In order to introduce students to socio-legal research in a meaningful way, it is highly desirable that it is in the form of assessment. Assessment by its very nature is highly motivating; assessment's central role in the experience of learning is well-documented: 'Assessment is at the heart of the undergraduate experience. Assessment defines what students regard as important, how they spend their time, and how they come to see themselves as students and then as graduates.' (Brown and Knight, 1994, p. 12) It is integral to learning and its importance to learning cannot be overestimated.
Assessment has a huge impact on the learning process. Rather than being an end in itself, it is an impetus for learning. Boud (1998) states: 'Assessment is the most significant prompt for learning.' (p. 37) It always leads to learning and we need to ensure that the learning is what we are seeking. It has long been recognized that assessment can be used strategically as it determines how students focus their learning (Rowntree, 1987). By requiring empirical research as part of the assessment of the module, it ensures that students do spend at least some of their time on such research.
After this year's coursework project, I carried out a written survey of the family law students to find out their views of it. The vast majority thoroughly enjoyed doing the research, saying that the human aspect had stimulated their interest. Empirical research can bring the subject alive and enable students to think about the law from a different perspective. This was reflected in the survey responses, one student commenting: 'It enabled me to think about whether the law is satisfactory rather than writing an essay solely on the position of the law.' The students were easily able to engage with the assessment task as it is meaningful research in a realistic context, enabling them to see the implications of the law in practice. Further comments included: 'It's clearly relevant to society so the questionnaire was a good idea.' and 'It was good to get public opinion on the law.'
From the survey results and the finished projects, it appears that the course- work provides an authentic and productive vehicle for the students' efforts. It captures their time and attention, introducing them to a new method and new concepts. The project provides them with a valuable learning experience, introducing them to socio-legal research and requiring them to show awareness of methodological issues. One student commented: 'I thought the idea of incorporating a questionnaire was a good idea and a nice break from the norm.' Also, due to the novel nature of the empirical research and a different question being set each year, the risks of plagiarism are greatly reduced.
There is recognition within pedagogical literature that the method of assessment can encourage a deep approach to learning (as opposed to a surface approach to learning), which then produces better outcomes and maximizes student achievement. It can give students 'a sense of involvement, challenge and achievement together with feelings of personal fulfilment and pleasure' (Ramsden, 2003, p. 57). I would argue that the coursework project has elements that would support a deep approach to learning. For example, the topic is of personal interest to students and so it encourages them to extract personal meaning from the exercise. Also, the form of the essay question supports a search for connection between the black-letter law and the results of the survey.
It can be argued that it is impossible to appreciate an area such as family law without carrying out socio-legal research. Family law is by its very nature empirical: it has an essential human aspect which cannot be ignored. By doing the coursework project, students are able to apply the abstract principles to practical situations and appreciate the effectiveness of the law in context. Arguably, it would be inappropriate to assess understanding of such a social subject in isolation from its practical context as it is generally recognized that there should be alignment of learning, teaching and assessment (Biggs, 2003): we cannot teach family law as a practical subject without assessing the same.
The final benefit of the inclusion of socio-legal research in assessment relates to the acquisition of skills. The coursework project poses a challenge for students as it requires them to try something new, such as interviewing family and friends. The assessment is not simply evaluating the skill of memorization but also higher cognitive functions such as analysis and evaluation (Bloom, 1965). It enables the display of skills required by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education. These include, amongst others, the ability to use and evaluate numerical information and to engage in research which involves non-legal sources and materials. These skills are of long-lasting benefit to the students as they can be of use to them in different contexts after graduation. The nature of the coursework project also supports learning as a lifelong process: the students are expected to work autonomously, being given responsibility and expected to exercise choice over certain aspects of the research project. One student commented: 'As the coursework was different to that of other modules, my research skills developed and ability to apply results to facts increased.'
-  'Subject benchmark statement for law' set out the minimum standard for a graduate withan honours bachelor's degree in law. See www.qaa.ac.uk.