The Law Faculty’s Legal Analysis, Research and Writing Programme
kicked off in the first semester of Academic Year 2002/2003 with a compulsory
module, ‘Legal Writing 1’, for first-year students. One objective
which the Deanery had set for my team was to get the ‘freshly-out-of-Junior
College’ students to acquire the habit of thinking and talking (i.e.
forming, expressing and challenging ideas). Not only are these skills
crucial for future lawyers to make reasoned judgements and communicate
them clearly, they are also consistent with our pedagogical philosophy
that students only own their knowledge when they are able to articulate
it with conviction.
To achieve the Deanery’s objective, we had to create an environment
where every student would be encouraged to speak up. The four factors
taken into consideration were: class structure, classroom dynamics, teaching
methodology and assessment design.
Class Structure—Small Groups
Most law school courses have two basic structures—the lecture-tutorial
structure and the seminar structure. The lecture-tutorial structure is
usually employed for compulsory, basic courses. With this structure, there
would be one or two lectures per week that the entire class (150 to 200
students) attended, and weekly or fortnightly tutorials (10 to 20 students).
The seminar structure is typically used for optional, upper-year courses.
All students enrolled in the course (anywhere from 20 to 100) would attend
the same sessions and the teacher might employ a combination of lecture
and interactive teaching methods.
Past students’ feedback indicated that they felt more comfortable
speaking up in smaller groups. Thus, we decided to conduct all the classes
for ‘Legal Writing 1’ in tutorial groups of 10 to 15 students.
The groups met twice a week, for 1.5 hours per session. Only a handful
of lectures was organised, most of them optional and conducted by guest
speakers. Tutorial sessions were the main forum for learning.
The structure helped foster familiarity and trust among tutorial group
members and with their respective tutors. Tutors could conduct their classes
at a flexible pace to accommodate the needs of their groups. Also, the
small size of each group made it impossible for any student to remain
Our experience has confirmed that this class structure is fundamentally
sound in achieving our objective. However, the structure did pose coordination
challenges for the teachers, who had to ensure that the entire syllabus
content was covered in their individual classes. To address this challenge,
in future, we might introduce a few more whole-class lectures to lighten
the burden of the individual teachers.
Class Dynamics—Safe Zones
Feedback from students also revealed that they sometimes remain silent
for fear of seeming ignorant. We decided to send a strong signal to students
at the beginning of the course that our classes would be ‘safe zones’
for ‘wrong’ answers. I also made it a point when selecting
the team of teachers (mostly adjuncts and practitioners) that they should
believe in, and enjoy teaching with, the Socratic method.
To bring home the point that our classes would be ‘safe zones’
for discussion, some of us used our first meeting with our students to
work out the ‘rules of engagement’ for these safe zones together.
These guidelines covered matters like the level of preparedness expected
of each other, civility when disagreeing with each other, and the acceptable
process for interrupting a student who has the floor. Participating in
the process helped the students see that they were all responsible for
creating an optimal in-class environment. They were also happy to observe
the guidelines that they themselves had formulated.
Teaching Methodology—Group Work
We were able to generate good discussions in class with small tutorial
groups. Additionally, we constantly built in opportunities for discussions
in even smaller groups, often as a preparatory step preceding an in-class
presentation, discussion or exercise. We found that this gave each student
even more space for expression and complemented the in-class culture of
A research assignment involving group work, conducted over three weeks,
was particularly successful. Its principal objective was for students
to learn how to carry out legal research. A fact pattern was assigned
to the students to analyse and identify the potential legal claims that
their ‘client’ might be able to sue for or defend. They then
had to research the law (in an area they had not studied) and advise on
the client’s likelihood of success in a legal proceeding.
Each tutorial group was divided into three teams comprising three to
four students. At each class, two of the teams would present their findings
and recommendations, while the third team played the role of the ‘managing
partner’, testing and evaluating their classmates’ competing
recommendations, and deciding the next step to take. The teacher’s
role was to guide the students by breaking down the research process into
‘bite-sized chunks’, progressively introducing the students
to different sources for finding the relevant law (from general sources
such as textbooks to specific cases). The exercises culminated in final
presentations by each team.
Our uniform experience was that the students out-performed our expectations
in this series of exercises. Our observations include:
Some of us videotaped the ‘practice’ presentations and
put them online for students to review and comment on. Students improved
their presentation skills substantially both from viewing themselves
and from the comments of their classmates.
Teams that role-played managing partners took their job seriously
and quizzed their classmates rigorously. Some students seemed more
challenged by the prospect of presenting to their classmates than
to their teachers and prepared more thoroughly!
Teams sometimes stayed back to quiz each other further in an effort
to reconcile different research findings or differing interpretations
of such findings. Many of these informal discussions yielded valuable
insights without any need for the instructor’s input.
From the practice presentations to the final presentation, students
showed exponential improvements in their confidence, clarity and grasp
of the law.
Many teams demonstrated teamwork and sensitivity, purposely giving
their quieter and less confident teammates opportunities to shine.
Assessment Design—Class Participation
The final component of our holistic approach was assessment design.
Class participation accounted for a large proportion of the grade, giving
students a strong incentive to participate.
There is still much to learn. Specifically, we can improve on balancing
common classes with individual classes, and we can craft better exercises
to encourage different kinds of participation and different modes of expression.
However, as an initial attempt at generating a culture of analysis and
expression, our experience has seen modest success. We are excited about
trying again in Academic Year 2003/2004.