From the outset we decided that the module would be assessed by course- work only; we believed that an exam would not allow students to engage in a meaningful way with the range of aims of the module. Students do two pieces of coursework, one half-way through the course (submitted after the Christmas vacation) and the other at the end of the module. It was intended that each piece of summative assessment would be aimed at testing students' ability to engage with different aspects of the module.

The first piece of summative assessment tests the student's capacity to bring theory to bear on secondary empirical literature. For example:

  • • How does the way in which police/experts/regulatory agencies exercise power shape how law is enforced?
  • • How can either Weber or Foucault's perspectives on governing assist in understanding the role and functioning of regulatory agencies?

Those students who had enjoyed jurisprudence did well in this type of question, but others struggled. A variation of this was tried recently which really seemed to engage the students. Here the question asked students to use the material from preceding seminars to analyse a film (see Box 4).

Box 4: first coursework question

Imagine that you have been asked to write a film review of EITHER Erin Brockovich OR The Corporation for a popular current affairs journal that regularly carries articles on law-related issues. Using the socio-legal material from any, or all, of the seminars in this term, write a 2000-word review discussing and analysing what the film tells us about the operation of law within the context of the subject of the film.

The essay must be fully referenced using an accepted referencing system (e.g. Harvard).

This coursework followed on from seminars about the use of discretion and legal-consciousness approaches, as well as topics on CSR and Marxist approaches to analysis. Most of the seminar group appeared to engage with the approach of this question, producing some excellent essays using legal consciousness perspectives and/or the material on CSR.

The second piece of summative assessment is intended to test students' capacity to conceptualize the process and structure of primary empirical research. We have experimented with various methods of assessment including:

  • • asking students to develop a survey and an interview schedule linked to a piece of research literature;
  • • writing a research proposal that built upon a practical exercise in an earlier seminar.

Currently, the coursework is set out as a detailed set of instructions on issues to be covered in preparing a research proposal, as shown in Box 5.

Box 5: second coursework question

Identify an issue that you consider needs further research. Your essay should set out the background to such a research proposal, explore why this research needs to be done (where you could utilize some of the research from seminar 7 as justification), how you would carry it out, and what possible problems might be encountered. You do not need to be concerned by resource constraints (however, you might decide that some discussion of resource requirements might be appropriate) - this could, for example, be research that requires a number of researchers, or should be carried out over a number of years.

It is not intended that this essay should be a formal research proposal, but it should address the following questions:

  • 1 What are the aims and objectives of the research?
  • 2 What are your research question(s)?
  • 3 What theoretical perspective would you consider would be most appropriate, and why?
  • 4 What contribution to policy-making would you hope that your research would make?
  • 5 What methods would you use (identify the benefits and limitations of your proposed methods)?
  • 6 What ethical issues do your methods give rise to?

There is no specific weighting attached to each of the above questions - how you approach this essay will depend on your own interests and strengths. However, you are encouraged to draw upon material discussed in the whole of the unit.

The word limit for this essay is 3000 words.

This was the piece of coursework that caused students most anxiety. In feedback, several said it was unlike anything else they had been asked to do as a law student. It gave students much more scope for personal choice than in other modules, and asked for practical as well as theoretical thought.

In order to overcome students' fears, changes have been made from year to year. In the first years, the research proposal question had been the first piece of coursework students were asked to do. Once we realized the anxiety it caused, we reversed the order to enable students to become more attuned to the requirements of thinking empirically as well as theoretically. We also changed the balance of marks, so that the second piece of coursework accounted for 60 per cent of marks, the first for 40 per cent. (The only way we could achieve this within the confines of University of Bristol regulations was to reduce the word limit for the first coursework essay to 2000 words and increase the second to 3000. This had the benefit of allowing us to expect students to cover more ground in setting out their research proposal.) We began to inform the students in the first introductory seminar what they would be expected to do at the culmination of the module; and this second and final coursework question was made available from the beginning of the seminar series in order that students could begin to consider how seminar material could be incorporated into a research proposal. We also made some first-class essays from earlier years available to students on 'Blackboard' (with the consent of the authors).

A significant outcome of the assessment process in each year was the large disparity in marks between the first and second coursework for some students. Often students who had found the application of social theory somewhat challenging in the first coursework came into their element when designing a research project.

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