Monthly Archives: September 2013

Lovely to hear a ‘thanks for today’

‘Thanks for today’. Just three little words made all the difference to me earlier this week. I’d been teaching my first ever Legal Skills workshop block which runs over 4 hours from 9am to 1pm. I was pretty happy with it. Some of the timing was a little off and it could do with a little more activity based stuff in the first half but essentially it worked well. It was quite hard to gauge the student reception. They were pretty alert, mostly on time, they came back after breaks, they did the tasks, they asked some sensible questions… and many said ‘thanks’ in the sort of generic way you say thanks when you are leaving somewhere where you’ve had a not too horrid time. However, 3 students separately did more than that and made an effort to come by, make eye contact and actually say ‘thanks for today Jess’. None will have known how nervous I was before I started that session and none will have known how welcome their comment was after 4 hours of pretty full on teaching. Knowing that to some students I made a little bit of a difference is why I do what I do. So, the nerves have gone now (see earlier post) and have been replaced with a very familiar end of September feeling  – a sense of happy exhaustion.

Teaching is about to start and I am getting more nervous by the minute

Why? I’ve been doing this for a while now. My first lecture is an Employment Law lecture providing a brief history of employment law and an overview of the key institutions. I first gave it in September 2007 and it hasn’t changed substantially. I know what I’m doing – and yet, the little butterflies are slowly turning into big winged dragons in my tummy. And it’s not like I am not prepared. All my materials are ready, copied and laid out in my office for the first week, the second week is ready – in fact apart from a total of 6 lectures across my 4 modules, everything is prepared. If I fall under a bus today, someone can come in and just run with it… so the nerves.

I don’t like being the centre of attention, not really. I’m too self-conscious. I’m not naturally extrovert. I’m not shy exactly and I do have confidence in my abilities but I’m actually more of a ‘behind the scenes’ kinda girl. But let’s face it, a lecture theatre full of about 100 strangers or pretty much strangers is a scary prospect and it’s even scarier if it falls to you to keep those 100 strangers entertained and informed. It’s a performance and performances are nerve-wracking. The adrenalin is part of what makes a good performance – so I keep telling myself. I will therefore be focusing my efforts not on trying not to be nervous, I know that won’t work; but on trying to channel those nerves away from dry mouth, can’t speak, sweaty palms kind of nerves to productive nerves.

For all those of you new to teaching who are nervous about it, I’d love to tell you it gets easier and the nerves go away but they haven’t for me, not at the start of term anyway. It’s just that I have experienced all of this before and therefore know that I will get to the end of the lecture and when I do I will have loved it. I will be exhausted but elated and because I know that, stepping into the lecture theatre on Monday at 11am will be tummy – churning hell – but in a good way, if that makes any sense at all.

Lost in Translation – LLM Approval Meetings

I had a meeting as well as several conversations with colleagues last week about approval of a new course, an LLM to be precise. Throughout these conversations and to some extent the meeting itself, there was a real sense of a ‘them and us’ culture pitching those on the approval team/committee and administrators against the academic team (so in this case mainly me) designing the course.  It was a pre meeting to get the paperwork right for the approval event in a month’s time. Apart from arguments about whether the institutions ‘validates’ or ‘approves’ and whether it is ‘Master degree’, ‘Masters degree’ or ‘Master’s degree’, there were elements I found both interesting, frustrating and ultimately a little upsetting.  The details of the meeting and issues we discussed are really not important here but at one point I was told in a nice but firm way ‘it isn’t your programme’. And of course the person making that statement is right, it isn’t mine, it’s a university degree course, if it is anybody’s it is the university’s. But as I left the meeting (with issues resolved and everyone sort of happy) I couldn’t shake off that statement and I am beginning to wonder whether it might be at the core of the tension between admin staff particularly staff charged with quality and QAA matters and academics.

Because you know what, that LLM is my programme. Not only have I invested a ridiculous amount of time in creating the paperwork required for it to be approved (not validated!). I have invested far more time thinking about it, designing it, redesigning it, making it coherent, making it flow. But it’s not just time, there is so much of me in that programme. The learning, teaching and assessment  (LTA) strategy reflects my LTA philosophy, it reflects my socio-legal background and convictions, it is built on my ethos of education and research. Of course it’s my programme. I’m not a complete nutter, I realise that in due course someone else is likely to take over as director of studies (or programme leader as I think we now call them) and that as we start to teach the programme it will move from being mine to being ours and staff will take ownership of their modules and the programme overall. I know that, but at this stage, it’s very much mine. It has had input from students, other staff, administrators etc but essentially I have put my heart and soul into it (see I can do drama queen quite well!) and it is most definitely mine.

If that is not something that is clearly understood by staff in the Academic Quality Unit (AQU – or whatever equivalent there is at other institutions) and if academics don’t fully appreciate that staff charged with quality assurance issues are likely to see programmes as university programmes without the emotional baggage attached to them then it is no wonder that discussions can get heated, defensive and ultimately get us nowhere. I suspect academics think administrators and AQU staff are stifling creativity and innovation and are caught up in a tick box culture and that administrators think academics are in their own little bubble with little regard for  regulation. Neither is probably true, or at least it needn’t be if only we talked to each other in a language both groups understood.

You see when I talk about a module being at Level 7 I am talking about the module itself, the content, the way I see the module delivered and the way I see it fitting into the programme. AQU staff can’t possibly think of it that way – they don’t have the knowledge of the course or the teaching experience to do so – they are thinking about the module descriptor and what that reflects. Asking me to amend the module descriptor so that it better reflects the Level 7 module is one thing, something I will find irritating but will ultimately be ok with. Telling me my module is not at Level 7 is something else entirely, I will get defensive about – I designed it, trust me, it’s at Level 7. There are other examples of academics and administrators using the same language but meaning very different things but I don’t want to bore you, essentially I (and maybe academics generally) am talking about the programme etc and AQU are talking about the paperwork.

As academics we perhaps need to be less precious about ‘our programmes’ but then I didn’t really think I was. I am just as interested in providing documentation which is ultimately going to be for students, which is clear, user friendly and provides the reader with a strong sense of what the programme is about as AQU are. What I am not interested in is ticking boxes for the sake of it. I know my LLM is a good quality programme which will engage students and help them become better researchers, critical thinkers and writers. What I need AQU to do is help me turn my vision into paperwork the institution can understand because, as it turns out, I don’t speak the institution’s language – and I don’t think I want to either.

Horse riding lessons and feedback frustrations

This is not a blog about horses, or riding lessons or anything like that but I do have riding lessons, twice a week when I can fit it in and today’s lesson, though hot and sticky and airless, helped me understand something about some of my students which has until now baffled me a bit: Students who come for feedback on their exams or assignments and say ‘I don’t think I applied the law enough’ or ‘I was too descriptive wasn’t I’. Well if they know that, why didn’t they change it?

So, as I was trotting round the outdoor arena during my horse riding lesson this morning, I was getting increasingly irritated that I just wasn’t quite getting things right – this happens a lot but I’ve never made the connections before (I’ll spare you the technical details, this isn’t about my riding abilities). As I made pretty much the same mistake for the umpteenth time I suddenly recognised that sense of frustration I was feeling. I see it in students all the time when I give feedback. The thing with the riding lesson today was this: I wasn’t trying to do something difficult or complicated, I know what I was meant to be doing and why,  I know how to do it and the instructions, guidance and advice given by the instructor made perfect sense. In other words, ‘I get it’ – doesn’t mean I can do it. Sometimes I can feel myself doing it wrong but am too late to correct it, sometimes I don’t realise what has gone wrong until my instructor tells me.

This pattern applies to a lot of the students who have come for feedback on exam performance in particular. They know the law, often they know intricate detail and information about cases that I would have to go look up; they know they need to apply the law to the question they are given, they know why they are doing this and usually also how to do it. Anything I tell them about structuring answers, referring back to the question, imagining what the client in a problem question would want to know, making a point and justifying it with evidence etc, make perfect sense to them – doesn’t mean they can do it.

Some of the students genuinely have no idea where it’s all gone wrong, they know it has but they don’t understand why, when they knew the law, knew they needed to apply it and knew how to do it, they still didn’t manage to do it. Others don’t know where it’s all gone wrong and it isn’t until I show them their work and explain that they have given a far too general answer, haven’t fully answered the question or have provided description without analysis that they see that that is what they have done.  As soon as I point it out, they agree it’s obvious.

So what can we do about that? The feedback I am giving these students isn’t really anything they don’t already know. We can talk about what I think went wrong and how to improve and not make the same mistakes again – but they either already know that or it is obvious to them once I’ve pointed out the issues with their answers. So what is the solution in my riding lessons? Repetition, practice, different exercises which get at the same thing, every now and again going right back to basics, constant feedback and making sure that the basics are right, intuitive and so solid that they become second nature. If that works for my riding lessons I suspect it works for learning generally. Students need to write more and receive more feedback on their writing. They need to get into a habit of writing, they should write as much as possible and that writing should be critical, analytical, reflective…That may not be a popular thing to say, it means more work for students (writing) and more work for us as lecturers (marking/giving feedback) but I don’t really see any other way.

Now this may all have been completely obvious to all of you but of course the other thing about learning is that it is so much easier with context and experience, and my experience of frustration today nicely set the context for understanding something about my teaching, and feedback in particular, which I hadn’t ever consciously thought about before, which is this: Students often know what they should be doing and theoretically even how to do it but that doesn’t mean that they can do it. They need practice, lots of it!

LETR – Much Ado about…?

Those of you who know me will know that I see UG law degrees as liberal degrees which are loosely linked to the legal professions if indeed they must be linked to them at all. As such my concern about the Legal Education and Training Review were that it would recommend greater regulation of undergraduate degrees or the academic stage generally. I was worried about the introduction of greater links between law degrees, vocational training and professional practice as well as about greater prescription of content for law degrees. Now that the LETR has reported and I am mulling over the 300+ pages and reflecting on the report as well as the other documents produced by the review, I thought it may be worth sharing some initial thoughts.

My initial reaction was that there was very little in the report concerning the education part and I thought that was a good thing.  I shared the view of many that there really wasn’t much new here and that we seems to have spent a lot of money and waited a long time to have a report which says almost nothing new. However, I have let things sink in a little (and there is more of that to be done) and like some I have changed my mind a little. Even though the report conceded that UG law degrees are generally outside the remit of the review other than when directly impact on the provision of legal services, there are elements of the report which, if taken up by the regulators have significant potential to change law degrees, even if regulation remains light touch.

The Foundations Subjects (See Recommendation 10)

The report suggests there is little appetite for change here and that the idea of foundation subjects is likely to stay. However it also questions whether the balance is correct, whether the rights things are core and whether there should be more fluidity and flexibly as well as more prescription. This does not seem to make sense, can we have flexibility and fluidity and prescription? Well maybe, you could prescribe topics and skills to be covered without specifying modules for example. What concerns me more here is the ‘who decides?’ question. If the foundations are to be revamped, who does the revamping? This is not a level playing field and if, as could easily happen, the agenda is dictated by magic circle law firms, we might end up with something which has a core which is biased in favour of corporate commercial interests but offers little to high street practice never mind those graduates who do not wish to go into the professions. There are already arguments about what is core and what should be core and it would do all of us no harm to remember that what we think is interesting and important is not necessarily core. The LETR report opens the door for a whole scale reform of the foundation subjects, which I don’t really have a problem with, it is what comes next that worries me!

Inclusion of writing/communication and research skills (See Recommendation 6 and 11)

The comments in the report about writing skills and research skills I found a little tricky. On the one hand I sympathise. I teach legal skills and I mark a lot of work produced by students who are lacking in both these areas. On the other hand I was irritated, I teach both writing and research skills. Law Schools are doing this, but perhaps we need to do it more explicitly. On balance I think I therefore welcome the recommendation that:

There should be a distinct assessment of legal research, writing and critical thinking skills at level 5 or above in the Qualifying Law Degree and in the Graduate Diploma in Law. Educational providers should retain discretion in setting the context and parameters of the task, provided that it is sufficiently substantial to give students a reasonable but challenging opportunity to demonstrate their competence. (Recommendation 11)

However, I am also keenly aware that most of the evidence about writing skills etc is anecdotal and I really do think it would be useful to conduct research on students’ skills base to help us better understand where the weaknesses are.

Ethics (See Recommendation 6)

I have always struggled with the debate around the inclusion of ethics in UG law degrees, not because I don’t think ethics should be taught but rather because I don’t think it is possible to teach law without ethics or values. Law is inherently value laden and to me very closely linked to ethics. However, teaching professional ethics as applied to the legal professions has, in my mind, no place in the UG law curriculum. Teaching ethics and values generally definitely has.

Liberal law degrees generally

The report seems to recognise that law degrees are academic degrees and that they should not be vocational. I was interested to see that the Bar are most in favour of liberal degrees. It is also of course worth noting that the responses to the question of whether law degrees should be liberal degrees or more vocationally focused are from people in the professions. I wonder how the pattern of responses would change if people who have law degrees but work in other areas were asked the same question… I digress. So coming from someone who believes in the liberal law degree, the LETR report contains some relevant stuff, whether it is stuff to be concerned about or stuff to celebrate or stuff to just ignore will become clearer in time. The LETR is just the starting point, it’s what comes next that has the potential to change things and that I am a little bit worried about.

Watch this space for more on the issues as I reflect further on the issues raised in the report.