Issues in legal education

The first set of parallel sessions in the third Legal Education Symposium covered a wide range of fascinating topics, including experiential learning, assessment, and interdisciplinary law degrees.

The session on Experiential Learning was chaired by Dr Suzanne Kingston of University College Dublin. Edward Phillips, Department of Law, University of Greenwich spoke about Legal Method and Legal Reflection: Experiential Learning in the Law School. He showed how concrete experience can be put at the heart of the law school curriculum, and explained how Greenwich has moved away from an excessively formalistic syllabus and instead implemented experiential elements into its undergraduate course. This is especially so in a re-cast first year, which focuses not (just) on the lecturers’ teaching but (especially) upon the students’ learning. Recalling many of the issues raised by Avrom Sherr and Raphael King in the first plenary session, his focus was on flexible delivery of the various skills and methodologies students and lawyers need, rather than on the delivery of substantive courses. Dr Yvonne Daly and Dr Noelle Higgins (both of Dublin City University) picked up the experiential baton. In their (impressively turn-and-turn-about, tag-team) presentation on Simulating the Law: Undergraduate and Postgraduate Experiences, they reported on the success of the integration of a mock criminal trial into an undergraduate Criminal law course and of an ICJ trial into a postgraduate course. Although Law School moot court programmes have their critics (including, I was surprised to learn, the great AK, who thinks that it doesn’t work and takes valuable time away from substantive legal subjects) Drs Daly and Higgins and their students all felt that it was a thoroughly positive and exciting experience. It inculcated confidence and an appreciation of teamwork, allowed students to became more comfortable with legal terms, and it taught the practical mooting skills of research and advocacy, time management and presentation. The students learned the reality of the law in action, and the feedback showed the students got a lot out of it. It was time-consuming for the lecturers, but it was rewarding and worthwhile for everyone concerned, and they concluded by arguing that programmes like this should have a central place in Irish law schools’ curricula. Finally, Mary Catherine Lucey (University College Dublin) presented on Virtual Experience Learning, looking at new ways in which she has tried teaching competition law; and she argued for greater virtual learning in Irish law schools. In particular, picking-up the real-world examples given by Daly and Higgins, she showed how such learning could be deepend by electronic means. She considered two Virtual Learning Environments: QUT Law School‘s Virtual Placement programme and JISC‘s SIMPLE (SIMulated Professional Learning Environment) programme (and she referred to Cyberdam as well) (Paul Maharg also has an interesting report about SIMPLE in action here).

The session on Assessment Techniques & Feedback was chaired by Prof Imelda Maher of the School of Law, University College Dublin. Dr Niamh Howlin, of the School of Law, Queens University Belfast, considered three variations on the traditional exam: open-book exams, open-notes exams and take-home exams. Building on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, she showed that the traditional assessment methods do not get us much beyond the lower levels of Bloom’s pyramid, and argued strongly that law schools (and their students!) should be open to more innovative methods of assessment. David Jennings, of the Centre For Teaching & Learning, University College Dublin (who wins the competition for the best slides of the day), considered some of the issues in formulating and compiling effective feedback, in particular it addresses the concept of “feed forward”. He set up seven principles of feedback, and what would we do without them, and he argued that the most important aspect of the feedback loop was feedforward: the opportunity for students and evaluators to respond and engage with comments. And John O’Dowd, of the School of Law, University College Dublin, demonstrated such an approach in practice, explained his experience of getting and giving electronic feedback to students and the expectations and problems encountered.

And the session on Teaching Foreign Legal Systems was chaired by Dr Marie-Luce Paris-Dobozy, of the School of Law, University College Dublin (where does she get her energy? she co-organised the symposium, she delivered a plenary paper this morning, and now she’s picking up on the theme of her paper in this session). Dr Frédéric Roland and Dr Greta Bosch, both of the School of Law, University of Exeter, spoke about their experiences of teaching, respectively, French and German law in Exeter’s well-established and successful dual degrees. Dual qualification law degree programmes are an established feature of British University education, but whilst French-based courses are relatively common now, studying English Law and German Law and achieving a German Law qualification as well as an LLB, on a four year law programme based in the UK, is a rarity. Frédéric and Greta both examined how teaching foreign law in a British University raises particular cultural, intellectual and pedagogic issues. They pointed out that the selection of students was an important part of the success of the programmes (a stage precluded in Ireland by the CAO); they demonstrated that small groups are necessary for these kinds of degrees; and they stressed the importance of teaching the foreign subjects in the foreign language.

All of the sessions demonstrated the importance of Law Schools not only being open to these kinds of developments but also being supportive of them. It is only in this way that we can properly achieve our teaching mission.