SLS workshops: Problem-based learning workshop @ York University Law School

by Paul Maharg on 10/05/2017

At last year’s SLS conference in St Catherine’s College, Oxford Caroline Strevens (Legal Education section convenor) and I discussed having a number of workshops on innovative topics in legal education that bridged the gap between one conference and the next.  Nigel Duncan joined us, then Scott Slorach, and before we knew it, we had a number of workshops planned – wellbeing in legal education, problem-based learning, and simulated clients.  Nigel has co-organised and hosted the first and is hosting the third at his centre in City University Law School, which is also hosted with PEARL.  Scott is hosting the PBL session, today, here at York – the natural home of PBL in English legal education.  I’m speaking on our innovative online PBL JD in Australian law, at ANU, and I’ll be trying to liveblog the day as well.

First up, Ben Fitzpatrick, outlining the context of PBL learning at York, emphasising the fundamental move from a transmissive to an active form of learning.  He gave us graphics of students working together, quite a powerful reminder of the collaborative nature of the method, and observed how York Law School (YLS) managed to converge what is largely treated as nominally discrete modules in legal education.  He showed how the curriculum is being refreshed to enhance this process.  Scenario design was intriguing – scenarios or ‘triggers’ as we call them at ANU, were designed as connective, messy/authentic, engaging requiring collaboration, open-ended.  That was certainly our experience at ANU.  It’s quite a different process from the way that scenarios / hypotheticals are designed for conventional seminars.  Ben described how we was stretching out the Foundation experience to emphasises collaborative skills, PBL skills and basic legal concepts.  He outlined three learning points from the re-design process:

  1. Students’ application of the law learned via scenarios needed to be improved
  2. Students’ engagement with critical theory and critique of normative positions (this is in effect a reflection on how staff design scenarios)
  3. Student orientation — do students really know where they’re going?  Lack of direction affects cognitive skills, after all.

So Foundations in Law 1 is YLS’s design solution to the above issues.  Looks very interesting, and having discussed it with Scott I think his plan will work really well.

Next, me, on the PBL online JD at ANU.  Slides at the usual place, at the Slides tab above, and at Slideshare.  I’ve blogged about this topic before, at this post.

Herco Fonteijn is up next, on the subject of PBL in Maastricht.  He quoted John Seely Brown, ASU Commencement Speech, 2015: ‘You are living in a white water world’ where you is the canoeist.  He went on to reference the role of AI, McKinsey predictions about automation of work between 2035-70 (about half), future work skills 2020, etc.  The PBL model is active, constructivist.  If you don’t maintain PBL you drift into failure — eg new staff, poorly trained, disciplinary silos recur, segregated educationalists, there are monodisciplinary toy, not authentic, problems, loss of interdependence, limited student autonomy, no alignment, with students driven excessively by assessments, enhancement of Gen Me, cheating (creating cheat sheets for PBL).  He cited the approach of the U of Aalborg, in creating employable, global citizens, initiatives driven initially by Marxist educationalists.  Herco referenced Edlab at the Maastricht University Institute for Education Innovation.

Herco then described self-supervised PBL groups.  Self-determination theory is the core idea — autonomy, competence and relatedness.  But tutor can be a hindrance to the idea, so exit the tutors.  In a module on cog psych, 7 weeks, 10 group meetings comprising 22 PBL groups who were used to having teaching staff or senior students tutoring them, the groups first formed a charter.  This:

  • facilitates team function
  • helps students get to know strengths/weaknesses
  • depends upon dividing roles – team leader, chair etc.
  • gave students opportunity to discuss timetable
  • helped students discuss expectations, set norms for group work.

The students used mind-mapping supports — elaboration, reduction, coherence, metacognition.  Students felt comfortable doing what they were doing.  Pass/fail rates were identical, as was exam score.  Group session durations were identical, as was perceived exam difficulty, and as was student feedback.  The likes outnumbered the dislikes (and were often the same issue, eg ‘mind maps take time to develop’ and ‘mind maps really help’).  Students rated quality of peer contributions in earlier PBL courses, and in the self-supervised PBL course.  No difference in safety, satisfaction, motivation.  Team cohesion was stronger, and demotivation was less; but students reflected less.  The risk that students in peer-led tutorials may teach and inform rather than guide learning was not reflected in the results.  Typically male students liked self-supervised PBL more than female, and 25% students didn’t like it — they were the students who did worse in the exam.  Groups, of course, do differ, in their forms of learning and their results.  In summary, some additional support was provided, eg online chat during group sessions.  Students adapted quickly, 70% wanted self-supervised groups more often, and there was no change in academic results.  Management liked it — but probably for the wrong reasons.  Caveats included being aware that problems may need tweaking, and the reflection on teamwork; and teacher identity was affected (obviously) by the tutorless environment.

He described the experience of online PBL – many of the issues were the ones we faced at ANU, but their research and implementations were much more substantial and fairly massive in size — global Masters programmes.  Significantly no online tools are pushed; but digital footprint fuels reflection, and students are told they must leave footprints.  There was radical reciprocity, in terms of learning about cultures and other cultures.

Herco finished by describing the UM MOOC project, in which staff gained experience in splicing PBL and MOOCs.  This was an activity in organisational learning, for staff.  I observed this MOOC — very interesting experience, over  weeks with weekly submissions, with Hang-outs.  Around 3,000 started, 264 finished in 49 groups.  Excellent session by Herco.  Lots of research results, lots of interesting ideas clustered around approaches to PBL.

Next session is more interactive, so maybe less opportunity for blogging…

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