Enquiring Minds: The ‘Project’ & Strategies for Promoting (Better) Research,
Autonomy & Deployment of Skills at Level 3
Presenters: Keith Puttick, Staffordshire University Law School (SULS), Rhonda
Hammond-Sharlot (SULS), Janet Spence (SULS)
The theme of our paper is student research.
How do we help students become good researchers? Are we giving students
sufficient opportunities to deploy research skills, pursue their interests in their final
year/Level 3, and assist them become research-competent, autonomous learners?
And what are the best kinds of research task that can deliver what is needed in this
important area of the skills agenda…?
We argue the case for a more ambitious agenda for student research. In doing so,
we generally support most of the arguments for treating undergraduates as part of
the ‘community of researchers’ (Chang, 2005), and which favour the ‘research
scholar’ model (Hodge, Pasquesi, et al, 2007) (pp.9 and 11 of our paper).
After sharing some thoughts on the role of research-informed learning in Law and the
teaching-research nexus, we turn to more specific questions on the typology of
research tasks at Level 3. Informed by our on-going work on Enquiring Minds, we
discuss ‘the project’. For present purposes this is taken to mean a formally assessed
activity that is initiated and managed through to completion by a student (or group of
students), typically across the whole period or substantial period of a module or
award year/level. While sharing some of the characteristics of the coursework
assignment, dissertation, or extended essay, greater emphasis is usually placed on
rewarding independent enquiry, and fieldwork, statistical enquiry, interviews, etc.
Although this is a matter for debate, and links to the wider questions being asked at
LILAC 2009 about the purpose of legal education and the structures and cultures we
work within (including points in Prof Ian Ward’s key-note address at LILAC 2009 on
points like ‘what is a law school for’), we contend that the key requirement of a
formally assessed research activity is that it should be effective in facilitating:
Continuing development of research and research-related skills into Level 3,
building on developmental work at Levels 1, 2: ie its value as a developmental
Deployment of those skills, and in ways that promote genuine autonomy and
meet the full range of expectations of students who are about to graduate,
including the need for graduates to be ‘information literate’; and
Effective assessment (formative and formal) of research skills, and across the
range of outcomes and skills-sets expected by current standards.
On these criteria, we believe the project offers a valuable model (perhaps even the
optimum model) for assessed Level 3 student research. The case for the project is
reinforced when the core design characteristics we have referred to are accompanied
by rewarded elements such as presentations of research results; face-to-face or on-
line dialogue around work-in-progress (and linked curriculum themes); or creative
elements such as the production of DVDs, face-book work, or publication in journals
are introduced. We see the incorporation of inter-disciplinary aspects, such as
engagement in projects and fieldwork with students from other disciplines can be
valuable: but we accept it is still a contentious area, particularly in the face of
concerns from those who argue for a more vocationalist, ‘Law’-focused approach to
setting the parameters of undergraduate skills development and assessment (eg
Edwards (1992), discussed at p.12 of our paper).
Project work can also confer important benefits on other stakeholders besides the
student researcher, including students and staff - for example through the creation of
a developing ‘knowledge pool’ to which they gain access. To date, our evaluations
have focused on the value of the knowledge pool for limited purposes such as in-
course dialogic work: but other approaches highlight exciting and wider-ranging
applications, including Hasok Chang’s ‘mechanism of inheritance’. For Law Schools
that support project options as an integral part of their research culture there are
considerable gains to be had. They are a good way of showcasing students’ work,
and contribute to, and strengthen, an institutional culture of research and scholarly
activity; and bring the student and staff research functions closer.
Above all, though, project work is effective as a means of promoting ‘autonomy’, and
putting research where we think it belongs, which is at the centre of the student
Discussion Points for Our Session
We look forward to discussing these issues with participants at our session.
Following our presentation we shall be going into ‘small-group’ mode for the second
half of our hour and a half session. At the end of the paper we provide some
suggested ‘discussion points’.
Enquiring Minds is a two-year project that is looking at current practice and
developments in the design, use, and assessment of research tasks undertaken by
Law students at Level 3.1 We are interested in how research and research-related
skills (analysis, application, communication, etc) are developed; and strategies for
giving students effective opportunities to deploy those skills. Among other things, it is
evaluating projects and tasks to which students from other disciplines and from other
Law programmes in other universities (including universities in Poland, Spain,
France, and Sweden) are contributing in various ways. The purpose of such
collaborations has been to assess the value of introducing inter-disciplinary and
Full title: ‘Enquiring Minds: Strategies for the Design and Use of Enquiry Tasks that Promote the Law Teaching-
Research Nexus, Cross-Disciplinary and Comparative Law Studies, and Effective Deployment and Assessment of
Students’ Enquiry Skills at Level 3/H Level.
comparative law elements into project tasks and design – something in which pre-
project pilots indicated a significant minority of students have considerable interest.2
The exercise builds on collaborative work between the university’s Information
Literacy specialists and the Law School which was the subject of an earlier project,
Dis-integrating Legal Skills. That project examined the need for integrating skills at all
three levels of our LLB and CPE/Graduate Conversion provision, and embedding
those skills fully in module programmes. The results were presented at LILAC 2008;3
and the poster displayed at LILAC 2008 accompanies this paper.
Project Pilot: ‘People, Diversity & Work’
The project was preceded by a pilot called People, Diversity & Work: Tales from 3
Cities. This was undertaken last year by a team of 3rd Year Law, Advice Studies, and
Broadcast Journalism students. It was commissioned by the organisers of the
Empowerment, Work & Welfare conference in November 2007. This debated, among
other things, youth aspects of the empowerment, employment, and retention policies
being developed by the government at the time.4 Several of the collaborating
organisations and governmental bodies that support this bi-annual event were
interested in getting a ‘youth’ perspective on the agendas involved, and the
significant difficulties that young people in at least two of the empowerment groups
(those from the ethnic minorities, and disabled/longer-term incapacitated jobseekers)
can face in entering employment. Their remit was to look at the impediments to
disadvantaged, in some cases multiply disadvantaged,5 young people and entrants
to the labour market, and the impact of those impediments on their retention in
employment. They were also asked to comment on some of the complex retention
issues facing policy-makers at the time.
The project was assisted by the Department of Business and Enterprise (the
department responsible for Employment reform) by arranging for the researchers to
interview senior ministers to discuss aspects of the empowerment agenda. They also
interviewed the General Secretary of the TUC, the policy director of one of the
country’s leading disability organisations,6 and faith community leaders in areas of
high unemployment like the East End of London.7 Their investigations were
completed in early November 2007, and results were then presented at the
conference, after some final checks.8 Their work was well received by the conference
participants, and representatives of the organisations involved. In the event, the
project findings were helpful, informing debates on youth employment, welfare-to-
work policies, and the Employment Bill which was then before Parliament. The
The universities of Rzeszów, Bilbao, Lille, and Umea, Sweden with whom we have close links. We are also in
discussion with the University of Idaho with whom we have had a long-standing association, and where two of the
team (Keith Puttick and Ruby Hammer) have visited and lectured as part of our institutional links.
Authors: Alison Pope, Deborah Butler, and Andy Vi-Ming Kok. It has informed some aspects of our current review of
undergraduate provision, for example with regard to embedding Skills at Levels 2 and 3, support for skills
development work being available at the point of need and during the learner's 'journey'. However, we have not
reached the point yet where skills 'pervade' Level 1 – at least without further support.
The 6th in the series of bi-annual ‘Work & Welfare’ conferences hosted by SULS, and organised in collaboration with
the Trades Union Congress, the Institute of Employment Rights, ACAS, Temple Cloisters, the Engineering
Employers Federation, Citizens Advice, Disability Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group, and Carers UK. The
research was assisted, in particular, by the Rt. Hon. Stephen Timms MP. The next event in the ‘Work & Welfare’
series is a workshop, and is on the theme Family, Welfare & Work on 30 April 2008. Details:
As to which, see Berthoud, R., Multiple Disadvantage in Employment. (York: Institute for Social and Economic
Research, Essex University/J. Rowntree Foundation: YPS, March 2003).
Paul Treloar, Policy Director of the Disability Alliance.
Including the Director of the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, Dilowar Hussain Khan.
From one of the conference organisers, Keith Puttick, and the Conference Chair, Prof Keith Ewing, King’s College,
London University, President of the Institute of Employment Rights.
project touched on several important comparative aspects of Employment Law9, and
was effective in identifying some of the significant differences between UK
employment and social policy and the approaches taken in other parts of Europe, for
example on the difficult issues around employment protection. More recent project
work undertaken this year has taken this further, for example in a comparison made
between in-work welfare support provided here, in comparison with the support
provided to Polish workers.10 As far as the interdisciplinary aspects of the People,
Diversity & Work pilot were concerned, they highlighted the interests that students
have in the creative aspects of presenting the results of project work. The project was
valuable in other ways, too. It highlighted, for example, the importance of ensuring
that special needs of project participants are adequately catered for - something
reflected in a number of ways, including arrangements made for transportation (one
of the students was disabled and a wheelchair user).11 It also highlighted the
importance of encouraging student researchers to have in place viable and agreed
arrangements for the allocation of tasks, and (for those supervising) processes for
dealing with differences, and potential disputes within project teams.12
The positive experiences of Dis-integrating Legal Skills in laying the foundations and
theoretical aspects of the project, and of People, Diversity, and Work in piloting ideas
for how Law project work can extend to areas of fieldwork not traditionally associated
with Law undergraduate project work, encouraged us to begin Enquiring Minds. The
project has been enjoying some support from the university’s Research Informed
Teaching (RiT) fund, and the Law School’s staff development fund.
The Project’s Work
The project team (currently ten of us13, plus colleagues in other universities assisting
the project in different ways) are interested in two types of activity:
Small-scale tasks eg in preparation for tutorials/small-group activities
(analysing legislation, cases, academic sources, and utilising the results of
research in presentations, briefings, mini-moots, etc). Even when such tasks
are not formally assessed, they play a vital role in incremental skills
development throughout all 3 levels/years of a LLB, and at key stages in the
CPE programme.14 (Type A).
Larger-scale tasks including assessed coursework assignments, final-year
dissertations15, CPE/GDL 8th Subject projects (Type B).
Type A: Development Work. Tasks within Type A, albeit non-assessed, extend to
activities like competitive moots. These generally involve short but intense periods
that necessitate the deployment of a high level of research skills, and related skills
For example, the hostile, indeed violent, reaction by young people and students in French cities to government
initiatives like the contrat première embauche, and the loi sur l'égalité des chances, the law that created it.
The research was presented by students to a joint seminar of SULS-Rzeszów students on 8th December 2008.
Themes included homelessness; disability and work; human rights aspects of welfare generated a lot of good
comparisons between the law and social conditions in Poland, Ukraine and the UK.
On the issues affecting disabled student researchers, see Jacklin, A, Robinson, C, O’Meara, L, Harris, A Improving
the Experiences of Disabled Students in Higher Education (Sussex University: Higher Education Academy, 2007).
Arguably, such internal management and dispute resolution within student research teams is one of the valuable
team-working skills needed as researchers, and is good preparation for the world of work and what is needed in
practice, for example when research is undertaken in a transaction team, or working with other professional groups.
Besides the three authors of this paper, they are Alison Pope, Kara Johnson, Ruby Hammer, Dewi Williams, Doug
Wood, Judith Tillson, and Geoff Walton.
Within the Dis-integratging Legal Skills model, the ‘skills train’ and ‘journey planner’ provided illustrative examples,
connecting the development of research and related skills to the more demanding tasks set at Level 3.
One of the project team, Doug Wood, is developing new approaches to preparing students for dissertation work.
like analysis, application, and communication in an adversarial setting. In general, it
is not until students actually engage in such tasks that they start to appreciate the
importance of the research as an integral element in advocacy. Similarly, client
counselling and negotiation require effective use of research skills. Furthermore, they
both require what US law schools call ‘argumentation skills’, something that is
undoubtedly becoming an increasingly important feature of UK HE institutions’
programmes.16 We are fortunate in that at least two of the project team are very
experienced and actively involved in all these key areas of skills development.17
Students’ feedback to organisers of their experience of such tasks indicate that
participation in these activities is not only important in forming and consolidating their
ideas about ‘Law’ and what it means to be a lawyer – and, of course, serve to shape
their expectations and career ambitions. It also demonstrates to them the importance
of developing and being able to deploy research skills (ie applied skills settings).
Success in doing so not only builds confidence, and fosters independence and self-
reliance, it links closely to issues around employability: a theme to which we return.
The research is drawing on the results of small-scale pilots started earlier in 2008,
and is continuing through to June 2009. These feature evaluations of some
innovative approaches to Level 3 work, including on-line discussion seminars,18 and
presentations with voice-overs and video clips;19 activities linked to work experience
diaries/evaluations; and joint seminars between Polish and UK students (in
December 2008). In doing this we have been working closely with colleagues who
were engaged last year on the Dis-integrating Legal Skills project, and who are now
involved in skills aspects of our current LLB Review. They are looking, in particular,
to opportunities for students to deploy skills in all modules, and particularly at Levels
2 and 3 – something that requires close attention to be given to issues like formative
assessment; and how opportunities to develop research-related skills map on to the
‘journey planner’. This approach will implement key elements in the university’s
Statement of Good Practice on Information Literacy; and take the various ‘literacies’
that make up Information Literacy to the heart of the student learning experience.
Among other things, this requires careful consideration of differentiation between
levels: not just for the purposes of designing activities and tasks, but when designing
assessments (for example when a module is also offered at both Levels 2 and 3).20
Distance & Distributive Learning: The Challenges. Our experience over the last five
years of delivering modules in distance learning and distributive learning modes, for
example for Advice Studies students, has been very helpful. There are many
challenges to such delivery, not least the need to bring participants together who may
be geographically apart for most, if not all, of the programme (in some cases not just
living in different parts of the UK, but in opposite ends of the planet!). Doing this
Argumentation and First Year Undergraduates (2005, University of York). This looked at ways of introducing 1st
year students to argumentation, and how it can be embedded in a range of curricular structures. It is also discussed
in Academy Exchange, 2005 Issue 2, p.11.
Dewi Williams, who has a lot of experience preparing student for competitive moots; and Rhonda Hammond-
Sharlot, who has considerable experience of negotiation skills work and competitions.
As to which see Geoff Walton with Barker, J, Hepworth, M. and Stephens, D. Using online collaborative learning to
enhance information literacy delivery: an evaluation, Journal of Information Literacy, 1 (1), pp.13-30. .
As developed by Rhonda Hammond-Sharlot as part of the activities in one of SULS’ Employment modules.
Consumer Protection Law, developed by Kara Johnson, is an example of a new module also offered as an option
at Level 2. This develops and assesses research tasks using a model pioneered by Ruby Hammer in Environmental
Law using three modes of assessment in a portfolio of 3 pieces of work: a research exercise and annotated
bibliography; essay assignment; and case study assignment.
effectively has also meant making optimum use of developing technologies and
media in this area, including on-line discussion boards. In the process, we have
discovered many of the ‘positives’ involved, and the value of such media. It has also
encouraged us to look at the potential such media can offer to harness students’
experience as a learning resource, and in encouraging students to learn from each-
other when sharing such experience – something that the project is looking at.21
‘Project’ Design; Small-Group Work
In several of the pilots we have been evaluating group research. More precisely, we
have been offering the option to Level 3 students of initiating and managing projects
as part of a small group. Project ideas have been developed by the students
themselves, but with tutor support and advice, and after consultation with our
External Examiners. A priority has been to ensure that schemes are viable in a
number of ways. For example, the choice of subject-matter must not only link to
programme topics, the choice of research topic must be sufficiently wide to enable
module outcomes to be assessed effectively – a consideration that dictates important
points for consideration at the project approval gateway. We have also been careful
to ensure that ethical requirements are addressed by the researchers at the design
stage of their project. This is an integral part of the approval process, ensuring that
there is compliance with university ethical standards – particularly when fieldwork is
undertaken, for example interviews with potentially vulnerable individuals.22
In practice, the process of supporting students in the design stages, through to
approval, have not proved particularly demanding – either in terms of the time taken,
or in other respects. What has been essential, however, has been the need to ensure
that assessment arrangements will be able to work effectively. In some instances it
has been necessary to arrange face-to-face meetings with student project teams to
evaluate the extent to which project teams have reached consensus around the
project proposals; and the assess the project’s viability. In this regard, the approval
process probably needs to go further, on occasion, than the process around
dissertation approvals. This is an issue that relates to cost, of course, and wider
questions as to the viability of extending project options more widely.
In terms of the assessment of project work, it is important that the assessment
structure operates fairly and is seen by participants to be fair – for example in
ensuring that individuals’ contributions are properly identified and rewarded. An
enduring theme in project work assessment is that student researchers do more, and
do it better, once they can see the advantages to doing so through the rewards and
incentives provided by the assessment structure. This is no doubt a consideration
that pervades all types of teaching and learning activity in HE 23 – but for project
work, given its demands, it is a particularly important issue. For several of the options
that we have been piloting we have introduced a system which has sought to
overcome some of the long-standing concerns with the difficulties associated with
Contributions made by students who are already working in advice organisations, law firms, and while on training
placements, is particularly valuable. We see this all the time with on-line exchanges, and in assessed assignment
work, in the Employment and Social Welfare Law Advice Studies modules; and during the Employability and
Developmental Skills and Work Experience modules.
As, no doubt, is the case in other universities. The Staffordshire University Code of Conduct for Research &
Enterprise (2006) makes it clear that it extends to student researchers.
In endorsing this central point, some commentators stress the link between student satisfaction, and the quality of
the learning experience in undertaking programme activities like this, and the effectiveness of assessment systems;
see, for example, Gibbs, G and Dunbat-Goddet, H, The Effects of Programme Assessment Environments on Student
Learning (Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, 2007). On wider assessment considerations, see Jane
Sampson and Ruth Cohen ‘Designing Peer Learning’ in Bouth, D, Cohen, R, and Sampson, J Peer Learning in
Higher Education: Learning From & With Each Other (London: Kogan Page, 2001).
assessing work that is undertaken by groups, not least the concern that by awarding
a ‘group’ mark for project work, or particular elements that comprise the project, this
may disguise the reality of what particular contributions by each member of the group
has been. In addressing this, we have sought to incorporate into pilots in two of the
modules involved in the Enquiring Minds research, Employment and Social Welfare
Law & Practice, a system that evaluates both the group work element and the work
undertaken by individuals that links to the group’s endeavours. To some extent, this
approach has been dictated by concerns (from both the individuals concerned and, to
a lesser extent, External Examiners), that some kind of “insurance” is needed to
avoid the risk that project members may, in the course of the project period, have a
falling out - or dysfunction. To overcome this risk, and to provide a measure of
assurance to participants who may have doubts at the outset, the idea was to build in
the facility that if there was such a failure then she or he could revert to what would,
in effect, be a normal 3000 words coursework assignment. Early indications suggest
this approach has worked well: but a fuller evaluation will be made later in 2009.
The results of other aspects to project team approaches, including assessment
matters, will also be evaluated carefully. We aim to gain a better understanding of
small group project design, and how assessment systems, including formative and
formal aspects (and the reward systems they can provide), can play a part in
encouraging students to engage in such work.
Rewards & Incentives
As already noted, we have been particularly keen to consider the role of rewards and
incentives in encouraging participants to take up project options. This is an important
part of the research, especially given that if the reward elements of project schemes
are not addressed effectively then there will be less likelihood of take-up of those
options. After all, why would a student opt to pursue a project, individually or as part
of a group, if she or he has the opportunity to undertake a less demanding option
such as a coursework assignment? In many cases a coursework assignment option,
which is still the main form of assessing Level 3 work (either alone, or in combination
with an ‘exam’) will, typically, often require significantly less in terms of commitment,
workload, and engagement with research tasks. Looked at this way, reward and
incentive is of particular importance in the early stage of the project life cycle, and
even before the election is made. In our experience of managing project work,
though, reward and incentive plays other important roles, and at later stages of
project work. For example, it is usually necessary to introduce rewards and
incentives which give students the impetus and motivation for the activity-based
elements we have referred to, for example if we ask them at the mid-way point of the
project to present the results of work-in-progress to other participants in a
programme, and be ready to discuss their findings. The ‘reward’ element does not
necessarily have to take the form of a marks weighting for the presentation (or the
other activity that is chosen). It could be structured in other ways, for example taking
the form of a reduction in the required length of the final research report in return for
undertaking a presentation. This is something we did, for example, in our exercise in
December 2008 when students from Rzeszów University presented their work to
twenty-four other students on the Social Welfare Law module they were taking.24
In practice, however, the issues around rewards and incentives go well beyond
assessment schemes, and weightings for the various elements that go to make up
the project structure. As well as the gains that students see in terms of employability,
See the further commentary on this on p.15.
for example in demonstrating success in engaging with an area of legal specialism in
which they may wish to work as a career path, they also extend to more complex
matters such as the satisfaction to be gained from peer group approval25 – for
example when research results are presented and defended successfully. Some
students appear to thrive on such aspects of undergraduate research activity.
The reward and incentive issue is one on which we have been working closely with
External Examiners when trialling schemes. It is also one in which we are very keen
to find out more from other Law providers that are looking at ways for enhancing the
quality of research work their students do. Among other things, we are interested in
how other institutions view the value of project work, for example in comparison with
what we see, generally, as less demanding tasks like the coursework assignment. If
a student is designing a project from scratch, and dealing with all aspects through to
completion, how should that be valued in comparison with, say, a coursework
assignment taken ‘off the peg’ from a list supplied by the tutor, usually on a topic that
is already being studied as part of a module’s programme, and which entails
significantly less in terms of research activity by the student? This, in turn, requires
basic questions to be answered such as what do we mean by ‘research’, and
‘research competent’ in the context of research task-setting; and is there a common
currency in use by providers that determines what Law Schools should expect, and
be looking for when they set research skills outcomes, assess, and make judgments
about such ‘competency’ at Level 3?26
Needless to say, we are very interested in finding out what other Law providers’
experience has been in this area. We look forward to discussing this, but will also be
providing a short questionnaire on such points for those attending LILAC 2009.
Comparative Law & Interdisciplinary Studies
The reasons for bringing comparative law research into the scope of the Enquiring
Minds research are clear enough. Apart from the acknowledged value of comparative
law in enriching the Law curriculum, a theme developed by one of our former
colleagues at SULS, Prof Peter de Cruz in his work,27 a good proportion of our
students come from other parts of Europe and the world. They are usually keen to
make comparisons between UK law and policy and what they see in their own
countries. Conversely, our initial research indicates that a sizeable proportion of our
UK-based students are interested in what happens in other jurisdictions, including
Europe and other EC countries. What we want to see, though, is how this works in
practice. Key questions are what is the level of interest in this area of research? What
are the advantages, or downsides, in catering for comparative law elements in
research tasks, including project work? Our survey of student views will assess this
more closely, but based on earlier soundings we anticipate that this will probably
confirm most students’ interest in this area, and what happens in other jurisdictions,
including those with a Common Law tradition where topical issues like ‘human rights’
feature strongly. It is certainly the case that, quite apart from the scope that is offered
An aspect explored in contributions to Boud, D and Falchikov, N (eds) The Place of Peers in Assessment’ in
Rethinking Assessment in Higher Education (London: Routledge, 2007).
It was made clear in the scheme, though, that the presentation had to be accompanied by evidence of their work in
the form of supporting visuals, statistical analyses, and ‘taking questions’ from the other students. In the event we
were not disappointed with the results.
De Cruz, P Comparative Law in a Changing World (2007, 3rd ed). Despite what has been said about comparative
law’s ‘modest place in the academic curriculum’ in the classic work by Konrad Zweigert and Hein Kotz An
Introduction to Comparative Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press), comparative law studies can be particularly
important in relation to implementation of EC social and economic law and policy, and in helping students appreciate
the differences of approach between Common Law and codified European systems.
for gaining a better understanding of core programme areas like EU Law, there is a
more specific interest in such studies among students taking subjects like
Employment and Discrimination Law which have strong EC Law or Convention rights
components to them. Some comparisons, when made, are clearly invaluable, as
some of our undergraduate researchers sometimes find. 28
Rationale for Enquiring Minds
A priority for any modern Law School is to ensure that students leave with good
research skills, and having had effective opportunities to deploy them. It also needs
to be confident, in this regard, that the formal standards and expectations of bodies
like the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, or set by the Law
professional bodies, are being met through its assessment arrangements.
As QAA says:
‘Graduates with a bachelor's degree with honours will have developed an
understanding of a complex body of knowledge, some of it at the current boundaries
of an academic discipline…The graduate will be able to evaluate evidence,
arguments and assumptions, to reach sound judgements, and to communicate
Staffordshire University, like other providers, has also set its own demanding
standards. As a result of changes this year to the University’s statement on award
outcomes (which are aligned to NQF Level Descriptors) expectations are high.30 As
far as Enquiry (Research) is concerned, Honours/Level 3 students must have the
ability to ‘Deploy accurately established techniques of analysis and enquiry and
initiate and carry out projects within the field of study – and evaluate use of
Information Literacy, including the ethical use of information.’ For enquiry–related
skills like ‘analysis’ the standards are equally demanding.31 For these reasons, the
project has been timely.
Qualitative Aspects. However, the project is about a lot more than meeting externally-
set standards. It is also about improving the quality of students’ learning experience,
and creating opportunities for students (particularly at Level 3) to make use of their
talents, drawing on their interests as autonomous learners; and facilitating
opportunities for them to enter the ‘the community of researchers’.32 In doing so,
students also start to feel part of, rather than separate from, research, and the
activities that a research community supports. Student research tasks and project
work, in particular, help to bridge that divide and bring the ‘teaching’ and ‘research’
The students involved in the People, Diversity & Work project found it intriguing that young employee who had just
been dismissed by a central government department, almost certainly unlawfully given that no attempt appeared to
have been made to make ‘reasonable adjustments, would have regained his employment, as of right, had the
dismissal been in Spain and he had won a DDA case in a labour court there: here he stayed dismissed, and without
any prospective of reinstatement or re-engagement as of right – something they picked up from researching the
Spanish case of Chacón Navas v Eurest Colectividades SA  3 CMLR 40;  IRLR 706, ECJ.
Understanding Qualifications: Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (QAA for Higher Education, 2000),
Typology of Award Outcomes & Indicative Descriptions of Levels (SU, 2008), Table 1.
They must be able to ‘Describe and comment upon current research, or equivalent advanced scholarship, and
critically evaluate arguments, assumptions, abstract concepts and data (that may be incomplete), to make
judgements.’ Ibid, Table 1, p.1.
An objective which we would, in general terms, support. We like Harok Chang’s ideas on this, discussed in ‘Turning
an Undergraduate Class into a Professional Research Community’, Teaching in Higher Education (2005) 10(3), 387–
394. A particularly exciting aspects of Chang’s work is the ‘mechanism of inheritance’ whereby students benefit take
over project work that has been worked on by the previous year’s student cohort, and developing it to a stage when it
is ready for publication.
functions in an academic community closer together – a consideration that links to
wider debates around the value of Research Informed Teaching.
We are assisted by colleagues and fellow team members Alison Pope and Geoff
Walton in relation to the many issues around Information Literacy. This probably now
the most important new area of debate on research skills, and one which takes
traditional conceptions of research skills to newer levels, coupled with greater
expectations of what research requires. Basically, information literacy looks to
students to have a more holistic approach, and one that requires the issues being
researched to be better understood in context. One definition of information literacy
looks to the researcher to know when and why information is needed, but then to use
that information coherently: something that not all students, however, technically
competent at extracting source material, can do.33
In the Enquiring Minds project we are keen to explore strategies for making a reality
of the idea that Law students, as researchers, should be information literate –
something that transcends competence at using IT systems. As Alison Pope, our
lead researcher on this aspect of the project, has observed, IL is ‘part of a bigger
picture; part of a jigsaw puzzle which includes other literacies (including for example,
academic, media and digital)34; new ways of approaching learning through critical
thinking, reflective practice, collaborative learning and the key skills agenda - all of
which contribute to independent learning’.35 In the face of the vast amounts of source
materials that a Law student can generate, the priority is for Law student researchers
to be constantly evaluating those materials and assessing how best to use them for
the task in hand, and when producing work. Her influence in this area is evident from
the work she has been doing for Routledge Cavendish, including the material and
guidance produced for their legal research website.
Similarly, by bringing our colleague Geoff Walton, another expert on IL, into the
project team we have strengthened the research we are doing on on-line and
collaborative learning aspects of research skills development. Like Alison, Geoff is a
prolific writer and commentator on developments in this area.36
Wider Rationales: From ‘Stupid People’ to ‘Autonomy’…?
Recognition that Law students have the capacity to step up to the higher order skills
required of a researcher has led some commentators to suggest that it is now time to
start seeing Law students very differently. For example, it has been argued by
speakers at the Network for Academic Renewal Conference in California last year,
In the UK, Information literacy has been defined by the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals as
‘knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an
ethical manner’. See the Information Literacy web-site at:
On the idea of IT skills being just a part of a bigger ‘jigsaw of literacies’, see Walton, G. & Pope, A. J. (eds) (2006).
Information Literacy: Recognising the Need (Oxford: Chandos, 2006).
Advocating Information Literacy with the Academics (SU Centre for Professional Development, 2008); and Geoff
Walton Using Online Collaborative Learning as a means of Promoting Information Literacy (SU Centre for
Professional Development, 2008; and see Walton, G. & Pope, A. J. (eds) (2006). Information Literacy: Recognising
the Need (Oxford: Chandos, 2006); Pope, A. & Walton, G. (2009 forthcoming). Information and media literacies:
sharpening our vision in the twenty first century in Leaning, M. (ed.). Issues in information and media literacy
(California: Informing Science Press, 2009 forthcoming).
See, for example, Walton, G., Barker, J., Hepworth, M., and Stephens, D. (2007a). Facilitating Information Literacy
Teaching and Learning and Exercise Module by means of Collaborative Online and Reflective Learning in Andretta,
S. (ed.). Change and Challenge: Information Literacy for the 21st Century. Adelaide: Auslib Press; and Walton, G.,
Barker, J, Hepworth, M. and Stephens, D. (2007b). Using online collaborative learning to enhance information
literacy delivery in a Level 1 module: an evaluation, Journal of Information Literacy, 1 (1), pp13-30; and Walton, G.
(2008) From online discourse to online social networking, the e-learning Holy Grail? in Parkes, D. and Hart, E.
(eds.) Web 2.0 and libraries: impacts, technologies and trends (Oxford: Chandos, in press).
that students could and should be seen as ‘research scholars’.37 These arguments
are extremely valuable in our view. Certainly, from our experience with the Enquiring
Minds pilots, and seeing some of the high quality work students are capable of, the
argument holds good when looking at some of the high quality work done by final
year LLB and CPE ‘conversion’ students electing to take Level 3 or ‘8th Subject
project options and who have seen such projects through from initiation of a research
proposal to completion.
This also underlines the reality that such student researchers, particularly in the more
diverse communities that now populate the modern law school, may often have
particular knowledge or experience that enables them to make valuable contributions
to research. In an era when we are seeing more older students it is also to say that
one of the valuable spin-offs from better lifelong learning strategies is that we see
student researchers who may have a lot to say – and, indeed, have come into HE
specifically to enable them to study subjects on which they may already have a lot of
life experience. As OECD research on this indicates, it can be a frustrating
experience for such learners to be put in a learning environment in which they are
dealing with topics they know about and understand, but who are not given adequate
opportunities to pursue independent learning paths to take their interest further.38
Perceptions in Times Gone By….
It is clear that the commentators who propound or support the ‘research as scholar’
model take a very different view of the capabilities of undergraduates than was the
prevailing norm in the 1970s. Indeed, it does not seem so long ago (at least for some
of the oldies on the project team!), that Law students were perceived very differently.
The effects of what was a largely lecturer-centred learning regime, including some of
the alienating effects this could have, were observed by commentators like Charles
A. Reich. Reich famously identified the process by which he saw Law students
becoming ‘stupid people’. A prominent Yale Law School professor (noted among
other things for his welfare and property discourses), he said that after an initial
period of ‘anger and despair’, and then later ‘resignation as their self-alienation
becomes complete’. Law students in a ‘very real sense’, he said, could become
‘stupider during law school, as the range of their imagination is limited, their ability to
respond with sensitivity and to receive impressions is reduced, and the scope for
their reading and thinking is progressively narrowed’.39
The essential point to understand in Reich’s analysis, backed up by other famous
contemporaries who also described the phenomenon40, was not that Law students
were inherently stupid people. The way he saw it was that the environment they
found themselves in, and the kinds of learning experiences they were put through,
made them progressively ‘stupider’, more alienated people.
David Hodge, Kira Pasquesi, Marissa Hirsh, and Paul LePore in From Convocation to Capstone: Developing the
Student as Scholar, Network for Academic Renewal Conference, Association of American Colleges & Universities,
Long Beach California 19-21 April 2007.
OECD Qualifications & Lifelong Learning (April 2007). As they say, it is “demotivating” for someone to be expected
to put up with a classroom setting without more. We see this effect sometimes with experienced ILEX students on the
CPE route, many of whom may well have extensive hands-on experience of the Law – and who are often keen to
engage more closely with academic commentaries, and have the freedom to research topics in which they have
developed interests over a long period.
Reich, Charles A, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970; London: The Penguin Press, 1971)
101. After initial anger and despair, he says, their ‘self-alienation becomes complete’, and ‘in a very real sense they
become stupider during law school, as the range of their imagination is limited, their ability to respond with sensitivity
and to receive impressions is reduced, and the scope for their reading and thinking is progressively narrowed’ (at
In a similar vein, but from the perspective of a student, see Kennedy, D., How the Law School Fails: A Polemic
Yale L. Rev. of Law and Social Action 71 (1970).
A harsh analysis, even nasty in places: but it was one that probably reflected the
concerns about legal education, and students’ lack of autonomy, at the time - a
theme that linked to Reich’s wider discourse on alienation in US society in this
period. It was also one that tied in with what other commentators were later to be
saying, perhaps in less strident tones, about the shortcomings in legal education. It is
important to appreciate that such discourses preceded debates around ideas like the
‘student experience’ and ‘autonomy’. These entered the language, and only really
stated to gain any currency in law schools, much later. In the UK, as law academics
came to see the essential truth in much of what Reich was saying (even if the did not
like the way he said it), attempts were made to counter the effects he described and
to encourage Law students to step outside the confines of the Law ‘box’. A variety of
approaches were adopted, typically by requiring single honours Law students to have
‘some exposure’ to other, non-Law disciplines. For example, Birmingham University,
in the period after 1971, led the way in trying to respond to the Reich critique. Law
students suddenly found themselves having to read a Jane Austen novel, or writing
about Joseph Stalin, having elected to take one of the compulsory options that
included ‘the English novel’ or ‘Russian Studies’ (without a lot of enthusiasm in some
cases).41 In general, such approaches were strong on analysis of the problems
highlighted by Reich and other critics, but not so good in terms of solutions. Nor did
they do much to alter the fundamental shortcomings in the Law learning experience
at the time. As with most forays into inter-disciplinary studies, most Law providers
stopped trying out such innovations by the mid-1970s. By then, some US
commentators started to attempts at introducing inter-disciplinary elements into Law
studies as worse than ineffectual. They were seen by some as ‘damaging’ to what
the study of Law should be about. In the USA there was a backlash by some schools
against anything that might be seen as jeopardising the law school’s main mission,
which they saw as supplying the legal practitioner market with ‘effective lawyers’.42
Nevertheless, as other commentators like Duncan Kennedy of Harvard University
have pointed out, efforts were under way to bring wider-ranging perspectives into the
study of Law; and interdisciplinary studies into the Law curriculum continued
throughout this period, partly as an antidote to some of the effects Reich described.43
At the same time, though, US law schools started to see rapid changes in areas such
as skills development, with a particular focus on research, legal writing, and skills.
‘Real Life’ Connections: Legally Blonde & Columbo. Interestingly, some of the
negative characteristics of legal education, and Law students, that Reich portrayed
were, and still are, clearly mirrored in the popular culture. Indeed, they continue to be
perpetuated by that culture, perhaps unfairly at times. This often appears to be a
perception of privileged, predominantly male young people, often completely
disconnected from the realities that most people live with every day – and who by the
time they qualify are often still largely unconnected to the real world outside the
Consider, for example, the characters surrounding Elle Woods (played by Reese
Witherspoon), the heroine of Legally Blonde, including her boyfriend, Warner
Huntingdon III and his circle, portrayed as not very bright people trying hard to look
and behave like lawyers. Despite an unpromising start to her undergraduate Law
In the meantime, the assessment regime remained 100% exam, and stayed that way for a long time.
Edwards, H.T., The Growing Disjunction between Legal Education and the Legal Profession 91 Mich. L Rev 34
(1992); and Postscript in 91 Mich L Rev 2191 (1993), discussed by Gary Minda in Postmodern Legal Movements:
Law & Jurisprudence at Century’s End (New York: NY University Press, 1995) 209.
Duncan Kennedy The Social Justice Element in Legal Education in the United States: Sir Elwyn Jones Lecture,
Bangor University, 19th March 2002.
studies, with most of her student colleagues seeing her as an ‘insufficiently serious’
person, it is actually Elle who comes through to succeed. In particular, it is Elle’s
astonishing capacity for hard work, and empathy with research and ability to ‘get to
grips with the things that really matter’ that gets her there. Elle’s willingness to step
outside the parameters of ‘Law’, and delve into the mysteries of the beauty salon
(specifically the effects that water from a shower would have had on the curls of
someone who has had just had a perm) helps her to crack the weaknesses in the
real murderer’s alibi. This, we gather, is the kind of knowledge that most trial
attorneys could not possibly log on to, let alone understand. Assisted by her
unstoppable capacity for hard work (not to mention excellent research skills) Elle
eventually graduates magnum cum laude, progressing to a job in the best law firm in
America. Similar portrayals of Law students can be seen in the Columbo series.44
Although there are still some significant issues to address, developments in legal
education have moved on a long way from that period, and now produce a better
quality of learning experience for most Law students than in Reich’s time. With this
have come newer priorities and reasons for promoting genuine autonomy, not least
employability. In the USA, a major focus has been on putting student research at the
heart of students’ learning experience, a key mission for the Boyer Commission. 45
Bringing Students into Research: Employability
There are a number of good reasons for why Law students, as they approach the
end of their award programmes, need to be encouraged to become autonomous
learners. These, in turn, have helped to inform newer approaches to what they can
be expected to be doing in terms of assessed research tasks. Not least, there are
some significant issues around employability and personal development planning
(PDP). This is an agenda that, among other things, looks to encourage final year
students to think ahead to what they may be doing in the law labour market, or in
other callings after they graduate. One aspect of this is the need, on their part, to
take greater responsibility for what they do; and on our part to give them the space to
do so, encouraging them to record their progress, achievements, completed research
work, and so forth - for example through log books and e-portfolios.46
In our case, this important aspect of the project’s work links closely to skills and
employability work already being done by project team members Kara Johnson and
Ruby Hammer. Having been introduced to research skills at Levels 1 and 2,47 and
been given opportunities to develop and deploy their skills, there are important
opportunities to enhance the specific skills needed in relation to work and careers
options – for example on our two-year Employability module.48 These are
complemented in large measure by the wider skills that we believe research project
options can help to develop, including team-working. This is something that in legal
practice is important, particularly in the context of transactional work routinely
undertaken by teams of lawyers; or when working with other professional groups.
The best example is Columbo Goes to College (1990).
Boyer Commission Educating Undergraduates in the Research University Reinventing Undergraduate Education:
A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities (1998). The case for research-based learning, and for bringing
undergraduate Law students into research, pervades the Commission’s report and conclusions.
Many positive features of this were identified in the project Using E-Portfolios in Legal Education (P.McKellar,
K.Barton, J. Nicholas, L. Polding, 2007: HE Academy): but it is not clear whether, and to what extent, this will take off
as an idea. It will be interesting to see what the current University of Cumbria research will show.
SKILLs (Skills for Knowledge in Learning & Law) modules, in which, among other things, participants identify,
locate, retrieve, and evaluate legal materials; and are introduced to research-related activities like problem-solving
and analysis, and communication.
In the work experience work that is done, 60% of the assessment relates to a research report undertaken in an
area of law related to the placement, and is helped by work undertaken in a legal advice agency setting.
Designing Incentives & Meeting Support Needs. If it is accepted that students can
and should be doing more at Level 3, including project work of the kind that external
standards and most university standards probably already envisage,49 it is clear that
more needs to be done to encourage students to take up such opportunities. This not
only requires issues concerned with reward and incentives to be addressed, it
dictates that more support may be needed, particularly at key stages in project work.
As we have seen with the first round of pilots, when it comes to project work, this has
meant looking more closely at the early stages when this is initiated, and what we
can reasonably expect from the student. We would argue the case for bringing these
initial stages of research task-setting more explicitly into the assessment regime. This
then raises issues around the need to introduce clearer incentives and ‘rewards’ for
taking on project options, especially if other, easier, options continue to be made
available. Easier options may include, typically, coursework assignments taken from
a selection of topics on which work during the programme has already been done;
and where the topics will tend to be closely linked to core programme topics which
students have already studied (attending lectures and tutorials at which topics, and
lecturers’ ideas about them have already featured in the programme). If students are
to take on a project of their own (albeit within the domain linked to a module’s content
and learning outcomes), an altogether more demanding expectation, the inevitable
question is why would they want to do that. In particular, why should they take on the
hard work associated with creating and then seeing through to fruition a project from
start to finish? The answer, of course, is that they will need to see some discernible
benefits in doing that. So issues around incentives and rewards within the
assessment regime, coupled with other perceived ‘rewards’ linked to employability
issues, come to the fore.
In the case of the People, Diversity & Work pilot, the fact that the students had
opportunities to meet a senior government Minister, and look at topical, youth-related
issues with which they plainly had a lot of empathy, made a lot of difference. It was
also obvious to the participants that the project could do a lot to help their
employment prospects (as, in the event, it did). One of the four student researchers,
a Broadcast Journalism student working with our Law students, realised the potential
early on – and he went straight into a job with ITV News as a reporter, and then soon
after became a News at Ten producer within a year. Involvement in the project
research also helped the other students. Of course, not all students can expect such
opportunities, incentives, or rewards to come their way. Nevertheless, the value of
project work in employability terms, including the scope it may offer for a young
researcher to make her or his mark, and enter the research arena, can be a key
consideration for some students when they consider options (for example if signals to
would-be employers an interest in a specialism linked to their research).
Project work is not, however, an easy option for every student. In practice, this may
dictate a need for a lot of encouragement, and institutional support, however keen
and motivated the researchers. This is an essential feature of such schemes, we
suggest. It is also relevant if the project involves a presentation element. At Level 3,
we generally encourage students to come together and present their work-in-
progress, and discuss it. This is not something that always comes easily, for example
if it is done in a public forum or on-line while other course participants are observing
– and they may also be contending with other barriers, such as language or culture.
See p.9, and notes 29-31.
Recent pilots we have been undertaking, including joint SU-Rzeszów seminar on
comparisons between Polish and UK ‘welfare’ and labour law regulation, have
In the case of the Rzeszów pilot, as indicated before, we worked a reward element
into the assessment scheme in the form of a reduction in the normal length of the
students’ assignment – something which the students were keen to explore given
their poor written English. Specifically, instead of the normal 3000 words assignment
we offered the option of selecting their own topics and then making a presentation to
a seminar with 20 other participants, supported by Powerpoint (and with supporting
materials). The more daunting aspect, however, was that other participants could
‘ask questions’. One of the Polish students said, at first, that this was the bit that
made her ‘particularly nervous’ and, she said, like Daniel going into the lions’ den ‘but
with a lot of lions, and speaking a lot of better English...’ Happily the presentation
went well, and was invaluable as an experience for them, and in providing UK
students with new perspectives on the subject. There will be few students in this
situation who will have no anxieties – and that means such exercises (and some
projects) may require a lot of support, both from the lecturer managing it and the
other participants.50 This, in turn, means that the costs and on-costs involved in
extending project options have to be weighed up by institutions when they consider
making project work more widely available.
RiT: The Teaching-Research Nexus
Our project has been very interested in some of the ideas generated in debates and
discourses around Research Informed Teaching (RiT), and the synergies produced
by what has been termed the ‘teaching-research nexus’. Some of these have been
described by pioneers like Alan Jenkins, Mick Healey and Roger Zetter in their
commentaries on the inter-face between the research and teaching functions.51
There is also quite a literature emerging on institutional approaches to promoting
RiT.52 As researchers in this area, have benefited from this work, and from seminars
on RiT themes led by visiting speakers like Alan Jenkins, who has done much to
promote some of the important institutional advantages to be gained.53
In general, the main focus has been on the relationship between the lecturer-
researcher and students, rather than the advantages to be gained from the improved
student-focused model we are advocating, but still evaluating, with Enquiring Minds.
This looks to developing students’ capacities as researchers, integrating them as
student researchers into institutions’ research communities, thereby bringing these
two sections of the learning community closer. The fact that the lecturer, as
researcher/scholar is probably, on this model, working more closely with a group that
is now seen as better ‘research enabled’, even to the point of engaging in more
collaborative work for publication, has the potential to add new perspectives on the
relationship between teacher and student. A further dimension to this focuses on the
In the case of the People, Diversity & Work pilot the students concerned, having appeared to be comfortable with
the most aspects of the fieldwork, including what must have been quite stressful work like interviewing a government
minister, the TUC leader, and others, were more anxious about the idea of their work being presented.
Jenkins, A, Healey, M, Zetter, R Linking Teaching and Research in Disciplines & Departments (York: Higher
Education Academy, 2007).
Jenkins, A & Healey, M Institutional Strategies to Link Teaching & Research (York: Higher Education Academy,
2005). One of the central arguments put forward by the authors, to which we subscribe, is that effective teaching-
research links ‘are not automatic, and have to be constructed’.
Seminar on the theme Research Informed Teaching: Issues, Dilemmas & Opportunities 14th January 2009, among
other things, with a focus on practical aspects of exploiting links between a lecturer’s teaching and research roles.
use to be made of the products generated by the new generation of student
researchers. As a project team we have been particularly interested in work done
elsewhere on this, including the evidence of the value to be gained from students
helping to build the ‘knowledge pool’; and contributing to that pool, for example when
it is passed down to successive generations of students year-to-year.54 This is an
approach that surely brings students as a whole group progressively into the
‘community of researchers’ domain, and offers further good reasons for doing so.
Although our project has extended to evaluating face-to-face presentations of project
work such learning environments are by no means the only forums in which student
research work and results can be discussed. Indeed, the rationale for promoting
dialogue between students as researchers revolves around some of the newer
approaches to dialogic teaching and learning inter-actions that make them useful in
on-line small-group sessions. These can also be helpful in encouraging better
engagement with the work students undertake outside formal teaching and learning
activities – for example in one-to-one on-line exchanges (sometimes well into the
early hours as we sometimes see with distance learning programmes). Students can
and do learn from each-other, of course, outside the constraints of scheduled
Dialogic Approaches & ‘Reticence’. Some of the newer approaches to dialogic
teaching are also now seen as important in encouraging reticent students to
participate and engage better. Within the evolving RiT agenda, dialogic approaches
are becoming especially important for Level 3/H learners, offering important new
models for creating bridges between research and teaching and learning activities.
In general, they look to a more student-centred and critical/evaluative approach to
engagement with knowledge, and discussion - particularly in small-group settings like
tutorials and seminars.55 In particular, some aspects of dialogic teaching that focus
on discussion of pre-sessional work completed by students can offer a more
attractive model for Level 3 learners, moving on from the features of pedagogic
dialogue more usually associated with the ‘tutorial’ that are still a mainstay of a lot of
providers’ Law programmes at Levels 1 and 2. These are, in general, more lecturer-
controlled and characterised by more ‘closed’ interactions in which the lecturer
controls the agenda, selects sources of knowledge, and manages ‘the answers’, eg
through feedback and other closed mechanisms. Indeed, ‘feedback’ is often
synonymous with ‘the answers’, and is appropriate when participants are making use
of the same sources, for example when textbook reading has informed preparations
for such sessions.56 The need for less closed approaches to research and
knowledge at Level 3 dictates a need for different ways of encouraging participants to
engage with knowledge, and sources, including those generated by the participants
themselves. Such considerations can be particularly important in the design of small-
group work and tasks at Level 3 (and the linked research tasks that precede them,
and which may form the basis for follow-up work afterwards. Such work may well
need to be complemented by the kind of enhanced opportunities afforded by IT – for
example in debating the results of pre or post-session enquiry, and using systems
like Blackboard, live discussion boards, or Facebook. Above all, such systems,
operating at Level 3, offer greater opportunities for participants to develop their own
learning paths before and after programmed sessions. This has become an
An approach also developed by Hasok Chang (note 32), as indicated earlier.
Elements of Blackboard are potentially very valuable in this respect, for example components like digital drop box,
discussion board exchanges supported by data clips (supporting tutor and student views on enquiry results), video
attachments, RSS feeds, and so forth.
R. Alexander Towards Dialogic Teaching, 3rd Ed (York: Diaglos); N. Mercer The Guided Construction of Knowledge
(Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1995) and Words & Minds (London: Routledge, 2000).
increasingly important issue in such developments as the introduction of 2-Year
degrees, work in developing dialogue between participants on e-modules, and
helped by some of the exciting applications offered by systems like Blackboard.57
Specific Groups’ Needs at Level 3
Within the evolving agenda for promoting student research, some of the approaches
we are examining have become especially important for some groups within the
Level 3 cohort that do not fit the traditional descriptor for students on traditional full-
time, three Law degrees. For example, it has been necessary to factor the needs of
part-time, final year Law undergraduates into any debate about reconfiguring the
requirements of student research. These are a group which may have significant
numbers of learners in them, but which do not necessarily have the advantages of
regular attendance and ‘contact’ with lecturing staff or, indeed, each-other. More
recent arrivals on the scene have been students in the second year of the 2-year LLB
degree: again, this is a group with specific needs that stem from the way their
programmes are organised. In practice, this group, like part-time students, produce
work to a high standard. However, the project has been looking at the needs of this
group, and at the innovative ways of engaging them in research-related tasks and
activities (a part of the work we are doing that will be developed further later in 2009).
Barriers to Research Skills Development & Deployment
Such needs as have just been described are concerned with one particular kind of
‘barrier’. But they are by no means the only kind. Our project has also been very
interested in other obstacles, for example those presented by factors such as
limitations on study time and participation in research skills development work
resulting from students’ wider commitments (family, work, etc). These can present
very real difficulties, for individuals, but which do not necessarily attract any special
considerations or ‘rights’ in terms of easing of the assessment burden. Quite rightly,
the expectation is that such learners, despite such difficulties, still have to take and
pass the assessments that other participants must take, and meet assessments’
learning outcomes. Schemes like the extenuating circumstances scheme are not, in
general, able to help people on these grounds alone. Nevertheless, such factors as
‘work’ or’ family’ are sometimes invoked by students as an explanation for not
participating in, or engaging with, teaching and learning activities – an issue for
award managers and personal tutors involved in the pastoral and support side of the
teaching and learning regime are well aware of. It is one of the particular interests of
Janet Spence, one of the project team (who is also SULS’ LLB’s Level 3 Tutor). The
reality is that some learners, however committed, need to be able to reconcile the
demands of family and work with their study commitments, with our support.
Reduced opportunities to participate in face-to-face sessions with lecturers and other
participants is just one consideration – but it requires careful attention to be given to
pastoral aspects of support, and on the ability of individuals to contribute to a
programme’s work and collaborative activities. In the area of development of
research skills, for example at sessions where students’ work is discussed, the extent
to which a student can participate can clearly impact on their longer-term
performance and their attainment. The Enquiring Minds project is looking at this, and
doing so in the context of aspects like the technologies available to keep such
learners on board programme aspects that link to research and research skills
‘Using Blackboard More Creatively’, Staffordshire University Workshop led by Sue Lee (March 2008).
Assessment: Addressing ‘Disadvantage’. Such barriers are also problematic, of
course, in their potential impact on assessment. This something we are also looking
at, as part of the project’s evaluation of different types of approach to assessing skills
at Level 3. That means, among other things, assessing how newer systems may be
utilised that can help to overcome these difficulties. In some cases these can, in fact,
be shown to actually promote better engagement with enquiry-related tasks than the
conventional face to face discourse associated with, say, a traditional ‘tutorial’. For
example, by slowing down the rapidity at which points are discussed (within, say, the
conventional one-hour time frame) an online facility may well be assisting such
groups. It may also, when managed effectively, make life easier for participants who
need to reconcile this area of their studies with work and family commitments. In
some cases the barriers that are presented can be overcome by more effective use
of technology like Blackboard and other such systems when deployed effectively as
an assessment tool. For example, instead of trying to evaluate ‘participation’ and
‘contribution’ by twelve participants in a one-hour tutorial that runs over a one hour
period (recording their work), the same exercise conducted in an on-line seminar
over a three-day period, or a week-end, offers valuable advantages for all concerned
– and not just the students.58
Reticence & Other Barriers: A Spatial Question…? Taking this further, one aspect we
are addressing later in 2009 is the point that on-line systems can, in some modes,
offer some significant advantages over ‘real time’ contact sessions. For example,
students who because of language or other barriers that go beyond family or work
commitments may be reticent performers in face-to-face live seminar settings. Some
facilities also give such students more thinking and preparation time, and ‘space’;
and have distinct advantages for that reason. This is a subject on which one of our
team, Geoff Walton, has written extensively.
Rather more elusive, though, are some of the complex (and not, as yet, very well
understood) barriers to participation associated with ethnicity, gender, or ‘cultural
impacts’ that affect programmes’ development and operation. In an era in which
modern Law schools are populated by an increasingly diverse population, and in
which a range of needs and expectations have to be addressed (and cannot just be
side-stepped), this links to issues such as fairness in the assessment of skills
learning outcomes. Although the causes of, and responses to, differential attainment
are not well appreciated as yet, there has been valuable research into a number of
facets of the issue.59
Elements of Blackboard are potentially very valuable in this respect, for example components like digital drop box,
discussion board exchanges supported by data clips (supporting tutor and student views on enquiry results), video
attachments, RSS feeds, and so forth.
Staffordshire University has committed to helping groups like care leavers, and former looked after children – a
difficult group to cater for, on the face of it, and who may have come from very different backgrounds or cultures of
education than other school leavers taking on undergraduate Law studies. Nevertheless, with support, they can and
do develop as effective HE learners, in time. Language and ethnicity are key issues, especially when measuring
participation and ‘performance’ as part of some of the more demanding forms of assessment of skills attainment,
including seminars and on-line presentations. See, generally, Broecke, S. and Nichols, T. (2007) Ethnicity and
Degree Attainment DfES Research Report Series (RW:92); and Modood, T. (2005) ‘The Educational Attainments of
Ethnic Minorities in Britain’ in Loury, G., Modood, T. and Teles, S. (eds) Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp288-308. More recently, some of the significant issues involved have
been highlighted by the survey undertaken by Susie Jacobs, Julia Owen, Paula Sergeant, and John Schostak in
Ethnicity and Gender in Degree Attainment (2007, Equality Challenge Unit/Higher Education Academy).
Assessment of Research Skills
The importance of assessment has already been touched on, but it is worth making
the point that systems for assessing evidence of effective deployment of research
skills, and attainment of the standards required of Level 3 students, have started to
extend well beyond traditional methods of formally assessing research skills (the
coursework assignment, the examination, and so forth). The extent of this transition
to a more diverse range of assessment forms (and the effects) is something on which
we hope our survey will shed more light later this year. One driver for this, no doubt,
is probably the perceived limitations of assessment methods associated with
mechanisms like the coursework assignment and exam, which are already well
understood. Much of this will also focus on the subjectivity associated with evaluation
processes. Typically, this is seen in a coursework assignment marking scheme (or
form for providing feedback). On the face of it the processes traditionally used are
effective in signalling key considerations in the evaluation, highlighting matters such
as ‘knowledge and understanding’; enquiry and reflection; problem solving;
application; observance of referencing protocols; effective use of bibliographies; and
so forth. In practice, this may require little more than a tick in a tick box, or brief
comment/s on the student’s performance in skills terms. What is less clear, however,
is how effective, useful, or fair such processes really are, either in terms of formative
or formal assessment of a student’s research skills and competences.
Among other things, assessment regimes seem to be introducing a wider range of
matters for consideration than those typically associated with the ‘tick-box’ approach
to evaluating performance, and providing feedback – even when this is
supplemented by commentary on the marked script (something that in practice
students may much prefer). Some of the facilities available with Blackboard now
cater for a much wider range of technical applications that can help provide both
group and individual formative feedback, and feedback linked to formal evaluation
processes (including the recording of time spent on-line or in making contributions to
discussion boards (for example while defending research results). This is an
important facet, for example, of the evaluation of ‘participation’ or ‘contribution’ in
dialogic approaches to tutorials/small groups; and when presentations of researched
work take place; or there are debates on research-linked discussion points.60 This is
particularly helpful if evaluations are needed of ‘evidence of research work’ ahead of
moots and presentations; or the production of audio-visual material linked to an on-
line submission. One of the purposes of our survey is to ascertain the extent to which
such matters advance the cause of effective assessment of research, and how
assessment arrangements assist students, the staff involved, and external
Whilst generally welcome, such newer approaches can entail difficulties. Not least,
they can disadvantage participants who have not engaged in small group work or on-
line discussion before, and who may not have the confidence to participate fully in
such activities, and the newer forms of assessment that look to evidence of
‘participation’. The issues in this area are complex, particularly in relation to
assessment of a participant may be disadvantaged by factors such as language
barriers. As with the other challenges in this area of skills development, however,
there are solutions to be found – not least in terms of the opportunities for greater
thinking time, and ‘space’ within which to formulate contributions to debates, offered
An aspect in which three of the project team, Keith Puttick, Rhonda Hammond-Sharlot, and Janet Spence have
been closely involved in relation to delivery of Employment modules at SULS (for full and part-time participants).
These are modules in which ‘participation’ in small-group work, including pre-session enquiry, is formally assessed.
Recent issues have also focused on the recording of contributions.
by the technology now available, for example which enable contributions to on-line
forums to be delayed. This is, in itself, an important area for debate – especially
around concepts like ‘cognitive space’. 61
In an increasingly diverse learning community, with participants with a disparate
range of backgrounds, language, disability and other barriers to participation can and
do pose significant obstacles to the operation of a fair assessment regime. For an
institution which encourages and supports disadvantaged groups like those with
learning disabilities and care-leavers, it is important that we should be aware of such
needs, and be sure to respond to them effectively. Arguably, as much support as can
be reasonably provided must be given to ensuring that all students have the same
opportunities to engage in research, and have the same opportunities to participate
in development work, and opportunities to deploy their skills, even if this may mean
additional costs and on-costs are incurred in ensuring that the right support is in
place. They also have the right to be assessed fairly, even if this may mean ensuring
work is done to bring in the systems that can address matters like special needs.
Clearly, student research should be a central feature of Law students’ learning
experience – especially in their final year.
Nevertheless, there are lots of contentious issues around this, and differences about
the extent to which law schools should provide undergraduates with research
opportunities; or about the ways in which they develop and assess research skills.
We are optimistic that our project, when it is concluded, will be better placed to
comment on some of the issues we have raised in our paper. In the meantime, we
would very much like to hear participants’ views on the subject of student research.
Following our presentation, we see these as among the key issues that merit
consideration for the ‘small groups’ part of our session:
If it is agreed that we need to be doing more to help students become good
researchers, what does ‘more’ actually mean…?
Are we doing enough to promote research skills development at Level 3 –
particularly in institutions where it may be possible for an undergraduate law
student to opt to take options/electives that require no research activity, or
very little (the developmental question)?
Are sufficient opportunities being given to enable students to deploy research
skills, and to pursue their own interests at Level 3? To what extent should the
employability/PDP agenda now require all schools to cater for this, and for
what may be termed the ‘right to research’ (the autonomy/autonomous
learning paths question)?
As to which, see Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T., Garrison, R. (2003) E-learning in the 21st century: a framework
for research and practice (London: Routledge-Falmer).
How problematic is it that there are some significant disparities of approach
between Law Schools in terms of expectations about the way research and
research-related skills should be developed? Is this a matter for just the Law
professional bodies or is it something law schools themselves could address?
On the flip side of the ‘consistency’ issue, what should be the way forward in
terms of assessing skills; and ensuring that research skills are an essential
ingredient in learning outcomes across the Law HE sector (the standards and
assessment question)? In this regard, if, as is being suggested in other
sessions at LILAC 2009, it is now time for better consistency across the Law
HE sector on matters like cross-institutional ‘standards’ and assessment of
student performance62, we think this deserves support. As a key area of skills
development and assessment, student research surely merits this?
If we do not address the consistency issue, is there not a risk of a developing
divide between research-orientated law schools and those that are less so?
This is a problem that already characterises Law provision in US law schools,
where only some law schools are regarded as ‘research’ institutions – a
concern that extends to the provision for student research as much as it does
staff research. See, on this, the discussion of the Boyer Commission at p.14.
To what extent should factors like the needs of disadvantaged students, or
students on study modes that might put them at a disadvantage, be factored
into the setting of research standards and assessment requirements,
particularly if in the process of establishing more consistent provision higher
standards and expectations are introduced that could disadvantage some
groups even further?
About the presenters:
Keith Puttick teaches employment law, social welfare law and public law at
Staffordshire Law School (SULS). He is a professional skills course assessor
(advocacy and communications skills) for the Solicitors Regulation Authority and has
been a member of the Bar Vocational Course assessors' panel. He has a particular
interest in assessment aspects of student research.
Rhonda Hammond-Sharlot teaches employment law and contract law at SULS. She
is actively involved in developing and assessing skills and in the client interviewing
and negotiation competitions. Before working at SULS she lectured at De Montfort
and organised law clinic work, developing interests in applied skills while doing so.
Janet Spence teaches land law, employment law and criminal law at SULS. She is
the level 3 tutor on the LLB/undergraduate programme and has a particular interest
in pastoral and support aspects of level 3 skills development. As she has a
background in legal practice and teaches on the Legal Practice Course she has a
keen interest in vocational aspects.
Paul Maharg and Chris Rust will be raising this at LILAC 2009 in the Panel Discussion on Transforming the
External Experience: Collaboration & External Examining. Broadly, we would support the idea of setting standards
across institutions within a discipline, with collaboration in setting mutually agreed standards of work for different
levels, and what we should reasonably expect in terms of student performance.