Day 2, session 3, UNSW legal education research conference

by Paul Maharg on 05/12/2017

This session is called ‘Writing for Law’.  First up, Philippa Ryan (UTS), on ‘Teaching law students the role of discourse markers’.  To improve their self assessment skills, their academic legal writing and how technology works.  Use natural language processing (NLP) to create an app to show the features of good academic writing. Why teach students about NLP?

Existing scholarship on enhancing learning through self-assessment.  How are law students’ essays assessed?  Used a tool called AWA – Academic Writing Tool, with highlighted text, purple, green and yellow.  Tags include question, position, etc.  Students feedback, neutral.  Reason?  Might not understand grammar.  So explained grammar to students.  Didn’t work too well.  Second intervention was teaching students the app’s discourse markers.  Discourse markers are procedural in text – however, furthermore, in the next three examples, in summary etc.  Break through was when she gave students a text with the discourse markers stripped out and asked them to put them back in.  Feedback was good.   Conclusions?  To improve self-assessment, students need meaningful interventions; a cause for pause.  Understanding the mechanics of discourse markers can improve academic writing.  Understanding the mechanics of grammar can improve students’ understanding of natural language processing technologies.

Great tasks.  I did something similar with students in reading and writing (without the tech), and found that this sort of task was useful to help students understand the legal reading process.  I’ve published on some of that in Transforming Legal Education.

Next, Sandra Noakes (WSU), on ‘Getting it write: locating good practice pedagogy to support and develop law student writing’.   She commented that law schools aren’t adopting best practices in writing skills.  Comms skills are essential, according to all the regulatory standards.  Writing instruction adopt non-linear processes used by successful writers to be embedded within classes; and understanding of student literacy, and there is a need for interdisciplinary analysis. Adopts New Literacy Studies, eg James Paul Gee.  Models of writing support in HE takes three models – academic skills approach – decontextualised skills, deficit model.  Academic socialisation, sociocultural aspects of literacy recognised, enculturation emphasised, but the process is not seen as problematic.  Academic Literacies is closely allied to New Lit Studies, and seeks to deonstrate gaps between students’ understanding and staff assumptions.

So what are law schools doing in AU? Sandra conducted interviews and used information on websites of then 38 law schools.  She used the work of Carmela Briguglio and Shalini Watson: ‘Embedding English across the curriculum in Higher Education: A continuum of development support.  2014 27, 1, Australian J of Language & Literacy, 67.   She analysed the types of support being offered by law schools.  Type 1 support is based on academic skills model, the deficit paradigm, is exclusionary, surface writing features, and voluntary.  Type 2 was In-faculty support, ie assigning all specialist to faculty.  Actually this is good for teaching academics not individual students.  Do teaching academics access this support?  Probably not.  Type 3 support was integrated support, characterised by eg credit-bearing language units, stand alone first year legal skills subject, with instruction in writing.  Embraces socio-cultural understandings of literacy, and enculturation by discipline experts.  But it’s still not embedded – it’s additional, and the shortcomings are identified in the US legal writing courses.  Type 4 is the fully integrated support model..  Adopted by 20 out of 38 law schools, used in first year foundations, common first year academic literacy subject.  Best practice mode, inclusive, emphasises literacy in context, as mastery of discourse.  Model is relevant to TEQSA & TLO5.  But there are challenges.  Resistance from teaching academics; making the ‘obvious’ explicit; it’s labour intensive; requires re-design of subjects; embedding beyond subject level is difficulty.

Two really interesting papers, full of insight and absorbing details on the writing process.  Learned a lot from them both.

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