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Playing safe: learning and teaching in undergraduate law

UKCLE learning and teaching support project

This research project, conducted by Karen Clegg (then UKCLE Education Developer) in 2004, provides an insight into learning and teaching issues in five UK law schools. Download the final report at the bottom of the page (RTF file, 58 pages, 520 KB).


The quality of provision of undergraduate legal education has been the focus of a number of studies. In contributing to the debate about the direction of legal education this small scale project seeks to provide a platform for the beliefs, perceptions and values held by law teachers and students about the undergraduate experience.

The aim of the project was to explore the perceptions and interpretations made by law teachers of their role in facilitating learning and in responding to the wider demands of society, quality assurance and professional bodies.

The project involved five law departments in universities located in Wales (2), Northern Ireland (1) and England (2). (Scotland was not covered under the conditions of the funding.) Each of the five departments can be seen as a case study of learning, teaching and assessment practices, illuminating the lived experiences of key stakeholders in undergraduate law.

Specific research aims were to:

  • explore and understand the context in which law is taught in each department
  • explore the reasons of law teachers for identifying particular strengths/weaknesses and what this indicates about their perceptions of effective learning and teaching in law
  • identify how UKCLE can work with the departments to support their needs and enable the achievement of more effective learning and teaching practices

The final report is divided into seven sections:

  1. background to the research
  2. context and values in law teaching
  3. learning and teaching methods
  4. assessment and feedback
  5. the use of ICT in law teaching
  6. accountability, resources and challenges
  7. conclusion

The key findings and conclusions, revisiting the research aims and offering tentative recommendations for practice, are given below.

Key findings

Learning and teaching

  • The pedagogic and professional values held by staff impact significantly upon teaching. There seems to be greater consistency about learning, teaching and assessment methods in departments where there is evidence of strong teamwork and collegiality amongst staff. Inculcating a culture where pedagogy is an everyday topic of conversation is revealed to be a significant factor to student and staff satisfaction. There is consistent evidence from all the institutions to suggest that traditional tutorial, seminar and lecture formats dominate in law teaching. In some cases credible explanations are given for this approach, ie lectures are perceived to be a sensible way of communicating basic legal facts to student numbers exceeding 200. However, when exploring with staff how analysis, evaluation and reflection are developed the data reveals a lack of alignment between intended learning outcomes, teaching and assessment methods.
  • There is evidence of a range of teaching methods. In particular, specialist non-compulsory (for the qualifying law degree) options such as e-commerce and media law offer a wide variety of approaches, including small group work, simulated ‘client based’ work, opportunities to work within the legal community and Web-based learning.
  • Departmental identify is formed partly as a result of the labels imposed upon the individual department by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and teaching quality league tables. In addition, it draws strength from the status derived from associations with professional bodies, international reputation and the perceived ability of the student body derived from entrance qualifications. All of these factors support (or erode) teacher confidence and affect the way the department positions itself in the legal education community. Departments that make a conscious decision to target a particular student group or focus on a particular agenda, such as employability, appear to be more confident to deliver quality education than those which perceive themselves as victims of a plethora of discipline specific and government agendas.
  • As might be expected, approaches to learning and teaching vary according to the teachers’ perception of student ability. Concepts of ‘independent learning’ are espoused in all departments, but in some departments there is very little evidence of this reflected in teaching methods. Those students perceived by teachers to be academically weak are given more support and less opportunity to engage in research. Ironically these mechanisms may induce strategic approaches to learning and encourage dependency.
  • The data suggests that staff at older universities are more likely to perceive themselves as ‘researchers who teach’, as opposed to post 1992 institutions, where some staff view themselves primarily as teachers who may or may not engage in research. For this reason the concept of ‘research based teaching’ is fuzzy, and it is difficult to identify different approaches. More telling are the descriptions given about the qualities that make a ‘good law teacher’. Those members of staff who consider themselves primarily as researchers promote their work as a tool to facilitate learning; those who claim to be teachers give more emphasis to meta-cognitive characteristics such as enthusiasm.

Assessment and feedback

  • There is very limited innovation in assessment and a 50:50 split between examinations and coursework. Some departments use student presentations as part of formative assessment, and one school reported using peer assessment. Self assessment had been used in only one school and subsequently abandoned because of scepticism amongst colleagues about the value of the activity.
  • Concerns about authenticity of student work and the fear of plagiarism dominate discussions about assessment methods. Staff are concerned that assessment methods such as group work, project work and portfolios have the potential for student abuse. All departments are required to identify the development of such skills against benchmark statements, but choose to offer them as formative opportunities within tutorials rather than risk collusion.
  • Feedback is offered in a number of ways, including school based proforma, individual comments to students, general feedback to groups in lectures and face-to-face individualised feedback. Teachers across all law departments are very committed to giving feedback and spend considerable amounts of time in this pursuit.

The use of ICT in law teaching

  • There is evidence of increasing use of ICT to support learning, but this is patchy across departments. Software such as Blackboard is available in all the five departments, and there appears to be general goodwill towards developing electronic teaching and assessment resources. There is a small but significant generation differential in use, with younger, newer staff being much more likely to use ICT.
  • Training and resources pose a problem for some departments. In general, the post 1992 universities have newer, higher specification hardware but fewer subscriptions to electronic and paper resources. There is also at least one institution where the student computers are much more sophisticated than those used by teaching staff.

Quality enhancement and accountability

  • There appears to be a tension between the autonomy afforded to individual lecturers about what and how they teach and the need to provide evidence of a consistent strategy on learning and teaching. In the current climate of quality enhancement and the emphasis on explicit learning and teaching strategies there is a danger that messages being conveyed by individual teachers militate against the overall direction of the department and/or institution. Departments that have recently (in the last five years) undergone internal and/or external quality review appear to be better placed to identify a consistent approach to learning, teaching and assessment.
  • Staff development is considered important in all institutions. Teaching commitments and the resources available make attendance at external events very difficult. Not all departments are supported by a central education unit, and even when they are teaching staff have reservations about the quality and usefulness of events offered. In general ICT training is looked upon more favourably than pedagogic training.
  • It would appear that lecturers perceive themselves first and foremost as subject specialists and secondly as teachers, which means that in order to be considered useful staff development activities need to be firmly located in the discipline of law. Furthermore, teachers prefer to work with their colleagues to address curriculum issues and favour activities located within the school.

Challenges

  • Resources were considered a problem for all departments. Two of the departments in pre 1992 universities were fortunate enough to have a law librarian, and the support offered to staff and students in terms of research training was quite significant. In addition, lack of physical resources, such as buildings in need of renovation, was also cited as a problem. This is more significant in the older universities, two of which occupy listed buildings as teaching premises, making modernisation difficult.
  • The heads of department at four of the departments commented on the difficulty of attracting suitably qualified staff in key areas of law. Academic salaries and lifestyle were attributed as the main reasons for this, since the legal professions offer a more attractive lifestyle package. As a result many departments are operating on teachers’ goodwill and commitment. Over time the stress of limited numbers against increasing student numbers is likely to impact upon the quality of teaching.
  • Meeting government targets on recruitment and widening participation was seen as a challenge by all departments. As a discipline, law is significantly over-subscribed, with as many as 50 applications for every place in some departments. The widening participation agenda is therefore interpreted differently in each school, with some choosing to target the local community, others to recruit more international students, and others yet to clearly articulate or embrace a widening participation strategy.
  • Observations on the future of legal education included reservations about the influence of professional bodies over the content of the qualifying law degree and the appropriateness of teaching skills associated with the profession, such as mooting, within the undergraduate law programme. There were also concerns voiced by staff in older universities about the need to preserve a research function as a necessary and integral part of quality teaching.

Conclusion

This report derives from a large volume of qualitative data, which can be used to tell a number of stories about legal education. The narratives of the interviewees are compelling, but what does it tell us about learning and teaching in undergraduate legal education? Using the aims of the research to guide the discussion this section attempts to synthesise the results of the research and to offer recommendations for practice.

Aim: to explore and understand the context in which law is taught in each department investigated

The idea of the ‘typical’ law school is now largely redundant, since each has its own values, context and student body, and these vary enormously across the sector. Furthermore, the individuals working within law schools have their own priorities and values that affect how they teach.

Although each institution has regulations on learning, teaching and assessment, and the professional bodies stipulate requirements for the qualifying law degree, the curriculum remains principally in the hands of heads of department and individual law teachers. It is they who define the methods, approaches and syllabus for learning. All the staff in the study appeared to be committed to the provision of a quality learning experience. Yet despite relative academic freedom the research reveals homogeneity in the use of learning, teaching and assessment methods.

What the data suggests is that those departments who manage the learning and teaching agenda most successfully are those that take stock of their context, student intake and staff expertise and design a curriculum that is fit for purpose. That is, fit for the students that they attract and congruent with the aims and values of the department. One department has made a conscious decision to maximise student employability and to expose students to a range of learning and teaching methods, a variety of modules and offer direction in alternative legal careers. This reflects and celebrates the multi-cultural and diverse socio-economic status of the student intake. Teachers at other departments appear less confident to strike out against traditional teaching and learning methods in fear of the impact upon league tables, student retention and plagiarism.

Perhaps the most striking point in the research is the degree to which departments are able to embrace new ideas, and the willingness to, and support for, experimentation in learning, teaching and assessment. This research and the work of UKCLE more generally aims to share and disseminate ‘good practice’, but ultimately teachers must define their own good practice in relation to their aims. Ideally this needs to be done in consultation with colleagues and requires a willingness to experiment.

A curriculum that respects and embraces the cultural diversity of the student intake can still be achieved within the framework of a departmental and institutional strategy for learning and teaching. A strategy does not negate creativity, it provides a framework for experimentation. What it requires is an honest appraisal of existing practice and a team commitment to quality enhancement. Students need, and more importantly, expect as paying ‘clients’, high quality teaching materials, a range of teaching methods and transparent assessment techniques.

In the context of an audit culture (both nationally and internationally) law schools will be required to show consistency and transparency of learning and teaching mechanisms. Websites and publicity material can be used to articulate the values and specific agenda of particular departments so that students can make informed choices about where and how to study law. For example, those intending to go on to professional practice need to know if they will get an opportunity to take part in mooting competitions. As the students interviewed so clearly articulated this is not always the case.

Alignment between student expectation, educational values and quality teaching is to be encouraged. The profile of the student body in the UK is no longer that of the homogenous, 18 year old, middle class student with A levels. The teaching and assessment methods do not reflect that diversity. The law, it seems, is forever changing but law teaching is not.

Aim: to explore the reasons of law teachers for identifying particular strengths/weaknesses and what this indicates about their perceptions of effective learning and teaching in law

The law teachers in the study had high hopes for their students. Many perceive increased student numbers and an emphasis on transferable skills as a challenge to their teaching, yet others embrace it and identify new ways of working. Exams and individual assessments are seen as strengths because of their apparent rigour, yet often these practices militate against teamwork, problem solving and the development of critical appreciation that law schools claim to be developing in their students.

The research suggests law schools may benefit from sharing ideas and communicating about what works best in particular contexts. As a community of practitioners law teachers would benefit from stepping beyond their own departments and exploring what goes on at the neighbouring institution. An over-emphasis on status and deep rooted snobbery have hitherto prevented this sharing of ideas, yet the research suggests there is much to be learnt from a cross-fertilisation of ideas and comparison of practice between different law schools.

Resources are lacking and many staff continue to work long hours to provide the quality of experience they believe students deserve. The commitment of the teaching profession is admirable and should be rewarded in teaching fellowships and promotion, yet there is still evidence of a hierarchical divide between research and teaching activities. The data reveals that where research and teaching are linked the quality of the learning is enhanced for both the teacher and the learner. What is important is that the two feed into other each – research can benefit from teaching experience, but there is little evidence of this being pursued in the law schools studied.

Aim: to identify how UKCLE can work with the departments to support their needs and enable the achievement of more effective learning and teaching practices

The dissemination of good practice amongst law departments is a theme that runs throughout the research. Teachers want to see examples and case studies of innovative work at other institutions. Conventionally this is achieved through national conferences. Moreover if, as the data and the experience of UKCLE indicates, the problem is time and not enthusiasm in learning and teaching, this traditional mode of dissemination is failing to meet the needs of the legal education community.

What may work better is a combination of dissemination methods, including:

  • bespoke events at departmental level
  • regional events on particular topics, such as quality enhancement and departmental engagement, drawing on the skills and experience of neighbouring law schools
  • events on specific areas, such as peer evaluation, run in collaboration with central education units and subject centres
  • a wealth of material and examples available on websites and on CD-ROMs

Good practice in law teaching?

For those looking for a ‘quick fix’ panacea to learning and teaching in law the final conclusion will offer little comfort; there is no such thing as ‘good practice’ – only practice that works in a particular context. In addition, what works for one group of students might not work with another.

What the research reveals is that quality learning and teaching involves an appreciation of context, of the student body and the institutional ethos, and continual refinement, adaptation and reflection on teaching practices. However, the research has highlighted a need for the sharing of ideas and dissemination of methods across law schools. In that spirit the following list of ideas is offered as examples to prompt discussion:

  • use annotated feedback available on the institutional intranet or school website
  • provide drop-in centres for students who need help with academic work with law teachers available at specific times
  • offer a legal literacy course – this helps students develop basic writing skills (punctuation and grammar) and provides a non-threatening environment in which students new to law can develop an understanding of the requirements of a law degree, legal jargon and terminology
  • use personal development portfolios to enhance communication and feedback between students and teachers. These can be Web and/or paper based and include reflection on performance used in conjunction with a personal tutor system
  • provide opportunities for experiential learning. Offer placements and clinic and make use of links with the local community, offering opportunities for students to undertake placements and work experience.
  • create opportunities for students to undertake research projects


Last Modified: 4 June 2010