30 March 2018

Flipping the First Year Law classroom

'Blended Learning in the Law Classroom: Design, Implementation and Evaluation of an Intervention in the First Year Curriculum' by Melissa Castan and Ross Hyams in (2017) 27(1) Legal Education Review comments 
When a university-mandated ‘Better Teaching Better Learning’ agenda targeted at unit enhancement coincided with a whole of curriculum review, law lecturers teaching first year law units at Monash University piloted a ‘semi-flipped’ series of short videos, supported by online and in-class activities, in order to incorporate blended learning design in key foundation units. This paper examines the key issues in the design, and implementation and evaluation of the ‘semi-flipped’ experience, highlighting lessons learnt, in terms of technical support, pedagogical issues and assessment considerations. In particular, the utility in seeking to evaluate students’ learning outcomes, engagement with reading materials and in-class activities is critically considered. 
The authors conclude
This article has set out the rationale, implementation and responses to a pilot project in the introductory law unit in a major Australian law school. It has identified the key areas of student feedback to this project, highlighting areas of positive and negative reactions, and made some observations as to the impact of the project. Although this was not an entirely ‘flipped’ unit, it certainly attempted to utilise the most well-known elements of online and face-to-face law teaching, in a blended approach. It began as a pilot project, but is being continued within the law school, and incrementally expanded and enhanced over the following iterations of the unit. We believe there are important lessons to be learnt from our foray into ‘semi-flipped’ teaching of the first year unit.
First, it is important to build in the opportunity to more fully evaluate the changes that we make to teaching methodologies in order to listen to our students’ opinions of how they prefer to learn — while keeping in mind that there is no one teaching style which will satisfy all students.
Second, is also important to create teaching methodologies that have some permanency and can be repeated (albeit with minor necessary changes) from semester to semester and year to year. The original creation of the videos, quizzes and interactive classroom activities were a substantial time investment, but it has paid off in terms of being useable for the future and provides consistency for all students in the foundations unit, across all the teaching streams.
Third, we have learnt that there is no ‘magic bullet’ which will perfect the teaching of first year law students for all time — it is a question of active experimentation and incremental change.
Finally, we remain conscious of the specific need of first year students to have warm and engaging lecturers, who will support the transition from school to university, and guide them in their acculturation into the law school, and the practice of law itself. So, we conclude that a fully ‘flipped’ or even fully online unit for this cohort is not the preferred presentation for our students. Nevertheless, it is apparent that students responded in a largely positive way to the combination of online and in-class teaching of this unit. In that sense, we believe that the advantages of the semi-flipped class lies in the potential enhancement of student motivation, engagement and satisfaction, key indicators of student learning and success in their future studies.
However, we consider that there are limitations in accurately measuring ‘engagement’ and ‘satisfaction’ without adopting a fullscale longitudinal study, and incorporating control groups and other validity measures. For this reason, we remain unable to conclusively prove that, and remain somewhat sceptical of, the assertions that blended learning alone is advantageous to law student learning outcomes. It is our view that trying to measure engagement is a challenging task and to do so properly requires a well-constructed Likert-scale survey that is designed to measure motivation and other intrinsic variables.30 Aside from the issues raised above, there may well be other collateral benefits to students that support the development of innovations in curriculum delivery. Indeed, Hewitt and Stubbs have considered whether there may be benefits to student well-being arising out of these sorts of exercises. Field and Duffy have also explored how first year curriculum design can promote law student psychological wellbeing. Whilst this was not an explicit goal in our unit re-design, we of course, remain conscious of the need to engage, motivate and support our students in order to enhance their learning experience and personal development in these formative years. Where blended learning approaches offer the opportunity for students to scaffold their knowledge and to develop reflective learning practices, and can put these to use in a supportive class environment, it is likely to show enhanced learning outcomes.
'The pedagogy of legal reasoning: democracy, discourse and community' by Chloƫ J. Wallace in (2017) The Law Teacher comments
Learning legal reasoning is a central part of any undergraduate law degree and remains a threshold concept: one which is vital for any law student to grasp, but which is often difficult to explain. It is a form of reasoning which is very distinctive to the discipline. This article explores the applicability of learning theories typically used to ground pedagogy in higher education to the specific task of teaching legal reasoning. Constructivist or experiential theories of learning are widely used in higher education, but they need to be used with a clear focus on the specific nature of legal reasoning, which does not fit neatly within the assumptions about learning which underpin many constructivist approaches. Situated learning theories, which place emphasis on the role of the community in constructing knowledge, can also be of value. However, steps need to be taken to avoid replicating the hierarchy of the legal community within educational communities. Overall, the pedagogy of legal reasoning needs to pay attention to the specific nature of legal reasoning, to enable students to access the discourse of the legal community to use as a model, and to take students seriously as members of that community.
All these approaches have involved reflection on pedagogy and learning theory. However, less attention has been paid to pedagogy and learning theory within the most traditional activity of undergraduate legal education: the teaching of legal reasoning. Given that this remains a central part of what law graduates are expected to be able to do, reflection on its pedagogy is important.
In this article, the pedagogy of legal reasoning will be considered through discussion of theories of learning. An introductory section will focus on the nature of legal reasoning, taking an interpretive approach. Next, a range of learning theories will be analysed with emphasis on their applicability to legal reasoning. Finally, a range of strategies for teaching legal reasoning will be explored. Throughout, it will be argued that the specific nature of legal reasoning requires a discipline-specific approach to pedagogy, informed by a range of learning theories; used alone, the constructivist theories which dominate much writing about learning and teaching are inappropriate to the discipline.