance, are:

  • the length of course
  • the integration of topics into the syllabus
  • the type of student
  • personal interest
  • the nature of the course and
  • the availability of teaching and learning resources

In contrast, the least significant factors were the requirements of professional bodies and the relevance of content to practice.

Teaching and learning

Teachers often have a wide discretion in their selection of teaching and learning methods (TLMs), but this is often confined by departmental norms or traditions. There is more ambivalence about lecturing than about any other TLM; teachers use lectures for a range of purposes, often to shape their course and steer students towards their learning objectives, or to supplement or deviate from textbook coverage. With only one exception, all teachers value discursive methods of teaching and learning.

Figure 5: teaching and learning methods used

Group and project work may be more commonplace in environmental law than in other subjects, and hence perceived as less innovative. It may have particular value in enlivening some of the drier, more regulatory aspects to environmental law, but less able students may struggle with this method and need more direction than might be appropriate in terms of skills development.

Certain TLMs – notably clinical practice and progress files – do not seem to be used, though they may be particularly useful in relation to environmental law, and there seems to be a clear preponderance of subject-centred over transferable skills.

Judged according to trends in student numbers, the more ‘successful’ courses probably tend to cluster towards the lecture-based end of the TLM spectrum. Innovative courses are not merely demanding on resources initially but, because they tend not to be used for whole courses, may detrimentally divert students from a clear understanding of the structure of a course and engagement with the subject.

Generally the TLMs used do not vary if law and non-law students are taught together, and experience of teaching mixed groups is generally very positive. Law and non-law students may, however, differ in the extent to which they are receptive to more innovative or diversely taught courses. Some respondents speculated that law students may be more conservative in orientation and thus also in their choice of course, or perhaps because non-law students have greater prior exposure to teaching methods other than lectures and seminars and are therefore more amenable to what law teachers might regard as innovation.

Courses which use a mix of methods, especially innovative methods, are not necessarily the most successful in terms of increasing students numbers. This may link to the finding elsewhere about the difficulties associated with courses perceived as being overloaded in terms of assessment methods.

Electronic resources

Nearly all respondents used electronic resources to some extent. The uses that predominate are datasets such as Westlaw and, in particular, use of the Web. (Responses for Web and datasets includes one response that students were free to consult any available electronic resources, and one response noting that Iolis was also used for non-law students and for teaching tort.

The Web is widely seen as a considerable boon to environmental law teaching, both because of the accessibility of primary materials at national, EC and international levels, and for the light it can shed on the workings of key institutional actors. We found no adverse comment on the value of the Web to teaching and learning. A couple of courses assign directed Web browsing as an exercise to be conducted before the first class.

The next most frequently used resource was video. Video was used to communicate information both about environmental issues and about ‘environmental law in action’. One course used video to pass experience of class simulations down from one cohort of students to their successors.

Only four undergraduate courses currently use virtual learning environments (VLEs). Experience suggests that, given adequate Web support, simulations using a VLE can be a very successful component of courses, but reservations were expressed about teaching a whole course in this way because of the possible limitations on covering key issues and skills. Some teachers no longer use VLEs.

A number of courses use e-mail or Web-based discussion space and commented very favourably on this.

Figure 6: electronic resources used

There appears to be no significantly greater preference for, or use of, e-resources such as VLEs and ‘chat space’ amongst younger teachers; the most likely variables seemed to be institutional support for innovation and provision of facilities, and personal enthusiasm.


Subject to departmental norms, teachers generally have freedom to choose assessment methods. Most often, any formal constraint was in favour of a preponderance of assessment by examination. The most used assessment methods are discursive essays and problem questions in exams, and coursework essays (see figure 7).

While there is a general correspondence between the use of discursive essays as coursework and also in exams, there is significantly less resort to coursework problem questions compared to their use in exams. There was relatively minor use of less traditional methods, such as reflective reports or assessed group work. There was no use of certain methods, notably progress files and e-based assessment.

There appears to be no discernable difference in performance between law and non-law students. There are no examples of different assessment methods being used for law and non-law students studying exactly the same course, but one example where law and non-law students are taught, and assessed, separately.

Figure 7: assessment methods used

Most frequently, courses used two or three assessment methods, with a lesser number of courses using four methods and lesser still using five methods (see figure 8). A few courses use only one assessment method, and no course uses more than five methods. (The one method category includes one course where, apparently, anything goes (being listed as a single ‘other’ method). The five category includes all methods used by a course that mixes assessment methods from year to year.)

There is no indication that a greater range of assessment methods is associated with innovation, and some suggestion that a greater spread of methods correlates with courses experiencing declining student numbers (or indeed with courses that no longer run).

The teaching and learning methods used in order to meet some of the challenges of environmental law may require assessment methods considered relatively onerous by students.

There is no evidence that consistent use of the same methods has any appreciable effect on student numbers, but some limited evidence that frequently varying assessment methods is associated with declining numbers. But it is not clear whether assessment changes are made to halt declining numbers and unpopularity of a course more generally, rather than students steering away from courses because the assessment method changes frequently.

Some courses exhibit a fair degree of correspondence between the use of transferable skills and the weight given in the assessment to such methods. In most courses, however, skills were either under-assessed in relation to their teaching time reliance or not assessed at all.

Figure 8: number of assessment methods per course

Innovative or non-traditional assessment methods always appear tied to innovation in teaching and learning. But this may be because we did not search in sufficient detail for innovation within assessment methods, for example the use of open book or take-home exams.

Course evaluation

The most popular method of evaluating courses was the student questionnaire. 35 respondents used questionnaires and 57% of these found them more than a merely ‘helpful’ way of evaluating their courses. 35 respondents used external examiners’ reports as a method of evaluating courses, with 50% finding these an essential method of evaluation. Peer review within the law department was used by 26 respondents, with 42% finding these essential. Very few alternative methods were adopted widely, with peer review outside the department being used by six respondents; student interviews (nine respondents); and peer review by environmental law tutors (four respondents). One respondent – bravely – publishes an unedited version of the previous years class review documentation in the course guide.

Where now?

Where does the survey go from here? The following ideas might be useful:

  • a dedicated e-mail list (akin, perhaps, to the US ‘envlawprofs’ list which is heavily used) or webspace
  • a teaching and learning network in environmental law (this might take the form of a standing conference of teachers, and provide everything from contact avenues in relation to the provision of external examiners to co-ordinating major subject-specific teaching and learning initiatives). A teaching network in environmental law may be particularly valuable at a time of possibly radical developments in teaching delivery.
  • greater links with existing bodies (for example to redress the imbalance of interest in teaching and learning within bodies such as the UK Environmental Law Association)

One of the most encouraging aspects of the work was the number of respondents, interviewees and workshop participants who thought the survey process in itself had real reflective value. This alone is hugely satisfying, and we hope our findings might also be disseminated amongst a wide array of teachers in environmental and cognate disciplines, since Sue (and maybe Bob too) will not be studying for a law degree.

Last Modified: 6 July 2010