The first step is to select the topic: something interesting, perhaps controversial, that students and their respondents can relate to. The questionnaire is essentially a public opinion survey, as all that can be sought in the circumstances is respondents' views of the law, not their experiences of the effects of the law. This is because students would find it difficult to locate respondents with the necessary experience and there would also be difficult ethical issues to overcome. The questionnaire topic must be one that a member of the public can understand and express an opinion about. Ideally it would be something currently in the news but it must be borne in mind that there is an inevitable delay (perhaps up to a year) between the writing of the materials and their release to students. This delay is caused by piloting and then by internal ethics and scrutiny approvals.
The next step is to write the questionnaire. This throws up interesting design questions. Usually it comprises a number of factual scenarios upon which respondents are asked for their opinion. Should the questions be open or closed, seeking qualitative data or quantitative data? Obviously open- ended questions seeking qualitative data can yield more interesting results and greater insights, but restricting the questions to tick box answers means that the process is simpler and there is less risk of contamination of the results by the student interviewer. The latter is of particular concern as the students tend to interview family and friends and therefore the relationship may inhibit an honest verbal response. I would suggest that the best design is the inclusion of tick-box options in order to provide an essential structure, with the addition of a few open-ended questions to give respondents some opportunity to explain their choice of option in their own words if they wish.
As well as the scenario questions, the questionnaire includes a data request for personal information about the respondents including their marital status, gender, age and occupation, but excluding their name or any other identifying characteristics. Additional questions can be included, such as parental status or property ownership, depending on the nature of the research topic. Thought can also be given to seeking information about social class which could be addressed by asking about employment, housing type and/or household income. This provides the students with helpful information when interpreting the survey results and allows a more detailed and complex analysis.
Obviously, care must be taken when drafting the questionnaire to ensure that the meaning of the scenario questions is clear to both the student researchers and potential respondents. In particular, the terminology should be comprehensible to a layperson and technical language should be avoided. Piloting should reveal any lack of clarity or potential misunderstanding which could affect the validity of the survey results. Amendment can be made to the questionnaire at that point.
Once the questionnaire has been finalized, the next step is to seek generic ethics approval. On the prescribed application form it is explained that the nature of the research project is educational, the empirical research is being carried out by students in order to answer an essay question and the objectives of the research project include giving students experience in collecting and analysing survey data.
The submission of the ethics application includes the provision of an information sheet and consent form. This not only forms an important part of the students' introduction to the practice of empirical research and ensures that full consent is freely given but also minimizes the risk of fabrication of responses, as the consent form requires a signature and it is anticipated that it would be more difficult to fabricate ten different signatures than to obtain responses to the questionnaire. The consent form should also be signed by the student researcher but, in order to maintain anonymity for the purposes of the assessment, students are asked to write their registration number instead of their name on the forms.
The question paper for the coursework project must also be drafted. This sets out the essay question and the learning outcomes for the assessment, stating for example that candidates are required to conduct a survey using a pre-prepared questionnaire and to incorporate the findings into the essay, to include an explanation and evaluation of the survey method as well as interpretation of the survey results. The importance of explicit learning outcomes cannot be overemphasized as they aid transparency of academic expectations for the benefit of the students and promote equality of opportunity. They ensure that the assessment goals are clear and should therefore reduce any student uncertainty and worries about what is expected of them. Also, drafting the learning outcomes is a valuable process for the tutor as they impose a requirement to articulate exactly what it is that the students should be learning, a more difficult issue than would initially appear.
At around the time of release of the materials to students, a lecture is given solely about the coursework project. This is good practice as the novel nature of the coursework project can cause anxiety and it is hoped that a clear explanation about the assessment will lessen this. Students can be wary of innovative forms of assessment, so it is important that the coursework project is introduced to them in a confident and accurate manner. The lecture also gives very basic research training and guidance about the conduct of sociolegal research including steps to minimize interviewer bias. It provides an introduction to concepts such as validity and reliability, suggesting that the students should take into account the implications of the size and characteristics of their sample. At the end of the lecture, preliminary reading about socio-legal research is recommended, including parts of Colin Robson's 'real world research' (Robson, 2011). In particular, students are told that they must not interview anyone under the age of 18 or share respondents, to avoid burdening anyone unduly. In the lecture, the students are shown one of the questionnaire scenarios on a Powerpoint slide and asked to vote on the outcome by a show of hands, thereby provoking an emotional engagement with the issues raised in the scenario.
The students are told that they must find ten respondents to answer the survey. Regarding the selection of respondents, there are inevitable ethical issues. The expectation is that they will approach family and friends, yet this can cause concerns that consent is not being freely given. On the other hand, there are safety issues if strangers are being approached, even in public places. The students are also asked to read out the questions to each respondent rather than allowing them to complete the questionnaire on their own. This is so that they can obtain some meaningful qualitative data, as well as deal with any queries about any of the questions.
The students then have six weeks in which to obtain respondents to the questionnaire, analyse the survey results and write up their coursework project essay. The essay is submitted, along with the completed questionnaires and signed consent forms.
Marking is by way of the usual School of Law assessment criteria for marking an essay, with a mark being given out of 100. These are the criteria applicable to all assessments within the law school. One advantage of this is that the students are familiar with it so they have some awareness of the standards required in their written work. The standard law school criteria are designed to cover the assessment of an essay but some modification of the materials is needed to ensure and show that the marking does reflect the additional requirements of the empirical research. This is done by the drafting of a feedback sheet, which is made available to students prior to starting the coursework and is explained during the coursework project lecture. The feedback sheet makes specific reference to the socio-legal elements of the coursework project - the analysis of the survey results - which the standard law school marking criteria do not. Thus, good essays will include: 'Systematic analysis of the survey results incorporating the results into the essay'.
Once the marking is complete, generic feedback is made available and specific written feedback is given to each student. One-to-one feedback is also available if requested.