Innovations in Assessment: Family Law at Sheffield

Penelope Russell


In this chapter I will describe the way in which one institution, namely the University of Sheffield, has managed to combine socio-legal research with assessment within the undergraduate curriculum. It was devised over a decade ago by my predecessor, Catherine Williams, with two aims: to enhance student learning; and to provide large data sets for further research. In this chapter I will focus solely on the former.[1]

I have only been coordinator of the module for the last year and I have grappled with some issues relating to the socio-legal assessment, not all of which have been resolved. The combination of assessment and socio-legal research provides a number of benefits but these are inevitably limited by the resources of an undergraduate programme. These benefits, limitations and issues will be explored later in the chapter.

The assessment is within the Family Law module of the LLB programme. It comprises an essay question to be answered over a six-week period on an unsupervised basis, what we call a 'coursework project'.

The Family Law module carries 20 credits; the University of Sheffield LLB programme requires that 120 credits must be accumulated in each academic year, divided between two semesters.

The inclusion of a coursework project within the assessment regime of the module means that there are a range of assessments: the coursework project carrying 40 per cent of the overall marks and examination and seminar performance carrying the balance of marks. Having a range of assessments benefits both student and tutor. For the student, it has the benefit that a broader range of skills and knowledge is tested and there is greater opportunity to do well. For the tutor, there are a number of different assessments staggered over time so the marking is varied and spread over a period, which aids tutor concentration.

The coursework project has an additional requirement that each student must carry out empirical research in order to answer the essay question. The research is of the most basic variety, namely each student is provided with a pre-prepared questionnaire to which they find ten respondents. A survey method was chosen because it is simple to administer and provides standardized responses, which aids the marking process. It is also less invasive than other forms of empirical research, with fewer ethical concerns.

The questionnaire sets out a number of scenarios that are fictional but realistic. Each scenario is usually a variation on a theme. By way of illustration, examples can be given from previous years, all in the context of family law. The most recent was a consideration of the division of property on divorce. The question paper asked students to examine critically, using subsequent case law and survey results, a statement made by Lord Nicholls in White v White [2000] 2 FLR 981 that fairness prohibits discrimination between the roles of husband and wife. The survey requested respondents' view of a fair division of the capital and income of the marriage in scenarios of varying lengths of marriage and nature of contribution. Students were asked to use the survey data to consider whether Lord Nicholls' approach accords with the views of their respondents. Earlier questionnaires have set out scenarios seeking respondents' opinions on whether unmarried fathers should have parental responsibility for their children and whether cohabitants should have the right to inherit their deceased partner's property, as well as respondents' views on transcultural adoption.

Including empirical research within the coursework assessment sends a clear message to students about the value and importance of socio-legal research. Knight (1998) states: 'Assessment is a moral activity. What we choose to assess and how shows quite starkly what we value.' (p. 13) It places sociolegal research at the heart of the undergraduate experience and ensures that it has the full attention of students. This and other benefits will be explored later in the chapter, but firstly I will set out the mechanics of organizing the coursework project.

  • [1] For a very helpful explanation of the research aspect, see Potter and Williams (2007).
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