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Jul 2003 Vol. 7   No. 2  

........   TEACHING METHODS   ........
Teaching and Learning Legal Writing— A Holistic Approach
Associate Professor Eleanor Wong
Faculty of Law
Associate Director, CDTL

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 passive.

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 debate.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. From the practice presentations to the final presentation, students showed exponential improvements in their confidence, clarity and grasp of the law.

  5. 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.

 

 

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