50 years of assessment in legal education – liveblog, pm

by Paul Maharg on 30/01/2015

Post-lunch now, and Penny English, Anglia Ruskin U first up, on ‘Using posters as a means of summative assessment’.  She defined it from Handron 1994 as ‘an experiential learning activity that stimulates curiosity and interest, encourages exploration and integration of concepts and provides students with a novel way of demonstrating understanding.’  As she pointed out, the tightness of the format forces clarity and precision.  Bit like Twitter?  She cited the benefits as being the following: engaging and satisfying; develops comms skills; works well as a group exercise; requires selection, synthesis and evaluation of information; it’s novel and challenging; and it’s hard to plagiarise.  Downsides: novel, so students need very clear guidance on expectations; initial resistance; can lead to focus on visual impact rather than content; expense (of printing a poster).  She showed some good posters, on the subject of International Law and the use of white phosphorus as a weapon, and cluster munitions.

Rory O’Boyle (Northumbria U) and Frieda Grealy (Law Soc of Ireland) next, on ‘Ethics in Practice: The use of SCs’ methodology to teach and assess professional ethics and communications skills’.  The study was part of the Certificate in Legal Ethics and Lawyering Skills.  The aim of the project was to teach a substantive topic – solicitors’ regulation and complaints procedures, and to highlight issues of professional responsibility and ethics.  This, as Freda said, is usually taught in a narrow defensive way, and based on flawed assumption of inherent values, and is a test of moral courage and commitment.  It reinforces the values of the profession and the Society.  Socialisation occurs, for legal trainees, in the firm, where there are communities of practice that affect morals and ethics.  Rory pointed out how important comms skills are.  They drafted the scenario — ethical issues were based on actual ethical experiences of solicitors.  There was a client interview role play, instantaneous formative feedback and debrief, a client letter, reinforcing learning, and assessment of their overall performance. Multi-layered.  Students loved it.  Great presentation.  Good to see them both again, and to see SCs being developed by the Law Society of Ireland.

Lucy Yeatman and Sarah Crofts, U of Greenwich, on ‘Assessing research skills’.  As they point out, LETR recommended adopting the BIALL Legal Information Literacy Statement.  They described what they did at Greenwich.  eg staff hand out coursework brief, then a library seminar, then students begin assessment preparation record (APR), then interim feedback on APR, then students hand in coursework plus the completed APR and research certificate.  They have us their assessment criteria, that were incorporated into the Library assessment.  The assessment was neatly tied together, in a core subject of the curriculum.  Their message: you can’t assess research skills in an exam.  It’s about encouraging the students to take responsibility for their own learning.  Can be assessed in different ways: short answer tests, reflective logs, annotated bibliographies, clinical work, pbl, opinion writing, moots, etc.  Good presentation, sound, perceptive points on teaching & learning legal research.

Lynn Cherril-Teesdale, Oaklands College, on ‘A reflection on teaching law to non-A level law students: assessing law units on (some) vocational courses or, what the majority of FE students actually do’.  Lots of data on FE Colleges.  Vocational law is taught by non-lawyers, eg Hearlth and Safety law for construction student is taught by construction lecturers.

Nick Johnson now.  He’s the Former Rector ILPD Rwanda, talking on ‘Assessing Work based learning with judges – Ex Africa semper aliquid novi’.  Out of Africa, always new things — from Pliny the Elder?  He started by saying, importantly, that globalisation is also about law schools that are non-common law, not white, and in the developing world.  He made a good point that for students who start their careers, the erosion of legal categories is critical.  He spoke of the recovery of law after the genocide, and the extraordinary story that that is.  He described a curriculum that was part CL, part civilian.  There’s a transition from French to English; the legal tradition is civilian in origin; there’s initial professional training of lawyers, judges and prosecutors together.  The backlog of qualification was extreme.  Legal education was made compulsory for all three categories.  There was assessment of work based learning and a postgrad diploma in legal practice.  Compulsory from 2013 and three years for experienced practitioners to complete.  He refocussed on to legal skills with pathways for each profession.  There were four modes of delivery with common learning outcomes.  In the curriculum, formal learning was by lecturer, WBL by students, and mentoring of students on WBL.  There was a minimum level of professional experience stated.  Nick said that was essential.  In terms of learning outcomes, there was 50/50 formal learning and WBL – a conversion of traditional LOs to work based tasks.  He designed a learning log for each of the three categories of students — judges, lawyers, prosecutors.  Mentors were important.  So too was authenticity and situated learning.  Greater emphasis on result than process.  Very interesting paper.

Chris Maguire, Ishan Kolhatkar, Damian Smith & James Welsh, BPP Law School, on ‘Mind the gap: the limitations of assessment as an assurance of competence’.  Interesting question to start with: what’s a key question we ask now that we didn’t ask before 2000?  A: ‘where are you?’  The place of mobile comms.  Chris is worried about the place of knowledge, and how we assess it, and how our practices are changing.  Eg what is assessed is not intended to have been assessed, and that goes for teaching & learning as well.  Began by looking at the gap between undergrad and p/g vocational assessment.  How can assessments bridge the gap?  And can they satisfy the needs of students who are not going to go into the profession. How about aptitude tests, based on critical reasoning?  Now, apparently, according to the speakers, regulators are moving towards knowledge tests (sounds a bit like part of the US Bar Exam?  And sure, this doesn’t sound like a particularly good way of identifying good barristers, but of course since numbers are the game, it isn’t really meant to be, is it.).  Final speaker spoke of legal skills + pro bono clinic in LPC, and integration with knowledge, APL (accreditation of prior learning) should be part of the mix, too.

Final session of the day — Chris Hull, St Mary’s College University, on ‘Viva voce as an assessment method in undergraduate legal education’.  Not the norm in legal education.  His vivas can last 30 mins.  The rationale for: authentic assessment; they probe knowledge; promote a deep approach to learning; student learning styles; academic integrity.  There are concerns with: anxiety, impairments, anonymity, bias, assessment is time consuming, the novelty of the assessment, and recording of the viva assessment.  Other considerations included assessment design; the practicalities involved, the reliability and equity of the assessment; marking issues and responsibilities; and the guidance given to students and the preparation of students by students themselves and by staff for the assessment. From the questionnaire feedback (at last, someone gives us some stats, even if only aggregated percentages), some results were mixed, but there were great results too especially on transferable skills and depth of knowledge.  Chris thinks it a viable form of assessment design.  Guidance and practice is key for staff.  The approach develops a deeper approach to learning and develops additional skills, and in his opinion (and of many of his students) it is a viable alternative to written work.


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